Saturday, January 30, 2010

Apple iPad: No camera, by Design. And that's a good thing!

So everybody and his aunt have their netherwear in a knot about the iPad's putative shortcomings. Complaints about the iPad run the gamut from "meh", "lame", "no camera", "no flash", "no SD card", "no USB", and a whole lot more. One is reminded of the geek response to the introduction of the original iPod.

"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame." Thus wrote Rob Malda alias Commander Taco of the geek blog Slashdot, on October 23, 2001.

This estimation of the iPod's value is now the stuff of legend. It is frequently cited as an example of how projections of the value of new technologies can be way off. In particular, it is suggested that very technically oriented people tend to under- or over-estimate the value of consumer-oriented technologies because of their inability empathize with ordinary, computer illiterate or -phobic people. Or people, period.

Let's just address the Matter of the Missing Camera. The iPhone has a camera today, and the iPad is in some ways a grown up iPhone, especially the model with built-in 3G connectivity. If the iPhone could have a camera, doesn't it make sense for its older brother to have one too? Duhhhh! Or so the reasoning goes.

A little bit of reflection will reveal that the iPad can never be a grown up iPhone even with all the of the iPhone's guts inside it. Let's try a little Design Thought Experiment.

Scenario 1. Imagine the iPad with a lens on its back, like the iPhone. This would be the usual location for a lens in order to use the device to shoot stills or video. Is the iPad's form factor ergonomically suitable for such an activity? Absolutely not. The iPad would make a very inconvenient camera or camcorder: it's just too big and has the wrong shape for such an activity. A camera or camcorder needs to be small and convenient to hold in one's hand or palm while one shoots.

Scenario 2. Now imagine the iPad with a lens on the front, like on a MacBook (or most laptops on the market today). This would be the required lens location to use with Skype or other videoconferencing tool. Let's consider the ergonomics of this: Where would one hold the iPad for a Skype video conference? Would one hold it up with both hands in front of the face? How long before the arms begin to grow weary? Okay, maybe one could hold it on one's lap; but then, how long can one keep looking down at the camera before one's neck begins to hurt? Perhaps one might want to use it in bed, with ones knees bent up and propping up the iPad. In any one of these cases, will one's arms ever be free to do anything else like taking notes?

A camera may be a fun thing to have at least initially, but Apple's usability tests likely revealed that camera use on iPad prototypes rapidly tapered off. Placing a camera on the iPad is at best marginally useful to a very small fraction of iPad users. Apple's designers have thought through this matter very well -- a camera on the iPad is a frill that may show up in a future version because the Unthinking Masses (including Design Students, sadly) demand it. But for now it makes little sense for the target market.

Now is a camera nice to have? Sure! But why stop there? There are practically an endless number of features and functions that are nice to have. Design is a compromise; one is finally compelled to make choices else the resulting product will end up costing too much, being too heavy, occupying too much space, requiring extra careful handling, being too complex and inconvenient to use, etc. The designer is compelled to carefully explore a variety of user and use scenarios -- use cases, in the technical jargon -- and then narrow down on a few appropriate ones. Apple decided that the iPad -- at least at launch -- was not meant for geeks, but was to be a simple appliance easily usable by (and providing some level of delight to) just about anybody, and targeting just a few key functions. Apple stripped the iPad down to its essence based on their targeted use cases. In design, one cannot please all of the people even some of the time. Frequently, one settles for satisfying many of the people most of the time.

I suspect there is a substantial market for the iPad in precisely its current form. It may not satisfy the most vociferous among the whiners, but there are going to be a large enough number of very happy users.

This is not to say that the iPad will not "evolve" -- a misnomer, because unlike with nature, changes wrought in artifacts are intentional, by design -- with time. Features may be added (or removed) to meet the demands of users others than those originally intended. We saw this happen with the Macintosh. At its introduction in 1984, the Macintosh was presented as an appliance packaged in a single box with a tiny 9", black and white screen, a single floppy drive, 128KB of RAM and no expandability. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who had taken over the Mac project from Jef Raskin, envisioned the Mac as a "computer for the rest of us", meaning computer illiterates and computer phobes, not geeks; he wanted to keep the device very simple. Other classes of users liked the good things about the Mac but wanted all the negatives removed. Eventually, Steve Jobs was ejected from his position and left Apple. Soon after, the Macintosh II was introduced, which looked like a more conventional PC, with a box containing the business end of the machine and a separate CRT monitor sitting on top of it. The Mac II came with a much larger display, had the capacity to display color, included a hard disk drive, and provided expansion slots: practically everything that an experienced PC user might seek. While all of this was wonderful in many ways, the Macintosh was no longer the simple, easy to comprehend and use appliance it was meant to be.

The iPad, in a very significant way, is the Macintosh 128K rebooted -- the simple appliance that fits Steve Jobs vision: it is the spiritual inheritor of the 128K. And that's not a bad thing at all. From the iPad, will spring forth the "iPad II": the spiritual equivalent of the Macintosh II, to satisfy the clamoring and cravings of the geek crowd. But won't necessarily make the iPad II superior to the simple appliance that Steve Jobs launched last Wednesday.


BruxB said...

Hey Murli! Long time no speak.

I appreciate your comments on the camera but I did feel that optimizing the iPad camera for skype could have been a big win in terms of innovating the teleconference market for users outside the high tech workplace.

With a simple stand to prop the ipad up like a monitor or picture frame one could sit at a table or desk and chat face to face with a family member as far away as you please.

This would be a necessary specialization because all of your previous points about attempting to take pictures or video with the device are quite valid. And the stand would also be necessary for the same reasons.

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