Note: I’ve moved the rest of the my articles over to a new site:
Here’s the article John Gruber quoted in his “Cutting That Cord” article:
The iPad and other devices are not here to displace the PC (by which I mean all personal computers, whether they’re Macs or PCs running Windows).
The thing about the iPad (and if we’re being charitable “other devices”) is that they will replace the PC for a good number of people who only need to do a few key tasks. The iPad doesn’t do everything a MacBook can because of its very design, but it hits the sweet spot of the things people want to do the most on a computer.
The big obstacle to this is the fact you have to sync the iPad to iTunes once to activate it and get your content on it. So if Apple really wanted to make the iPad a device capable of being someone’s only computer they would have to fix this.
THE BENEFITS OF THE CABLE
Of course this assumes that Apple wants to make the iPad capable of operating without a connection to iTunes. (And when people say iTunes they mean “connect it to a computer with the white USB cable”)
So what does Apple gain by maintaining that physical connection? For starters it lets them leverage 10 years of training people how to sync and manage mobile (post-PC) devices. Average consumers know how to get all of their stuff onto the device, how to update the software and how to completely erase and restore it if there are issues. (How many people actually know how to do such things on their Mac or PC?)
By maintaining that link Apple gets a lot of capabilities “for free”.
THE CABLE IS YOUR FRIEND
Such a tethered existence made total sense for a traditional click wheel iPod. In fact the tight-knit nature between the iPod and iTunes was one of the key selling points in the iPod’s favor. (This coming from someone who used a Dell DJ with Microsoft Windows Media Player.)
Skip ahead to 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone. The fact that you could manage not only media, but your contacts, calendars, email accounts from your computer through iTunes was amazing. Heck, you could even activate the phone and set up your phone plan through iTunes in the comfort of your own house.
Even after the introduction of the App Store, a tethered existence for the iPhone still made sense. After all, no one could actually use an iPhone as their only computer. (Ironically, even though the iPhone was tethered to my MacBook, the iPhone allowed me to be away (untethered) from my MacBook to greater and greater stretches of time)
And with the ability to download and re-download apps over 3G, listen to podcasts over 3G and the introduction of Mobile Me for wireless syncing of my bookmarks, calendar and contacts, Apple was making it easier to exist without the physical tether for longer periods.
Although I should say that I still synced my iPhone everyday day for two simple reasons:
- I subscribe to around 15 podcasts and having iTunes check every hour for new episodes and then just plugging in the USB cable to sync them over to the iPhone is much better than manually checking for new episodes on the iPhone.
- Why not sync, charge, and back it up if my Macbook is in the same room anyway?
And notice that up until this point neither Apple or the tech punditry is talking about how the iPhone heralds the “Post-PC era”. (Yes….I know Steve Jobs has used the term “post-PC” in the past talking about the iPod, but in that context it was meant to indicate that the iPod was a “satellite” device to your computer. At no point did he insinuate that the iPod, or even the iPhone could replace your computer)
Which brings us up to the iPad.
THE CABLE STARTS TO FRAY
In the original iPad introduction Apple pitched the iPad as being between an iPhone and a Mac, something that did a few key things better.
Almost immediately people started asking if the iPad could replace a laptop (despite Apple never claiming that it could or even would).
What Apple did state was that the iPad would be a better experience for few key things:
One can quibble if the iPad is technically better than a laptop at these things, but the experience of doing these things on the iPad isn’t a little better, it’s a lot better.
So in the first year of the iPad Apple was clearly stating that the iPad did some things better than a laptop. Not everything, but some key things.
Then in the introduction of iPad 2 Apple really pushed the idea of the ipad as “post-PC” device. Add to that Steve Jobs comments that PC’s were becoming trucks while things like the iPad were becoming cars and now the chatter really began.
I think that what drives most of this is that the iPad is so tantalizingly close in it’s current state to replacing a traditional PC for most people.
And here we come back to the original problem: the iPad needs to be physically connected to a computer running iTunes at least once to get it up and running.
(A lot of people got iPads for Christmas, but if you wanted mom to use it out of the box you had to first open the box and activate it. Not to mention set up an iTunes account, etc…)
CUTTING THE CABLE
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Apple is working on a way for the iPad to exist independently. To “cut the cord” so to speak. (And to clarify, every-time I say “iPad” I mean “any iOS device”)
In order for Apple to do this they would have to have an answer for three key iTunes functions:
- getting your stuff onto your new iPad
- updating iOS
- backing up and restoring your iPad
GETTING YOUR STUFF ONTO YOUR NEW IPAD
(Most likely, even if Apple decides to go this route and put iTunes in “the cloud” it will still be possible to continue using the iTunes application on your PC/Mac and do all of these things in the exact same way people are today. And even if Apple allows you a way to not have to connect a physical cable, you will still be using an iTunes account to log in and verify. So what we’re really talking about is getting rid of the cable, not getting away from the iTunes ecosystem.)
