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Why the iPad sucks a lot more than it could have done

Ever since I got my iPad in October last year, I've been meaning to write a review. And every time I've tried, I've given up, because I inevitably work up a lot of anger and annoyance at how Apple has taken what could have been an almost perfect product and turned it into something that sucks. Or at least, it sucks a lot more than it could have, if Apple, which used to be a nice company, hadn't been so extremely paranoid about controlling their users. To explain why I feel this way, I'll give a very brief recap of what I consider to be the most important part of the Unix philosophy:
This is the Unix philosophy: Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.
-Doug McIlroy, inventor of pipes

Essentially, it's about writing programs in such a way that others can make use of them. It's about making sure each programmer doesn't have to come up with their own solution to every common problem. And, perhaps most importantly, it's about allowing users to combine programs to achieve things neither program could do on their own.

As a PhD student, I keep a large collection of research papers in pdf format, and I want to able to read those same papers both at my laptop, and at my office computer. Thanks to Dropbox and Skim, I can do that very easily. Of course it doesn't have to be Dropbox and Skim, it could be any file-syncing program and any pdf reader, but the point is that each program does one thing, and does it well. Dropbox syncs my files, Skim displays my pdfs, and they can work together because they can access the same file system.

Dropbox syncs, Skim displays. Life is good.

When I bought my iPad, I imagined it would be great for reading pdfs, and that I would be able to set up a syncing solution similar to the one I use between my computers. Unfortunately, this is not quite as straightforward as it could have been. The problem is that iPad apps don't get direct access to the file system. For example, you can't download a file and just put it somewhere on you iPad, you always have to download it to a specific app. That file will then belong to that app, and the only way you can open it from another app is if those apps have been written to talk to each other.

In my example with the pdfs, this means that my pdf reader (I use GoodReader) cannot just be a reader, it also needs to be able to obtain pdfs, as it can't simply access files downloaded by other programs. As it happens, GoodReader has been written to talk to Dropbox, but until the latest version of GoodReader came out about two weeks ago, that didn't improve the situation very much. You could import files from Dropbox into GoodReader, but you had to manually select and import them, so you could hardly call it syncing. Those files were then copied over to GoodReader's part of the file system, which meant that if I for example made some notes in a pdf, there were no easy way to sync those changes back to my computer.

Two weeks ago: Dropbox could get files from your computer, GoodReader could get files from
Dropbox, but you couldn't put them back (at least not that I knew of).

With the newest version of GoodReader, this problem is actually solved, thanks to the Dropbox-enabled sync feature it now includes. However, this doesn't detract from my point, which is that Apple has made the iPad into a far less capable device than it could have been, and they did that by violating the Unix principle of letting programs work together. Instead of having separate programs for unrelated tasks, such as syncing files and reading pdfs, you need to have a program that can do both. This makes life more complicated for developers, and in turn gives users less freedom to combine programs in ways the developers didn't think of. It's fine to have "an app for that", but if we also need to have an app for every possible combination of this and that, things are starting to get silly.

Now: Fairly painless sync is possible with a combination of GoodReader and Dropbox.

Finally, let me point out that this is in no way meant as criticism of Dropbox or GoodReader, it's just an example of how Apple has crippled the iPad. I am also aware that Dropbox comes with a pdf reader, but this feature is not as good as GoodReader, and GoodReader's sync feature isn't quite as automated and nice as Dropbox is on my Mac. And neither should they have to be, in fact there's no reason in the first place for a syncing app to include a pdf reader, or a pdf reader to include sync. Also, the illustrations in this article were created in Adobe Ideas and emailed to myself, as that is simply the easiest way of moving files off of an iPad.

-Tor Nordam


Is there a reason for it?
Tor,  19.02.11 13:34

But I suppose from a business perspective, it's better to have N2 apps than N apps in the app store.

Are,  19.02.11 15:09

The sad fact is that Apple doesn't care much about you or me - they care about the mainstream and about bulding simple, elegant user experiences. "File system" - taste that expression. It's not for the everyday user who wants to browse the web and view video.

Adding in flexibility makes creating good user experiences for unskilled users more difficult, and might even make the ecosystem generate less money (for instance by making it possible to download movies to the iPad via bittorrent). Thus Apple isn't very interested in making the iPad a good general computing platform - it's at #14 or something on their list of priorities.

And that is one of the reasons why I personally prefer Android :)
Camilla,  19.02.11 15:19

That does not mean I cannot work with a file system.
Tor,  19.02.11 15:20

How can anything be more elegant than the command line?

Are,  19.02.11 15:26

Camilla: Then you're too skilled to be in my definition of "unskilled" :)

Tor: Ask Steve ;)
Camilla,  28.02.11 09:39

This time from Charlie Brooker.