Here we are again. Tomorrow is the big day when we will learn what tablet goodness Apple has in store for us. There are rumors aplenty, and fanboy excitement is in the air and everywhere. However, this is usually the time that I like to put on my curmudgeon hat and play a little devil’s advocate. Make no mistake, I will either be pre-ordering or lining up for a new iPad on launch day as I’m already having severe withdrawals after selling my iPad 2 last week. I am heavily invested in Apple’s tablet ecosystem, so it would take something pretty earth shattering for Microsoft to ever lure me away, and Google has absolutely no shot anymore. Somebody should tell Andy Rubin how “doubling down on tablets” worked out for HP. Anyway, as cool as a Retina Display, A5+, more memory and Siri sound, there are a few features I would love to see added to the iPad that I hold little hope of ever seeing, much less seeing tomorrow.
1. The Stylus is Dead, Long Live the Stylus
Most diehard Steve Jobs fans will probably find this to be borderline sacrilegious. Yes, I already know what you are thinking. Why would Apple develop a version of the thing that the iPhone so famously killed? Well, Apple may have freed us from the tyranny of HAVING to use the stylus to operate a resistive screen device (and rightly so), but that didn’t necessarily render it completely useless. If you think I am the only one who feels this way, just do a Google search for “iPad Stylus,” and start counting. That, or try and take ink notes in an app like Notes Plus or Noteshelf with your finger without wanting to gouge your eyes out.
Don’t get me wrong on this point. I’m not suggesting that Apple make a small stylus that somehow docks into the iPad, or that they even include one in the box. Oh, Samsung. It’s a phone. It’s a tablet. It will stop traffic when you hold it to your head. It has a pen! IT’S A PHABLET!!!! I know some people love it, but just felt like using the scissors of a Swiss Army knife to cut, well, anything. Jack of all trades, master of none. At least it looks like Samsung is going to get the tablet version of the Note, and its pen right. Unfortunately, it will still be saddled with Android’s lack of tablet software.
Sorry. Excuse me while I regain my train of thought. As anyone who has tried a few knows that capacitive styli are, by and large, complete disasters. Most of them are a waste of money, and even the good ones aren’t really all that great. However, there is a real need for a high-quality stylus that is widely available to fill this void. There are several popular apps that serve legitimate use cases for the iPad, such as handwritten ink notes and drawings, document markup and annotation, and sketching and design, that would work so much better with a real, full-sized stylus that fits well in the hand like a real pen and just works. You know. That area that Apple excels in. Taking something that no one else can get totally right, and making it into something that everyone wants. Is that so hard, Apple?
Well, unfortunately, it probably is this time. First, any Apple fan is keenly aware of the stubbornness that seems to pervade One Infinite Loop. Steve Jobs declared all out war on the stylus, and many at Apple probably don’t see it as worthwhile to go against that precedent, especially so soon after his passing. Apple has taken steps in some new directions since Tim Cook took the reigns, but I doubt this ground will be covered quite yet.
Second, there would have to be some real commitment put into such a project to pull it off. As I said before, capacitive styli aren’t all that effective, and a lot of that has to do with the limitations of the technology. Capacitive screens just weren’t designed for stylus input. The companies who have tried bundling styli with phones and tablets have failed to gain any traction with them. HTC and even more notably, Samsung, have augmented their pen offerings with technologies that go beyond what a capacitive stylus is capable of, producing the first truly effective pens for capacitive screen devices.
Unfortunately, while they have both proven that it is possible to integrate pen input back into the mobile experience, Samsung and HTC have also probably ended my hope of seeing an Apple stylus in the near future. With Apple’s current war with Samsung, I seriously doubt they will want any part of the “me-too” label that would be slapped on them for releasing a pen of their own right now. If they did want to, it would have to be absolutely killer, and blow the S Pen out of the water. The S Pen is certainly better than the alternatives, but it isn ‘t perfect, so this is possible, but Apple’s window of opportunity is shrinking. It would be difficult and costly, as I’m sure Apple wouldn’t license the same Wacom tech that Samsung uses. If I know Apple, they would want to put their own stamp on the subject, and if anyone can pull this off themselves, in-house, it’s Apple. However, as I said before, it would take a lot of resources, and they probably don’t think it’s worth it.
I don’t care. I still want one, and will continue to hold out hope. However, no matter how much I want one, you won’t catch me alive, dead, or with a gun to my head holding a phablet up to my ear, or even worse, an Android tablet in my hands, with its ill-fitting, overcomplicated OS and almost zero native apps, just to get a decent stylus. No pen, or anything else, is that good. Double down, Andy.
