Where the iPad needs to go from here

Apple's hugely successful iPad could rest on its laurels -- but shouldn't

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But at some point, Google may get seriously competitive with Android -- the company says it's working on its own tablet to show what an Android tablet should be. Google has done that for smartphones, with mixed results. Then there's Microsoft, which is likely to ship Windows 8 this fall -- an operating system that has a touch-based overlay operating environment called Metro meant to work on tablets and touchscreen PCs. We should see Windows 8 tablets based on Intel x86 processors that offer full Windows 7 compatibility plus touch-savvy Metro apps at the same time. And Metro-only ARM-based tablets should arrive as well.

I suspect Windows 8 tablets will appeal to Windows users who want to live in a Windows monoculture, much like Mac OS X users prefer a Mac/iOS hybrid monoculture. But I'm not sure it'll be as satisfying an experience as on the iPad. Based on my use of the Windows 8 developer preview edition, the Metro UI is clunky to use, and both it and Microsoft's limited palette of gestures gets in the way of rich, sophisticated interactions needed to do more than read and view information. iOS is able to handle both consumption and creation, whereas Windows 8 appears to still need a keyboard and mouse to do anything deep or sophisticated. That argues against the success of Windows 8 tablets and instead for Window 8-optimized touchscreen laptops, meaning that the iPad's adoption is likely to be unaffected.

We'll know better if Windows 8 has gotten more sophisticated when the public beta for Windows 8 comes out, which is expected in late February. But given Microsoft's many years of work on touch interfaces and the unsatisfying Windows touch interfaces it has continued to ship during that time despite that work, I'm not too hopeful.

Apple should push the envelope, but in what direction?
But it doesn't -- or shouldn't -- matter what shortcomings Google and Microsoft may have in Android 4 and Windows 8, respectively. Apple should keep pushing the envelope in its usual focused, judicious, disruptive way. Letting the others close the gap, or simply allowing the gap not to continue to grow in Apple's favor, is a bad strategy. Not that I think Apple will rest on its laurels -- that's not the Apple way. But how to go forward is not so obvious, at least not outside Cupertino.

Certainly there are some things to fix and mature. For example the iCloud syncing service needs to work better when you have a mix of personal and network services such as calendars in place; today, it does dumb things like duplicate network calendars such as Exchange and Google Calendar. The Reminders app lacks basic "how could they have missed that?" capabilties such as reordering tasks, and it's not that well integrated with Apple's other information-management apps in iOS. (Ironically, it's slightly better integrated with the equivalent Mac apps and even Exchange.)

And iCloud would be much more useful if more apps could take advantage of it. For instance, allowing cross-app, not just same-app, syncing would be a huge boon to iCloud's usefulness. After all, Apple's iWork suite -- as great as Keynote is even on an iPad -- lacks key functions such as styles, revision tracking, and TinyMCE support that means real users can't drop Microsoft Office in favor of it, or even do work on the iPad that is part of an Office workflow (and what in business isn't?). So, iCloud-enabling iWork on the iPad and other iOS devices with Office on the Mac and Windows is a must. Of course, neither Apple nor Microsoft may like that idea, for selfish reasons. The concept of a digital wallet within iCloud could also extend Apple into a key emerging area that I believe would complement its existing directions.

And don't stop at office productivity apps. Although often labeled a consumption device, the iPad is a serious creative tool in several industries. It's already becoming a standard tool for musicians, for example. And if you explore the many ways the iPad is used in that industry, you can see how an amped-up iCloud that works across apps and services could be truly revolutionary. If only Apple would go beyond its same-app synchronization focus.

Yes, iCloud is not about the iPad specifically; it's an iOS, Mac OS X, and partially Windows 7 service. But it's the kind of background service that makes the iPad so compelling as a companion device that can take its turn as a primary device. (Which is why Microsoft is essentially copying it in Windows 8.)

Real printing support should also be part of iOS 5, although Lantronix's amazing xPrintServer product gives businesses an inexpensive, simple, IT-friendly workaround to this glaring hole in iOS -- one that is more an issue for iPad users than iPhone users. Likewise, lack of support for Bluetooth pointing devices should be fixed so the iPad can use mice as it does keyboards, which will cement the iPad's use as a sometimes laptop replacement. The touchscreen works nicely, but it's awkward to switch between a keyboard and the iPad screen when working in "laptop mode" such as with a keyboard-equipped cover or holder like Logitech's very nice Tablet Keyboard for iPad. And connectivity to displays, such as through the AirPlay protocol, should be encouraged through broad licensing with easy terms (not Apple's usual approach).

The iPad's hardware is already quite good, so it's hard to imagine any truly novel innovations crying to be added. Sure, faster, better, more-power-efficient hardware -- faster processors, adoption of 802.11ac Wi-Fi when that is ready, better cameras, true stereo, more storage, perhaps adoption of nearfield communications (NFC), crisper screen, more scratch-resistant glass, and so on -- is welcome but obvious.

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