«I think there is a world market for maybe five computers»

Fictional Quote by Thomas Watson

Last weekend, Apple’s iPad went on sale in their retail stores. Coincidentally, my iPod classic (a 6 year old hand-me-down) had recently become nearly unusable due to hard drive errors (I told you this was a bad design years ago). Desiring a new MP3 device, I waddled into the Apple store in Nashua, NH. There were two armed security guards there and a gaggle of gawkers pawing at a table full of iPads. I moved deeper into the store, found an employee with a lot of gray hair (I’m not hip enough for the tattoo’ed set) and obtained a 32GB iPod Touch. Why on Earth would I choose an iPod over the fancy iPad? Let me illuminate the ways.

I want to promulgate an essentialist argument about purpose of three devices: iPad, iPod Touch and the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle (which I received as a Christmas present) is designed as an ebook reader, library and store front. That is, not only can you read books on it, but you can purchase new ones from Amazon and have them immediately downloaded to your device. Additionally, the Kindle comes with free 3G service so that you can access a low-resolution version of the Internet anywhere. This feature alone should scare Apple into a price/feature war with Amazon. Add a decent battery life and a daylight-readable display, you will quickly see that the Kindle’s offering is excellent for those seeking an excellent ebook experience.

Enter the iPad. The iPad has a large color LCD screen and the Apple mobile OS. It does not come with any 3G service, but it does include wifi support. This makes it a large iPod Touch, but without the microphone headphones that come standard with the new Touch models. As a laptop, the iPad needs a keyboard, which is both proprietary and sold separately. As a gaming device, the iPad, with the built-in gyroscope and networking, will offer hours of casual gaming fun, but it won’t kill the traditional gaming consoles. As an ebook reader, it does not compete well against the kindle. The iPad is significantly more expensive and worse on battery life. Also, you may not want to spend more of your time looking at yet another LCD screen for leisure.

The iPad looks a lot like a new kind of netbook. It is a general purpose computer ideally suited for causal computing tasks like web browsing, tweeting, and a game or two. In this capacity, I expect the iPad to meet with moderate success. It is prettier than the other netbooks, if a bit pricier. However, it is extremely portable (although not pocket-portable) and I expect to see iPad proliferate in cafes very soon.

And what of the now lowly iPod Touch? Why would anyone buy this little brother iPad now? There are two compelling features of the newer Touch models: size and the microphone headset. The Touch is essentially a very small general purpose device. As an MP3 player, I find it much harder to use than the older iPod classic, the iPod Nano and especially the Shuffle. Those devices are single-purposed: they play music and their interface is bent to this single task. Those devices are excellent. Don’t believe me? Take an iPod Touch and try to get it to play a random selection of music. First, you have to hit the only button on the device. Then you use the touch pad to “unlock” the UI. Then you search for the button labelled “Music”. Try not to get confused with the iTunes icon, which is what you’d click on a Mac OS X machine. Then you hit the Music button at the bottom only to get (perhaps) a list of songs. If you don’t see a list of songs, you must press the “Songs” icon at the button of the app. Scroll to the top of this list and you’ll see an area called Shuffle. It might occur to you to then press in the “Shuffle” area. Why no button? Buttons afford pressing. I though the Apple UI guys where supposed to be good at this kind of thing. If you get through all this, you’ll get some music. And what if you want to skip ahead to a new song? If the Touch as gone to sleep, you might find it hard to get back to the one screen that has the song forward control (hint, your Touch needs to be upright, not on its side).

Try this same set of tasks on the other iPods and you’ll see that those devices are optimized for playing and managing music.

This is all to say that I didn’t buy the Touch as a music player and that I do not believe that it is a music player at all. It’s the tiniest netbook on the market. I can and do actually read web sites with this thing. I can check my yahoo mail with it. I even use Skype on it. That’s right, Skype. At least in my house within range of my wifi, I have a cheap iPhone (itself a netbook/phone hybrid).

Where does this leave our three devices? For my money, the Kindle is without peer for reading ebooks. As a netbook, it’s not very good (but that is by design). The iPad is great for those looking for a netbook with great screen real estate. The Touch is a netbook for those who put a premium on weight and space. The other iPods are still the kings of portable music devices.

UDPATE: I just learned that I can shake the Touch to change to the next song. Fun UI, I admit, it’s not exactly a visible UI element either.