Mac geek that I am, people have been asking for The Bear’s take on this new iPad thingie from Apple. First let me tell you about one of the last rumors I read just prior to the big event on Wednesday January 27th, the day Apple took the wraps off their newest creation. I don’t remember where I read it; anyway they were quoting none other than TWIT tech commentator, self-promoter and fast talker Jason Calacanis, who I think is a really sharp guy (even though many people can’t stand him) and he was allegedly blabbing on Twitter about a few of the features on an iPad he’s been secretly beta testing …

“Yes, it’s true… I’ve been beta testing the Apple tablet for the past two weeks and it’s amazing.”

“The best part ofthe apple tablet as beta user has been the built in HDTV tuner and pvr, and the chess game.”

“Video conferencing is super stable, but nothing new.”

“Yes… the apple tablet is running an iphone os flavor with ability to have multiple apps running at same time (ie pandora, browser.”

“… reads fingerprint for security. Up to 5 profiles by finerprint for family.”

“…. there are 2 cameras: one in front and one in back (or it may be one with some double lens) so you record yourself and in front of u. Apple tablet’s 2 cameras is sick feature for video conferencing: u shoot what’s in front of you + yourself. Augmented video conferncing!”

I should have stopped at the fingerprint security, except that I’d already seen that in other laptops. But it was the description of augmented-reality video conferencing that really caught my attention. Imagine having a video iChat with someone, and in the background behind them you see your own room. It would be like looking through glass at them right in the same room with you — how cool is that! I roared out loud in delight, thinking only Apple could come up with something that awesome and innovative.

But no. Apparently that was just Jason having some fun — the whole beta testing talk was a hoax to goad us rumor hounds. But I was convinced it was true! and was waiting for the demo throughout the whole product launch Stevenote. Even as the show was obviously winding down, I was thinking it’s still possible this advanced video conferencing was going to be Steve’s signature “one more thing” that whips the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. But of course we all know now, the iPad thingie doesn’t have a camera. No video iChat, no video Skype, that augmented reality idea was simply not true. What a letdown.

So I was set up to be disappointed. Here are a few other missing items that I found disappointing, and then I’ll tell you what I actually like about this new device.

No Inkwell and handwriting recognition! This technology was in the Newton MessagePad PDA that Apple sold from about 1994 until Steve Jobs killed it in 1998. The original handwriting recognition capability was flawed and quickly became the butt of jokes among the technoceti. But over the next two iterations, it improved dramatically and by the end it was exceptionally good. The only thing holding it back: slow processors and a bad rep from the initial launch. Though Apple stopped selling Newtons, they retained the “Inkwell” handwriting recognition technology. It reappeared in the “Jaguar” version of Mac OS X v10.2 which began shipping in Aug. 2002. It’s been there ever since. Plug a stylus-based drawing tablet into a Mac these days and Inkwell magically shows up in your System Prefs, and you can do handwriting. Inkwell is quite capable of turning any handwriting into text, even cursive handwriting! But, alas, the iPad has no stylus, and apparently no handwriting capability built-in. Even though it is the perfect form factor for note-taking, you can’t write on it with your own handwriting. Certainly by now the processors are fast enough, and the technology polished enough. It’s absence in the new iPad is another great disappointment.

No multi-tasking, and no multi-user accounts! One of the things I read in the days leading up to this iPad product launch was that the tablet would be targeted at schools and families. This implies multiple users, which suggests each person using the tablet would have a log-in to their own home screen and their own apps. This does not appear to be the case. iPad is based on the iPhone OS, which is a single-user operating system. “Slide-to-unlock” is the only log-on. So don’t plan on having a pass-around tablet you can just leave lying around on the living room coffee table.

