Apple’s iPad tablet is something special in the history of computing

Coverage of Apple’s iPad tablet computer release today is dominating TechCrunch and the tech social news sites. It’s no surprise there is so much buzz about it. This little pad is going to be something special in the history of computing.

Two of the most interesting things in Apple’s announcement of the iPad today are that the 3G wireless will be unlocked (on the 3G models), and that the starting price is under $500.

I’d figured they’d release it with high-speed broadband with a price starting under $500, so I was wrong on the wireless and right on the price. The options are wifi and 3G. But at least by having the 3G unlocked they open it up to a wider potential audience and get rid of the AT&T penalty that the iPhone has been saddled with.

Apart from lacking a high-speed wireless broadband option, I think they’ve nailed the specs. The full Apple specs are here:
http://www.apple.com/ipad/specs/

And from TechCrunch (http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/01/27/ipad-ibooks-500/):

“Some specs: The device has a 9.7 inch display, weighs 1.5 pounds, and is half-an-inch thick. It is powered by new chip made by Apple itself, a 1 GHz A4 and will come with 16Gb to 64 GB of storage. It supports WiFi, has an accelerometer, compass, and built-in speaker and microphone, just like the iPhone. The screen is a full capacitive multi-touch screen. Battery life is supposed to be 10 hours. In addition to WiFi, it will have a 3G option from AT&T. The Wifi-only version, with 16GB of memory, will cost $499. A 32GB version will be $599, 64 GB will be $699, and with 3G from AT&T it will cost $829 (for the 64GB version). All the 3G iPads, however, will be unlocked, meaning they can be used on other carriers as well.”

It’s interesting too that they’ve gone with their own chip. Anyone who thinks Apple is going more open over time for the sake of openness is wrong. They’re driven by creating great products and using proprietary advantage to sustain superior profit margins.

It’s going to be interesting to play with the SDK (http://www.apple.com/ipad/sdk/). The combination of mobility and the touch interface with a larger screen and more power is going to open up the potential for a whole new class of filthy rich media applications and mobile gaming.

If they really can get 10 hours battery life and the manufacturing is as rugged but elegant as the iPhone, then this is going to be a smash hit.

 

A long time between Macs

I used to be a Mac zealot.

At school, I saved for nearly three years working nights, weekends and holidays to buy my first second-hand Mac. I wrote my first articles for Mac newsletters and magazines. I had Apple’s location pinned on a map of Silicon Valley on my bedroom wall.

Then I lost my religion.

Apple strayed from the faith. They shafted Steve Jobs and with every release drifted further and further away from what had made the Mac special.

Until one day the Mac just didn’t seem so special any more. When I started editing a PC magazine, my Mac found itself shunted off into a cupboard, no longer a computer for someone technical, but the sort of computer you get for newbies and arty people who don’t know really know any better.

But then something odd happened. It was nearly four years ago, about the time I bought my last trusty Toshiba notebook. I started noticing developers at technical conferences doing their sessions and presentations on MacBooks running OS X. I found myself quietly wondering if I should get a Mac. But I didn’t. I dismissed the idea quickly and bought my 17in Toshiba for a ridiculously low cost. Macs have always been more expensive for equivalent hardware. PCs had gotten cheaper and cheaper. Macs stayed expensive.

At first I didn’t think much of it – a couple of Rails and web developers here and there surely didn’t mean too much. And corporate developers were still either running Windows and doing .net or running Linux and doing Java.

But lots of smart developers are drawn to languages like Python and Ruby, and the fact they were suddenly using Macs made me question my bias. By then it was a bias. Macs sucked. As a developer, they were a pain to support. Life would be better if everyone just ran Windows XP and IE. That bias stopped me from seeing that something had changed.

It wasn’t just that the impact of Steve Jobs’ return had percolated through Apple’s culture and it was making sexy consumer products. The iMac, iBook and iPod had been beautiful pieces of industrial design and engineering for sure, and game-changing consumer products. But there was more to it.

As Paul Graham noted in Return of the Mac four years ago, the fact that OS X is built on both Unix and on the user experience foundations from NeXTSTEP is a big deal. Here was brains and beauty. Sexy and geeky. Sleek and powerful. All smoothly working together and humming in harmony.

And Paul Graham isn’t the only one to note the change. Smashing Magazine ran a story earlier this week on the top five reasons developers are switching to Macs.

For the first time since I was at school, I found myself going into computer stores just to play around on Macs. And what stores! Apple’s Stores are shining, glorious retail temples. They are magical. Truly, inspiringly magical. And the Macs they sell have some of that same magic as the original Macintosh 128K. It’s not just the startup sound or smiley face icon either. There is magic in the entire experience of using a Mac again.

So when my aging Toshiba laptop died a painful death, I’d already made up my mind that I’d have to somehow convince @mediamum we needed a Mac more than a car or health insurance or groceries, and to help me scrabble together whatever cards and cash we could and — for the sake of our startup — find the cheapest deal on a Mac possible. It was a real and genuine struggle to get this thing, and even with an incredibly cheap deal it hurt us at the moment when we’re struggling to build a startup, especially when a decent PC would have been much less.

But there is another subtle reason too why having a Mac matters with a startup. The two most important things for any startup are the ability to make stuff, and to pitch it. Pitching on a PC sends a subtle signal of dowdiness and “unsexy”. I don’t think that should be the case. But I’ve watched a lot of pitches and reactions, and the Mac thing matters. It’s definitely elitist. It’s not part of the “computer for the rest of us” ethos. I think if anything Mac users suffer from a “the computer for the best of us” mindset. But little things make a big difference.

When you’re throwing heart and soul into making something, you want to use the best tools you can to make it as good as it can be. And when you pitch it as something important and, yes, sexy and hot, you want to make the best impression you can.

So here I am, tapping away on a MacBook keyboard, working with Ruby and Rails and Eclipse, feeling nearly as darned downright excited about the computer I’m using as the first time I lugged home that original second-hand Mac in its big beige carry bag. Between my Ubuntu dev box, and the MacBook I’ll be living on, I find myself only running Windows in a virtual session or through a remote desktop.

I’m glad to be back in the cult, and feel strangely at home again, as though I’ve found a favourite book that was lost, or unpacked a toy from when I was a kid that’s been packed away in storage.

If there’s anything worse than a reformed zealot, then it’s a zealot anew. I’m afraid that a zealot I am once more, and glad to be so.