So what would this look like? In the transition Apple would need to provide a way for users to upload their current content up to a server somewhere. Or more likely, because Apple knows what you’ve purchased, they could offer you a way of accessing a copy from a web browser, thereby eliminating the need to redundantly accept numerous copies of the same file from users. Of course this wouldn’t cover songs/movies you’ve ripped yourself as Apple wouldn’t have a record of you buying it.
So once you have an iTunes “locker” you can either buy content from the iTunes app on your computer and sync over the cable, or purchase through a web version of iTunes. So you’ll either be downloading a copy onto your hard drive, or simply making a purchase through a web browser.
If you purchased content through a web browser and don’t connect it to a cable how would you get it onto your iPad? The iPad is more than capable of wirelessly downloading big files. Apple just needs to figure out how to present a way to the end user of downloading all or parts of their content. My guess is that Apple comes up with a UI where you can see all of your iTunes purchases on your iPad and selectively download them or hit a “download all” button. (You can see fragments of this UI in the App Store when you have updates, just extend that UI to include all previously purchased content) Maybe you would go to the iTunes app to download all your existing media, the App Store to re-download all your apps, iBooks to re-download all your books…etc…
And I do think that you’ll be able to stream your content, but that Apple will emphasize downloading content locally given the mobile nature of the iPad. (As opposed to the Apple TV which is always plugged into both power and network access) That and the fact that local media feels much more responsive and snappier than streamed content.
In a completely untethered existence the iPad could update it’s own OS on the fly. The Apple TV is the first iOS device capable of doing so. (Although it’s still possible to physically plug it into iTunes like an iPod and update it)
Currently when Apple updates iOS it pushes the entire OS as a single file and completely reflashes the device. Apple could move to a model where they “break up” the OS updates like they do in Mac OS X, but that’s not likely to happen. It much “cleaner” to update the whole OS at the same time.
The most likely way is that Apple will allow wireless updating like the Apple TV but perhaps require that the iPad be plugged into a power source first. (And of course the wifi only restriction will be there)
The big problem with this is that unlike the Apple TV with a spare 8GB of space that Apple can count on being there, iPads would vary wildly as far as how much free space would be available for downloading an update and installing it. They could always make iPads with built in storage made exclusively for this purpose, but then the cost of the iPad may be affected.
BACKING UP AND RESTORING YOUR IPAD
In many ways this problem has already been solved. Email,contacts, calendars are already able to sync and backup to the web while solutions like DropBox (and iDisk) help move files on and off the iPad.
For everything else a user has to plug the iPad into iTunes to back up every setting, app placement, location in a game, and even what apps are currently multi-tasking.
So the question is would Apple offer a background syncing solution that captured all of this data, or rather offer a way for certain pieces of data to selectively sync. In other words, would it be like Time Machine on the Mac where it takes everything about the configuration of the computer (including historical versions of certain files) or more like Mobile Me where it would sync the latest version of data, consider that the canonical version, and then let user selectively resync certain parts of data?
One of the iPad’s big failings that I’ve been harping on is that game data is “locked” into the the iTunes backup file, so that if your iPad is being slow and buggy (which seems to be less of a problem with the iPad 2 than it was with the original) then you have two choices: back up your iPad with all of it’s buggy backup data, or completely wipe your iPad and set it up as new. Made it up to level 30 in Angry Birds? Tough…you’re back at square one.
This is the sort of problem that Game Center seems to be begging to solve. Imagine getting a brand new iPad, downloading Angry Birds and the first time you launch it the game would ask for your Game Center ID (like it does now) and rather than match you with existing online players it would pull down your backed up game data and you could start the game where you left off (or start a fresh game if it was your choice) Or better yet, play a little on their iPhone and pick up where they left on their iPad. Just think of the huge expansive games that people would be willing to invest their time into playing if they knew they would never lose their place.
So will it ever be the case that you could walk into an Apple Store, turn on your new iPad, give it your iTunes account and then the iPad will be wirelessly restored to the exact configuration your old iPad was? It’s possible, but a long way off.
Let’s see what Apple has in store for iOS 5.