2. Don’t Stop the Music
For me, the iPad is all about apps, both productivity and gaming, with an occasional movie and photo edit session thrown in. I have never kept any music on mine, and have only rarely made use of Home Sharing, iTunes Match, Spotify, or anything else that I could stream music with. I have an iPhone for that, and I use it all the time for listening to music and podcasts.
However, if the iPad had a decent set of speakers, I would probably reconsider that decision. Sure, I could always plug in a set of headphones. That’s what I do with my iPhone. I could also use one of several methods of streaming my music from the iPad to something truly suited for music playback via AirPlay. On the flip side, though, what about all of those speaker docks that are now made, not only for the iPod Touch and iPhone, but the iPad, as well? Obviously, there are enough consumers who want a high quality, but portable way to listen to the tunes on their tablets. Why not give them what they want?
Considering how Apple has marketed the iPad as a mobile entertainment center, I just don’t understand why they haven’t added a decent set of internal stereo speakers yet. Stereo sound is the industry standard for any quality music, movie, or gaming experience, and the iPad has positioned itself as a leader in all of these categories. Besides that, since no one other manufacturer has claimed this turf yet, it’s another area that Apple can plant their flag in and waive it proudly.
Apple had better move on the sound front soon, however. You can bet that with their pricey commitment to Beats Audio, HTC will be launching tablets that exceed what the current iPads are capable of sooner rather than later. If they do, you can bet that the rest of the me-too Android crowd will be right behind them, especially if HTC finds any commercial success with it.
I think there is ultimately more chance of us seeing Apple add integrated stereo sound than a stylus, but unfortunately, I seriously doubt that it will be tomorrow. Maybe next year.
3. Slight of Hand
One of the most under appreciated, but most useful features of iOS 5 is the iPad-specific gestures that Apple added. They add an ease of operation and natural flow to the device that, frankly, the iPhone could certainly benefit from, as well. However, what is stopping Apple from taking things a step further? We’ve heard the rumors of the Home Button’s demise (or at least its alteration) for a couple of years now. Why not go all the way, and add a virtual Home Button and bezel gestures to the iPad?
Well, maybe not that far. To be honest, I actually prefer having the hardware button there, even if it’s just for those rare, but necessary, resets. However, I don’t see why it couldn’t be a little smaller. I’ve seen some convincing mock-ups and renderings with the smaller, oval-shaped Home Button that saves room on the bezel.
Even if it stays the same size, though, there is more than enough room on the iPad’s ample bezel to handle gestures if you don’t want them on screen. For those that don’t want gestures, there is already a setting to turn the on-screen versions of them off. Apple could very easily include another to enable or disable bezel gestures.
To me, anything that can simplify the operation of the iPad is a good thing. While I love using the on-screen gestures, using a four-finger swipe isn’t exactly intuitive for more novice users. I sometimes have to remind myself to use them if I haven’t for a while. Bringing gestures to the bezel would allow Apple to simplify them a bit, while not getting in the way of multi-touch on the screen.
4. Movie Magic
I absolutely LOVE iCloud. For all the complaints and issues that some have had, and Apple’s lack of clear documentation on some fronts, it works perfectly for me. My devices automatically back up every day, device restores are a breeze, all of my pictures are seamlessly synced between my devices, and thanks to iTunes Match, I have my entire music collection everywhere I want it. It’s all good. Well, almost.
Where things break down is when it comes to movies and videos, both of which I want to use on my iPad. If it weren’t for these two items, I would never have to connect any of my iOS devices to a computer. Unfortunately, Apple has not yet given us a native mechanism to transfer video files without iTunes. The ability to sync via WiFi was a helpful addition, but iTunes just feels so dated after getting used to having EVERYTHING else in the cloud (including app saves and complete device restores over the air, for any of you Android fanboys who may feel compelled to tell about how long you have had cloud features built-into the OS. Just sayin.).
It wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t so much iTunes overhead involved. I don’t change movies on my iPad all that often, so on the occasions when I do, it ultimately becomes a lengthy ordeal. Even though I no longer use the computer to sync anything else, iTunes is compelled to force me to download backup copies of EVERY app I have downloaded since my last sync. That is usually a lot of apps, some of which have large file sizes. If I could just simply copy my movies, or move videos that I have taken with my iPhone, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad. But the eternity it takes to sort out all my apps before I can sync is a joke. Come on Apple. FIX THIS.
I’m sure Apple has some solution up their sleeves for this problem. They have made iCloud a major focus in their advertising, so they aren’t going to let this slide forever. We already have the ability to re-download purchased TV Shows, and we have heard rumors of Apple’s negotiations with movie studios. Unfortunately, everything we’ve heard recently is related to the mythical Apple TV (the actual TV, not the hobby), and that is probably still a few months out. In the meantime, a drag-and-drop sync solution to load video files from a computer is badly needed, and would be greatly appreciated.