More people have already written about the apparent lack of multi-tasking, so I won’t belabor it here except to point out that if I’m using an audio app like Pandora or Stitcher or Brain Hack, why shouldn’t I be able to switch to another app to play a game or get some work done, while continuing to listen to my audio? Why is Apple’s iPod audio player the only app permitted to do multi-tasking? Having multiple apps open at the same time would also facilitate copy-and-paste, which is even more likely now that Apple is moving its iWork productivity suite to the iPad.

iWork consists of Keynote (best-of-class presentations), Pages (word processing and page layout), and Numbers (making spreadsheets fun again). Phil Schiller described Pages as “The most beautiful word processor you’ve ever used,” and I have to agree. It goes beyond word processing and extends into professional-quality page layout, with the same usability that Apple is famous for. Sure, Microsoft Word is probably capable of this kind of layout work, but you’ll need to take a year of classes to learn how to use it. Any Mac user that isn’t already  very familiar with Pages is in for a real treat on the iPad.

Speaking of iWork, Keynote looks great! But I noticed Phil Schiller did not demonstrate how to edit a table of chart data on the iPad. Possibly because the on-screen keyboard would take up half the screen real estate? Leaving you considerably less space for editing. The onscreen keyboards are probably ok, I’m already used to that on my iPhone. But this little flatscreen cries out for an external keyboard accessory, and Apple has delivered. They showed pictures of a light-weight docking keyboard, which is a welcome addition, judging by the audience reaction. It will certainly satisfy the writers who prefer banging out 100-wpm on a real physical keyboard. But wait, what about a mouse? Can you plug in a USB mouse into that keyboard? Without it, you’re going to be repeatedly poking the screen to move your cursor to a new location. And the dock puts the tablet in an awkward position for doing on-screen copy-and-paste.

I’ve already mentioned Keynote. Anybody wonder how you’ll connect the iPad to your video projector to show your beautiful Keynote presentation? Presumably there will be a special accessory cable for that video out. Isn’t that how they did the entire iPad launch presentation? Otherwise you’ll need to offload your Keynote presentation to a “real” computer in order to show it.

Speaking of cables and accessories, mention of a “Camera Accessory Kit” is buried in the iPad description page at Apple’s web site. So apparently a camera can be added to the iPad, but it isn’t built in.

I’m not really into games that much, and I’m a pacifist besides, so the first-person-shooter game they demoed was actually kind of a turn-off. The car-racing simulation was a little more interesting, but I wouldn’t buy an iPad just for that.

Brushes! I know I am a minority user in this respect, but the reason I will be getting an iPad is for painting. I like painting (in college, I majored in Art with a focus in oil painting), but I don’t like the mess. For decades I have wanted a suitably-sized flat screen I could paint on directly with a stylus or with my finger. Ok, iPad has no stylus. But I’ve got the Brushes sketching and painting app on my iPhone, and I really like it. Brushes on the iPad will be even better! Wow, I can’t wait!

In the promo video for the iPad, Apple’s senior design engineer Jonathan Ive says, “This defines our vision, our sense of what’s next.” And the Bear thinks, it’s about time, and this new product delivers… sort of. It offers the form factor and some of the cool features we’ve been anticipating for a decade or more. What’s missing now remains just over the horizon, but we can expect Apple to add these over the next several years: built-in camera, stylus and handwriting recognition, multi-tasking, multi-user accounts, maybe larger-sized tablets, more gestures, more advanced apps… These are all much more possible now that iPad exists. Something more to look forward to, how cool is that?

If you’re thinking about buying one of these new iPads, don’t be fooled by the pricing. Sure, the entry-level iPad is just $499, but who buys the cheapest model? The real pricing starts at $599 (32GB) or $699 (64GB) and tops out at $849 (64GB + 3G). That’s before you begin paying for the additional accessory cables and kits, plus the apps, plus the monthly wireless service if you opt for that. Before you know it, the little iPad is costing you $1,000-$2,000 per year. Yikes! If that admission ticket seems a little pricey, here’s a solumn warning…

I believe actually holding an iPad in your paws and using it is an awesome experience. So far, every journalist and commentator who has actually touched one of these tablets says they are definitely getting one. So if you aren’t really sure the iPad is right for you, make sure you do not touch it. Try not to go near it. Try not to look at it. Apple’s marketing describes the new iPad tablet as “magical.” Here’s the real magic: Anyone who touches an iPad, wants an iPad.

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