Bruce Sterling, SF novelist, journalist, and design guru, observed a while ago that the interesting thing about the iPhone was that it subsumes other devices. It's not just a mobile phone — it's an iPod, a web browser, a movie player, a satnav, a games console in roughly the same class as the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP (indeed, iOS games outsell PSP games), an ebook reader, a compass, a floor wax and a desert topping. With iPhone 4 it looks as if Apple are getting serious about some "traditional" mobile phone applications (for 1990s values of "traditional") such as compact camera photography ... and also some downright science fictional ones: it's a videophone contender, and even an HD video editing platform. There have been mutterings about near field payment technologies under development. Doubtless when it acquires a pico-projector (any year now) it'll also be a flashlight and a laser gun.
But what about last month's shiny, the iPad?
I'm still using it. Although the question of what I'm not using is much more interesting.
There are annoyances from my point of view, of course. A lot of them centre around third party software. None of the third-party office/word processing suites fully support external keyboards with cursor movement keys yet; Apple's own offerings do, but lack essential functionality. (Pages for iPad has no word count, for example, and the only ways of managing a workflow with other machines involve: emailing document attachments back and forth, syncing with iTunes — which is limited to a single machine, or using the utterly inadequate iWork.com portal.) Nevertheless, it provides a really excellent basic editing environment for Word .doc files. If they'd add DropBox support (or if DropBox would add support for receiving file uploads via email) I'd be more than happy to put up with it.
Use of 3G for data instead of wifi is adequate, but drains the battery a lot faster. And so on.
On the other hand.
My Sony Reader is gathering dust. Literally. I haven't switched it on since getting the iPad. This thing is a killer ebook reader. It's usable in daylight, too, although the reflective screen means you're constantly hunting for a reflection-free angle.
Movies ... I don't watch TV or film much. But what I've looked at is fine. It's not a full-on HD device (it won't do anything over 720p) but for playing ripped DVDs it's great.
The internet media consumption role, be it via RSS or web browser, is great. (Unlike some, I have no problem with the lack of Flash support. In fact, I routinely install FlashBlock on any machine I use before I start browsing — the prevalence of flash in advertising makes it a positive nuisance, from my point of view.)
Email ... I find the on-screen keyboard adequate for brief replies, but irritatingly slow because touch-based cut and paste is, at best, a kluge. But if I've got anything serious to say, a brisk session in the keyboard dock suffices: there's full keyboard-based cut and paste support and suddenly a very desktop-like experience. And Gmail's iPad user interface is impressive, to say the least.
I'm not using my iPhone for email any more, except when I don't have the iPad on my person.
Two weeks ago, I spent four days (three nights) away from home. I left the laptop behind and carried the iPad. In that time, I did not miss the laptop. And the frustration level from replacing the Macbook Air with an iPad was lower than the corresponding frustration level from trying to use a netbook running Ubuntu or Windows 7 instead. Unless I'm planning on doing Serious Work, the iPad is acceptable. More to the point, it's just plain nicer to use than a netbook. I have two netbooks; an older HP mini, and a Vaio P (a year old, acquired when they were being remaindered at half price). Like the Sony Reader, they're gathering dust. In theory the netbooks' specs are way higher than the iPad. But in terms of actual usability, the iPad delivers an experience that's so much nicer that they're basically roadkill, lacking the full-sized screen and keyboard of a real laptop and unable to compete on portability and battery life.
In a nutshell: the iPhone swallowed the iPod, the satnav, the phone, and the pocket camera. The iPad swallows the PMP, the ebook reader, and the netbook.
Next month I'm going away for ten days. My wife's planning on taking her laptop: I'm going to see if I can manage with the iPad. I'm not crazy, mind you. Her lappie has a lot of free space; I planted a backup copy of my laptop account on it, so that if the iPad gets terminally confused I can reset it to factory spec and restore my data from backup. Later, I'm going to see if I can reduce my iPad lifebelt to a pocket hard disk, or a USB memory stick. (Find spare computer; insert stick/drive: plug in iPad: restore.)
As for the big picture: this thing is roughly where the Macintosh was in late 1984. Which is to say, a lot of people don't get it, and think it's a toy — and in truth, there's a lot of stuff it doesn't do properly yet. But it's an astonishingly promising toy. And what it promises is an entirely new way of getting stuff done. I think it's going to be Macintosh 2.0. And today, even if you're reading this in Internet Explorer on a desktop PC, your PC is a Macintosh clone: because the mouse-and-window based Macintosh user interface won.