Again, I’m not holding my breath for tomorrow, but this is more likely than any of my earlier wishes. This is just to obvious a hole to not be filled within the year. It could happen tomorrow. Surprise us, Apple! While you’re at it, why not throw us a bone and let us have an optional Video Stream, to go with our iCloud Photo Streams? Not everyone would want such a bandwidth-hungry beast, but I certainly would. Just give us the option to limit this to upload when using WiFi, and it’s all good.
5. Keys to the Kingdom
The more powerful and mature the iPad and its ecosystem gets, the more the device is used to do “real work.” Despite the prevailing sentiment that the iPad is a consumption-only device, you can get a surprising amount of work done with it, if you just know the right apps to get. I use mine for work on a daily basis. Well, except for right now, when I keep reaching for it only to remember that I sold it in preparation for iPad 3. Waiting is torture, but I digress.
While the iPad’s on-screen keyboard is quite good for what it is, it just can’t compare to a good Bluetooth keyboard with a little space between the keys and a responsive touch. However, while ZAGG and a few others have taken the initiative to build a better mousetrap for the iPad typist, Apple hasn’t given users, developers, or accessory makers all they could yet. The iPad’s keyboard implementation is limited to just the basics. You can’t use the arrow keys in several native iOS apps, bring up or navigate through menus, or homescreens, or really much of anything beyond typing and a few device shortcuts.
In fact, many third party Bluetooth keyboards have more shortcut keys than Apple’s own Bluetooth Keyboard. Really, Apple? REALLY? You can do better than that. A lot better. No matter what you do with your own hardware, at least add the APIs and hooks that developers and manufacturers need to make keyboards easier to use, and the iPad more productive. If you really want to do it right, add the command key shortcuts that your own keyboard lacks (which keeps you from having to re-design the hardware itself, which itself is beautifully done and very reasonably priced). Then, if want to really step up your game, add Magic Trackpad support. Keyboard + Magic Trackpad + AirPlay + huge library of useful apps = Production. Boom.
Will this ever happen? My gut says no, but with so many Fortune 500 companies rolling out the iPad to their employees, and with school systems weighing the options with Apple’s recent textbook initiatives, there is reason to hope. Microsoft’s Windows 8 is a real competitor in the enterprise market in a way that Android probably never will be. Tablets and combo notebooks and ultrabooks running Windows 8 will work with keyboards in ways that users are already used to, right out of the box, which I’m sure Apple is aware of. They really need to address this right now, before Microsoft gets out of the gate with a quick assault on the enterprise that Apple is currently building in-roads to.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Apple shows off some production enhancements tomorrow to beat Microsoft to the punch a bit. If not tomorrow, they had better do it this Fall with iOS 6.
6. Mirror, Mirror
With the iPad 2’s ability to do screen mirroring, first with an HDMI cable, and then wirelessly with the release of iOS 5, it was a no-brainer that gaming would somehow be involved. While a few game developers have given us a glimpse of what is possible with the technology (Real Racing 2 HD, FTW), adoption of HD streaming to the big screen has been slow so far. Standard definition screen mirroring works without any additional programming on the developers part, and works acceptably well for board and turn-based games, as well as less visually intense fare. However, the black bars get old when playing action games or fast-paced titles like Blast, for instance.
Unfortunately, one of the big issues with using wireless for gaming via Screen Mirroring is that tiny bit of lag that is inherent to even a robust wireless connection. Try playing Real Racing 2 HD first with an HDMI cable, and then wirelessly, and you’ll very quickly see what I mean. It can become very difficult to control the game when you have even the slightest hiccups while trying make a turn, for instance.
I even went as far as trying a pair of powerline Ethernet converters to give my Apple TV a wired connection. This did help matters a bit, but my iPad is still wireless, and my router is in the other room, so that tiny bit of occasional stutter is still there. Until Apple figures out how to get around this, in a way that will be easy for users to understand and implement, this will remain just what it has always been- a hobby.
I’m not exactly sure how Apple is going to fix this situation. However, with the rumors of an Apple HD Television coming in the not-too-distant future, and the likely release of an update to the Apple TV we already know and kinda love, I think Apple will announce some improvements to Screen Mirroring and iOS gaming at tomorrow’s event. They have already invested a lot of advertising and marketing into gaming, and this isn’t a market segment you can gain a foothold in by going halfway. Just ask Nintendo. If Apple truly wants to take on Microsoft and Sony for the living room, they need to shore up the gaps in their hobby now, and get ready to hit everyone between they eyes with whatever it is that they have coming later in the year.
So that’s my list, and I’m sticking to it. Well, until tomorrow when Apple will make me and just about every other fan not care about any of the items on this list. At least not for a while. Until then, what do you think of these humble suggestions? What features would you love to see added to the iPad 3? How much hope do you have that we’ll see them?
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