Unlike most of my tech-journalism brethren, I'm not at the circus in Las Vegas this week. Neither is Apple
So far, there are no hints about when curtain will rise on the next Steve Jobs Show. But it was around this time last year (on January 4, 2010, to be exact) that somebody at the company leaked word of a coming tablet-related product unveiling. That January 27 event turned out to be the coming-out party for the iPad. So even though Apple is avoiding Las Vegas again this year, the company is the "elephant in the convention center" at CES, as CNBC's Julia Boorstin put it yesterday -- in part because everyone assumes that Apple is working on, and will soon preview, the next version of the iPad.
There's little doubt that the iPad 2 is coming: Apple refreshes its core products on a roughly annual schedule, and it's the iPad's turn next. On top of that, Apple never stops with the first iteration of a product -- Version 2 is usually baking before Version 1 even ships. On this point, I'm going to haul out a quote from my January 29, 2010, column about the iPad. This is from Chuck Goldman, the founder and former CEO of Boston-based mobile app development house Apperian, who formerly ran the professional services division at Apple. With any product launch, Goldman said:
There are 400 things that Apple wants to do, but they can only do four in the time allowed, so they have got to decide what feature set is going to ship with Version 1. And they usually do a pretty good of getting a product to market with enough features for the Apple fanboys and the early adopters to want the thing. But you have to know that someone in Cupertino has got the roadmap for this product pretty much planned out. What they do is, they listen to customers, and they are really good at aggregating that customer feedback and working it into the roadmap, and that's how they create versions 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.
So, what might be on the roadmap for the iPad 2? If I knew, there'd probably be police knocking on my door. But if history and Moore's Law offer any guidance at all, then the device will have more memory than the first-generation iPads, and a faster processor. It's also a fairly good bet that the next iPad will have a front-facing camera for two-way video calling. (My guess is that AT&T saw that empty iSight slot in the first-generation iPad prototypes and freaked out -- but things may have improved. At any rate, AT&T didn't veto the recent addition of two-way video calling over 3G to Skype's iPhone app.) Better speakers would not be an unexpected addition, nor would a dual-mode communications chip that allows the device to pull wireless data from both CDMA and GSM networks.
Somewhat less likely is the addition of a rear-facing camera for serious videography and photography. (I think Apple still sees the iPad mainly as a tool for consuming media content rather than creating it. But who knows, they could fork the product and come out with both an iPad 2 and an "iPad 2 Pro" with a rear-facing camera for $150 more.) I also think it would make sense if, as rumor has it, the iPad 2 came with a narrower bezel and borrowed a few design tweaks from the iPhone 4, such as the flat back.
But those are just the easily predictable changes. Here's my list of suggestions for a few less obvious improvements. These are changes that would not only address shortcomings in the first-generation iPad, but give the iPad 2 some extra pizazz and help it stay ahead of the competition.
1. Haptic Feedback.
This is my second-favorite feature on the Galaxy Tab, Samsung's 7-inch tablet device. (My first favorite is the rear-facing camera, but we already covered that.) When this option is turned on, the whole device vibrates briefly and subtly every time your finger taps a soft key, giving you a bit of confirmation. Unlike just about everyone else I know, I like to type on my iPad, and I've gotten pretty good at it. But the secret, I've found, is that you have to watch where you're typing. If you take your eyes off your fingers for one second, your hands are likely to slide off-target, creating gobbledygook on screen. Haptic feedback would help prevent this and make something like touch typing conceivable on the iPad.
2. Batteries that Recharge Faster.
Battery life isn't an issue with the iPad -- I regularly go two or three days between charges. That's a pretty remarkable fact, when you think about how long we've been living with laptops that die after three or four hours of use. But if your iPad battery meter is in the red zone and you need to plug it in, you'd better be sure you aren't going to need it for the next few hours -- the recharge time on this puppy is loooong. (In tests of the iPad 3G, Gizmodo found that it took between 2.5 hours and 7.6 hours to reach an 80 percent charge, depending on the method used.) I know recharge time is a simple matter of physics: the bigger the batteries, the longer they take to recharge, and the iPad has two huge 3.75-volt Lithium-ion polymer jobs. But if Apple could figure out a way to speed this up -- or to put smaller batteries into the iPad 2 without sacrificing battery life -- that would be nifty.
