The iPad is an App Killer

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Tim Higgins

It seems like everything that I’ve been trying to test today has decided to give me a hard time. So before I do some damage that I’m sure I’ll regret, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the iPad that came to live with us about two weeks ago.

It’s fun. It’s cool. It’s not magical

I can see why Apple’s marketing machine is trying to convince us that there is pixie dust sprinkled inside the iPad. It is a damned impressive piece of gadgetry, even if most of its innards are taken up with the batteries that provide its 10 or so hour run time. But there are enough niggles and annoyances to quickly make you realize that you’re dealing with yet another gadget that requires you to adapt to it more than it will to you.

I can’t tell you the number of times that the iPad has thought I wanted to copy something when my finger lingered a bit too long on some text. Not can I count the unwanted links I’ve accidentally opened while just meaning to scroll the screen. I don’t expect Stevie and Co. to add arrow keys, a touchpad or even scroll wheel. But maybe Android and Windows-based devices would do well to.

Its ergonomics aren’t great

Just as Blackberries gave us sore thumbs, so will the iPad and its descendants and relatives give us sore wrists. A pound and a half gets too heavy to comfortably hold with one hand within a minute or so, even if you are just propping it up on the breakfast table to read the morning news while you shovel cereal with the other hand.

Apple tends to put form over function in its products and the iPad continues that trend. The lack of built-in kickstands or props may be great for case makers. But it means that you have to find your own way to support it at a comfortable reading or typing angle. And what’s with the $50+ pricing that I’m seeing for some iPad cases? The rounded back doesn’t help either and makes it spin and rock when you’re trying to do even a little typing for Googling or entering a web address. At least they gave the back a matte finish instead of the mirror polish on the iTouch.

Apps are less important

Before the iPad, the iPod Touch was my daily breakfast companion for catching up on what happened while I was sleeping. I dutifully rotated through WeatherBug, Techmeme and New York Times apps, which did nice jobs of wrangling web content designed for normal web browsers into formats more suited for small mobile screens.

So when I got the iPad, I scoured the Apps Store for "HD" versions of the same apps so that I could duplicate my morning reading on the iPad’s larger screen. But a funny thing happened over the past weeks of day-to-day use. It started with the New York Times, whose Editors Choice app has fewer categories than the NY Times iPhone app, which I also downloaded.

But then it dawned that I didn’t need to bother with the apps at all, since I had a web browser (albeit a crippled one that doesn’t handle Flash) with a netbook-sized screen capable of displaying full web pages in either portrait or landscape. So I haven’t opened either of those apps in a week or so, instead clicking on the bookmark I made for the Times’ website.

Next apps to go were the TWC Max+ and NPR apps. When both crashed once too often, I stopped using them. The weather I can get anywhere, including my My Yahoo page, which also monitors RSS feeds. And the page has everything the HD app has and much more, including a handly link for the hourly news summary. It seems that NPR has already realized the folly of an iPad app, since it now auto-forwards to a "Beta" /tablet page that has non-Flash players.

I’ve already stopped checking the App Store daily to see what’s new and instead just open Safari and use the iPad just like I do my other machines for accessing web content. I can see why Apple was said to be positioning the iPad as a gaming platform. For those and time-wasters like iFart, iBeer and their ilk, you do need to download an app…at least until non-Flash web versions are developed.

Magazine publishers need to get a clue

One of the reasons that I bought an iPad is that I’m fully prepared to get with the program of dropping my dead-tree subscriptions and going with tablet versions. But from what I’ve seen so far, publishers think that consumers either can’t do math or aren’t price conscious.

The Wall Street Journal has taken more than their share of abuse for locking down most of their content behind a paywall, but that’s fine by me. They also seem to understand the concept that electronic versions of publications should cost less than print versions, given the significantly lower distribution costs. Even though it’s only a 30 cent difference ($1.99 / week for online vs. $2.29 / week for print), it’s still lower.

But where the WSJ gets clueless is their terms. The only option is to pay for an entire year’s subscription at once and the only way you can cancel is by phone or snail-mail! Sorry, Mr. Murdoch, but you won’t be getting my business until I have shorter subscription options and can cancel with the click of a button. Until then, I’ll get my business news elsewhere.

Then there are the magazine publishers, most of whom are slow off the mark with iPad offerings. Only a few (Maxim, Outside) have apps, which are priced about $1 an issue lower than cover price and can be purchased by the issue. But they have no subscription option and the $2.99 iPad issue price is more than a buck higher than the per-issue cost if you buy a one year print subscription.

For everything else, there’s the Zinio app, which appears to present the entire print edition of magazines in electronic format. I was initially excited about this option, but it’s pretty slow. Pricing is the same as print cover price for individual issues, with subscriptions not as low as print cost. For example, a single issue of Business Week is $4.99, while a 51 issue Zinio subscription is $46. The current print subscription offer for new subscribers is 54 issues for $40.

It’s always driven me crazy that magazines play so many games with subscription prices and don’t offer their subscribers renewal prices that are the same as new subscriber offers. But I can do the math and will do what it takes to get the lowest subscription cost, print or e-version.

It’s time for a Netflix for books

I’m not a big book reader, so even though I loaded up the iBooks app and marveled at the little cutesy touches that Apple coded into the page turning animation while browsing through the free Winnie The Pooh book, I’m not going to be buying anything else from Apple or Amazon for that matter.

There are plenty of titles that I’d like to at least skim through. But I’m not going to buy an entire book for that, electronic or print. What I’d sign up for in a minute, though, is a subscription service for books, similar to Netflix for movies and video or Rhapsody for music.

I’d be happy to pay a monthly fee for access to whatever books that strike my fancy and be perfectly happy for them to disappear into the cloud when I’m done with them or decide to cancel the service. I don’t need a full electronic (or physical) bookshelf to show people how smart I am or satisfy an interior decorating need.

The systems for this are obviously in place, given pay-per-view models and the aforementioned services. What I’m sure is the barrier is the fear that authors (and publishers) won’t be properly compensated under such a model, even though, again, there is plenty of precedent in the movie rental business. Too bad, because everyone knows that the real money is made on the rentals.

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