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The iPad Mystique

Since Apple's iPad was released last Saturday, reviewers have been applying lots of metaphors to the multitouch tablet. It's been called a Swiss Army knife, an oversized iPad and a netbook with the keyboard torn off. I'd like to add another to the pile. The iPad is like Rebecca Romijn. Well at least it's like Ms Romijn when she plays Mystique in the X-Men movies.

Mystique is a beautiful, mutant shapeshifter. She can appear to be anyone she choses, altering her natural blue skin and yellow eyes to match the task at hand. She's a Senator, no she's a hot bar babe, no she's the Iceman. She can switch her identities like TV channels.

The iPad, turned off, is a graceful slab of aluminum and glass. There is no keyboard and only one recessed button on its front surface. It looks like a trivet designed by someone in Sweden who wears interesting glasses. But turn it on, and its inner Mystique emerges. It's a word processor; no, it's an e-book; no it's a piano keyboard; no it's a talking child's book; no it's a photo frame; no it's a video player. The iPad, by being nothing, can be anything. That is its mutant superpower.

Well, that and super speed. I now own an iPad, and travelled to Buffalo to get one, sight unseen. Why? Because earlier reviewers used one adjective over and over - fast. They were right. The iPad is so responsive to touch that it's practically pre-cognitive (like the super-fast arachnid in the first Spiderman movie, to continue this leitmotif). You press its on button, and a blink later, it's on. No waiting for a hard drive to spin up (it has none). No waiting for an operating system to shake itself out of slumber. No nothing. On. Launch an application and it's there. Shut it down. Gone. No hourglass, no spinning beach ball of limbo, nothing.

Yes, it is true that the iPad has limited multitasking abilities (that is, the ability to run more than one program at the same time). But, all of Apple's own applications can take advantage of multitasking so I can listen to music while I type this, for example. And, in practise, the apps launch so quickly (and many remember their state) it is not that much of an issue. Come the fall, with the 4.0 of the operating system, a more robust multitasking will be available to third-party apps as well.

The other thing that made me lay down $600 for the device was the early reports of battery life - better than the 10 hours Apple promised. First off, it is unheard of that reviewers actually get better battery life than a manufacturer proffers. Second, 10 hours is remarkable. What was more remarkable was my own experience. Yesterday, an early day for me, I turned on my iPad at 4:30 a.m. At 10:30 in the evening I still had 15% of the battery to spare and I had been using it heavily, and demoing it to strangers for a good part of the day.

How well does it assume its multiple identities? Like Mystique, flawlessly. It is not just an information appliance, it's like the appliance section at Sears. As a book reader, it puts the Kindle to shame. First, books can have colour illustrations (and they are vibrant and crisp on the gorgeous iPad screen). Except for second-hand books, I will probably never buy a physical book again. Right now I'm reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it's a pleasure. Second, unlike the Kindle, the iPad can display books from not just the Amazon store, but from Kobo, it's own iBook library and other vendors as well.

I've also downloaded The Cat in the Hat. It too is an electronic book, but, it will read itself to me, the words highlighted as the narration rolls on, the illustrations zoom in and out and I can touch the screen to hear the names of the objects my finger falls out read out loud. Try that on an e-ink device.

A moment later I can be playing (really badly) a near full-sized row of piano keys, on which I can ham-fist out chords. Then, a map of how the night sky looks above me, right now, appears. I can touch a star and learn all about it. I can then fire up The Elements, a wonderful coffee table book about the periodic table - samples of gold, mercury or uranium spin to my touch, slowly when I release them.

The Marvel comic book reader presents the bright panels of Spiderman in full-screen or, as I move through the comic, zooms in on one speech balloon at a time.

Right now I'm writing this review using Evernote. I could stop, save and synchronize this document and then pick up my iPhone (or laptop) and continue writing on that device right where I left off. I can browse the web, check my email or use one a a handful of Twitter applications to stay abreast of social media happenings. I can also read a growing number of magazines on the iPad including Time, Men's Health and Popular Science. The pricing of these publications needs to come down, but they hold promise. And photos? This is a photo frame that MOMA would be happy to use.

In short, since I got the iPad, my Macbook Pro, which I use for heavylifting like video editing, has not moved from my desk. I will use my iPad for writing, presenting (it has a version of Keynote and can plug into a laptop projector) and web browsing. It has no built-in camera. But, using a piece of software on the iPad and another on my iPhone I can use the iPad as a big screen for my iPhone's camera and take pictures with it, the images relayed from one to the other using Bluetooth. I can also use Bluetooth to connect a wireless keyboard, though the virtual one on the iPad is very serviceable. 

A lot of people dismissed the iPad as just a big iPod Touch. That was a misguided and narrow view. It really is a new, elegant and simple computing paradigm. When you actually hold, touch and use one, you realize that, starting with the iPad, tablet computing is going to shape shift the future. I welcome our mutant overlords.

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Reader Comments (8)

I love the idea of the iPad as Mystique - it certainly is an incredible device. Actually I'm very jealous, I can't wait to get my hands on one.

I can completely see it changing the way I use my existing computer when I get one, just like you have. For me I think the most exciting prospect is being able to regain a little sanity and separate my consumption of Internet media from my everyday work. I think the iPad's just one of a whole new class of devices that will redefine how we absorb digital media - I wrote a bit about this on our new Human 2.0 site.


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