3. I Don't Care If It's Thinner, But Make It Lighter, Please.
When I picked up an iPad for the first time, my first reaction was "This thing is sweet." My second reaction was "This thing is heavy." Those giant batteries, plus the thick slab of glass over the iPad's display, contribute to an overall weight of 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg; the 3G model is 0.05 kg heavier). I like the fact that the iPad feels substantial -- it would be pretty awful it felt bendy or plasticky. But it's too heavy to hold in one hand for extended periods without muscle fatigue. Trimming half a pound would help enormously.
4. An Ergonomic Grip or Kickstand.
My parents got an iPad recently, and over the holidays I had a chance to watch them using it. My dad doesn't like to grip the gadget from the side, as his thumb tends to stray into the touchscreen area, causing havoc. So he puts the iPad in the little kickstand my mom bought and holds that. But that's precarious, because the kickstand is intended as a prop for the iPad on a table or desktop, not as a handle or grip; the iPad isn't secured in it but merely rests through gravity, so it could fall out if he let it tip. (There are special iPad holders designed for what my dad was doing; I should probably get him one.) Anyway, all of this got me stewing again about Apple's occasional tendency to favor form over function. I've said this before, but there's something wrong when a company releases a handheld product that cannot be properly held without third-party accessories. The iPad is not an iPhone, and it can't be gripped like one. The iPad 2 should either have some kind of built-in grip -- maybe a rubberized section on the sides or back? -- or a kickstand like the one on the Sprint EVO 4G. Or it should come with detachable accessories that accomplish the same thing.
5. A Camouflaged 3G Antenna.
Call me a perfectionist, but when I traded in my Wi-Fi iPad for a 3G model last summer, I winced at the way the 3G model's black plastic antenna shield interrupts the otherwise beautiful aluminum rim. Apple should look for a way to fix this in the iPad 2. But if the company has learned anything from the iPhone 4 Antennagate fiasco (another form-over-function mistake) it won't try to use the rim itself as an antenna.
6. A Dual-mode Display for Indoor/Outdoor Use.
Amazon scored a few PR points against Apple with this TV commercial dramatizing the fact that the reflective E Ink screen on its Kindle e-book reader actually gets easier to read in outdoor light, whereas the iPad's transmissive LCD screen dims to a faded scrim. Of course, the Kindle screen doesn't support color or video. But maybe this isn't an either/or situation. San Bruno, CA-based Pixel Qi has developed a color dual-mode LCD screen, already used in the XO Laptop from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, that's both reflective and transmissive. Indoors, the screen looks like a regular LCD. Outdoors, with the backlight off, it looks sort of like a color Kindle. (And as a bonus, it draws 1/5 as much battery power in this mode.) Maybe Apple should give Pixel Qi a call.
There's one new iPad feature that many commentators have asked for, but doesn't actually make sense to me: an iPad-sized Retina display. The iPhone 4's Retina display is a truly remarkable piece of technology, squeezing 640×960 pixels into a 2-by-3-inch space, or 320 pixels per inch. But if you scaled that up to the size of the iPad's 5.75-by-7.75-inch display, you'd have something like 1840×2480 pixels to work with, or nearly 5 megapixels, and that's just ridiculous. It's far more resolution than you need for HD video, and it's more data than you can really stuff through today's wireless pipes or store on today's flash memory chips.
And there's another addition that would be nice, but isn't even worth asking for: the ability to run Flash video and animation on iOS devices. Apple doesn't appear to be anywhere close to a truce with Adobe on this issue. And if Steve Jobs' contention that Flash is a CPU-hog is true, then it doesn't make sense to ask Apple to add more processing power to its mobile gadgets just so Flash can eat it up.
So, there you have my wish list. Watch this space to see how many of my suggestions Apple actually adopts. I scored about 50 percent back in 2008-09 when I gave Amazon some unsolicited advice about how to improve the original Kindle, so I'm optimistic.
More from Xconomy.com:
- What's So Magical About an Oversized iPhone? Plenty -- and There's More to Come
- Apperian Readying "Enterprise App Store" for iPhones and iPads
- The Apple iPad: Three Unanswered Questions
- The iPad May Kill the Kindle, But Amazon Could Still Come Out Ahead: The Only Comparison You Need to Read
- The Apple iPad: Lightning Strikes Cupertino Again
Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can email him at email@example.com, call him at 415-796-3024, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wroush. You can subscribe to his Google Group and you can follow all Xconomy San Francisco stories at twitter.com/xconomysf.
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