“Just a Big iPod Touch”

by Michael Alderete on 12/21/2010 · 5 comments

When the iPad debuted, the witticism was that it was “just a big iPod touch.” This week Motorola echoed this by saying it’s “like a giant iPhone.”

This is about as stupid as saying a swimming pool is like a giant bathtub.

I’ll be the first to suggest that two people in a bathtub can be a lot of fun, but you’re not going to play Marco Polo or do a swan dive into even the biggest McMansion whirlpool tub. Sometimes size does matter.

The 9.7" screen size of the iPad is not an accident, Apple did extensive testing to arrive at that size. Below that, you either have to make the user interface too small to use with normal fingers, or it really is just a big smartphone.

The 7" screens coming with the Samsung Galaxy and other would-be iPad competitors are only 45% of the size of the iPad’s 9.7" screen, and that makes a difference for most kinds of applications. Look at a side-by-side size comparison of a Galaxy to an iPad to get an idea of that difference. The 7" screens have a wide screen aspect ratio, which makes them great for watching widescreen movies, but that’s about the only use where they are equivalent to the iPad.

By the end of 2011, “Like a Giant iPhone” will be in the same class as CmdrTaco’s legendary “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” assessment of the original iPod.

Bryan December 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Yes, but a swimming pool is different than a bathtub in more ways than just size. It’s got a different shape, it has areas of different depths, it usually has depth markers and lanes, it’s set up with kid areas and adult areas, it has diving boards and lifeguard stands.

The point is that it’s not enough to make something exactly the same but bigger. When you make the iPad bigger there are opportunities to tweak the OS to take advantage of the advantages of size and space. The fact that they didn’t means they missed opportunities. They didn’t make a swimming pool, they just made a giant bathtub.

Alderete December 21, 2010 at 7:57 pm

@Bryan: You think that Apple didn’t make changes to iOS for the iPad? You’ll need to be more specific in that assertion to be persuasive.

Apple significantly revised Mail, Contacts, Calendar and Photos to provide expanded, more dynamic and functional interfaces to those apps—and incidentally providing examples of how to “size up” an existing iPhone app beyond just making it bigger. The App Store’s interface changed significantly. iBooks was introduced first on iPad. Don’t leave out the iWork suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), which showed that the iPad was capable of doing much more that mere content consumption, as some asserted. Imperfect though they are, I believe they validate Apple’s ambitious vision for the platform. (And, try squeezing a full-fledged word processor or spreadsheet onto a 7” screen. It’s going to be a tough fit, Steve’s point in the conference call.)

Finally, let’s not get carried away with the metaphor. Yes, there are differences between a bathtub and a swimming pool besides size. My point is, even if you just have a swimming pool-sized tub of water, it’s different than a bathtub in fundamental ways. Expanding the size dramatically extends the horizon. You can play games in it that are not possible in a bathtub. You can dive into it. Etc. Just being bigger is enough of a difference to enable new things. Which, as I wrote above, is exactly what Apple’s iPad apps do.

So, I’m curious. What do you think Apple needs to do to “tweak the OS [sic] to take advantage of the advantages of size and space”? What “missed opportunities” have you got in mind?

Bryan December 22, 2010 at 6:24 am

I guess it’s a matter of whether they went far enough or not. Overall it feels like the iPad is fundamentally the same as an iPhone. To be honest the changes to Mail, Contacts, Calendar and Photos don’t really change the way I use those products and for the most part I don’t even notice the differences. The App store interface did change, but unfortunately it’s still clunky and awkward. I will leave out the iWork suite as it isn’t a standard feature and I haven’t purchased it. iBooks is a good addition.

My point is that if a swimming pool-sized tub of water is different than a bathtub in fundamental ways then it deserves to be treated differently than a bathtub. Don’t build it with a porcelain tub. The whole point is that Apple came out with a new product that has different properties than an iPhone and they didn’t update the OS (abbreviation for operating system not a spelling error thank you) to really treat it differently than an iPhone. Obviously I’m not alone in that opinion. Which raises an interesting point. Is good design independent of public opinion or defined by it?

Alderete December 22, 2010 at 9:03 am

@Bryan: I guess, in the absence of a specific critique, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I can be persuaded by specific examples of areas where an opportunity was missed, and details of how it could have been better. How should Apple have changed iOS for the iPad, specifically? But, “it should have been different” is too easy to write, or say; it is second only to “it should be cheaper” in the repertoire of generic technology slams.

It’s like me telling my wife I could have built an eBay clone over a long weekend, dismissing it as uninteresting, completely missing the point of the critical mass of addicted customers it had long blown by, and suggesting that buying its stock during its IPO would be dumb. True story!

Alderete February 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Here’s another way to think about it. If you say “The iPad is just a big iPod Touch” and I say “No, silly, the iPod Touch is just a small iPad”, other than original ship date, how can you tell which one of us is right?

This isn’t as pointless as it sounds; Steve Jobs said in an interview that they were working on the tablet first, and shelved it to work on the iPhone, because the technology for the tablet was there yet, but they knew they could do a phone. So, at least a little bit, the iPad did come first.

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