Is the iPad a game changer? Should I care?

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Before we know what type of repercussions the iPad will have on web design, we first need to figure out if the iPad lives up to the hype.

A game changer?

When Jobs unveiled the iPad, I was in the “That’s it? Just a giant iPod?” camp. Yet, I bought one on its launch date. Why? Because during the few weeks between the announcement and the launch, I realized I should have thought the other way around: “Damn! the iPhone was a mini iPad the whole time!” Nicely done Mr. Jobs…

If you look at it this way, it all makes sense: Apple’s foray into the cellphone market was first met with a lot of skepticism, mainly because it was quite a drastic departure from their core business (ie. “Apple should stick to computers, they don’t know how to make phones”). But what if they’ve been making mini iPads all along? What seemed odd then seems freaking genius in retrospective.

Some smart people like Dave Winer or Shea Bennett don’t believe the iPad is a game changer, some even think you’re a tool if you believe so. Well, I guess I’m a tool… Because I’m certain the iPad is a game changer. But to see that, you have to go passed the hardware though. The game changer is not the hardware. What makes the iPad special is that it creates a new interaction model between the user and the device, and it redefines what a computers is supposed to be for.

A lot of very opinionated people seem to be concerned about the openness of the platform and its bias towards consumption as opposed to content creation. I think it’s bullshit. I never expected to stop using Photoshop and TextMate on my Mac Pro comes April 4th, and I don’t think the iPad can brainwash users into docile passive consumers all by itself. The iPad is just a tacit acknowledgment from Apple that most people don’t care that much about computers in the first place and just need a giant iPod. Apple went after consumers with music players and phones, and they just moved on to the next logical (and last) piece of the puzzle: computers.

That fact alone is a game changer.

Most angry geeks are just disappointed that Apple is shifting its focus further away from their own needs. Their anger comes from denial. They refuse to admit that Apple has moved on. They don’t like to be relegated to the role of second class citizen.

Personally, as long as Apple doesn’t stop making Macs (knock on wood…), I’m ok. Plus, I think creative people will find new ways to create with the iPad, some really cool apps like SketchBook Pro (first app I bought) or Mixr are already popping left and right…

So yeah… I believe the iPad is a game changer, so I bought one on the day it came out and started playing with it to experience first hand how iPad users are going to interact with the websites I build.

Should we build iPad specific websites?

Some of the implications are obvious: no Flash, no hover state, both portrait and landscape orientation, etc… Some others are only obvious once you hold the iPad in you hands… For instance, the fact that the iPad resizes websites on the fly to make them fit on the screen (that freaked me out when I first found out, but I haven’t read anyone complaining about it. Am I the only one so anal about pixel perfection?). What became really obvious to me after a few days of use though was that the iPad really does introduce a new interaction model. And as web designer, I just can’t ignore that. It’s not hard to notice how some iPad apps provide a vastly more enjoyable experience than their website counterparts. But I don’t think it’s a native app vs. web app issue though. The superior experience comes from the fact that the iPad’s user interaction model was taken into account during the native apps design process, not their website counterparts.

We need to think forward and start adding to our sites enhancements that emulate the functionality found in those native apps. The key though is to think further than “iPad specific” enhancements. Something like “touchscreen specific” enhancements. It’s not about hardware, it’s about software. For now (and probably quite a while), the end result is the same, but by thinking in terms of user interaction, we’ll future proof the enhancements we implement.

In short: iPad specific websites? No. Touch screen specific enhancements? Hell yes…

Hopefully, we’ll eventually get a new media type for this type of device… in 10 years ;) For now, I’m just going to use an updated version of CSS Overdrive (not publicly available yet, I’ll update this post when it is, and you can subscribe to the mailing list if you want to be notified).

Filed under: Web Design