The iPad turns five today. That’s five years of reading emails at breakfast on slabs of glass and aluminum, five years of snuggling up with Netflix. Five years of wondering what the hell we were thinking when we first heard about this subtly transformative device. Five years!
Nearly two-and-a-half million people have feasted their eyes on former Gizmodo writer Adam Frucci’s dissenting opinion, “8 Things That Suck About the iPad.” Among his complaints were the facts that the original iPad didn’t have Flash, didn’t work on T-Mobile, and didn’t have a very good name. All of those things were true! But it was impossible to see how beside the point they really were, and how the iPad manage to just sort of melt into modern-day life.
The technology has become so effortlessly useful, it’s easy to forget about that time we all thought that Apple was crazy for peddling a giant iPhone for many hundreds of dollars. So many concerns and worries loomed large at the time, but they’re downright laughable in hindsight. Here’s a sampling.
Back in 2010, the iPhone lacked Flash. Then the iPad lacked Flash. What was Apple doing?! A year later, Adobe pulled the plug on mobile Flash and admitted that HTML5 was “good enough.” Today, Flash is nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be. Why? Steve Jobs laid out his reasoning in a blog post pegged to the iPad launch. “Flash was created during the PC era—for PCs and mice,” he wrote. “But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards—all areas where Flash falls short.”
What was dumb about bemoaning the lack of Flash didn’t just amount to underestimating a Flash-free iPad. (Heck, iPhones didn’t have Flash either, and people were already nuts about that device.) Doubting Apple’s decision to conform to Adobe’s technology amounted to ignoring the fact that PC technology wouldn’t seamlessly translate to mobile computing. In retrospect, it seems equivalent to wondering why the Ford Model T didn’t have a coal-powered steam engine.
Remember how everybody flipped out about the name “iPad”—even before it was officially the name of Apple’s tablet? We did. But imagine if it had been called the iSlate, or iTablet, iTabloid, or just iTab.
Besides, the technology industry is full of stupid names. We’re talking about a world where a company named Yahoo! is worth over $40 billion and one called eBay is worth $60 billion. It’s not because of their whimsical names borne from some late 90s delusion of hipness. Tech companies succeed because they make good products.
The technology that makes the iPad purr remains impressively unimpressive. The guts really were—and are—not all that different from that of an iPhone, including that crazypants touchscreen keyboard that everybody thought they would hate. Well, it turns out Apple was right about this one. For those users who hadn’t already gotten used to typing on their iPhone screens, a cottage industry of frankly fantastic portable keyboards emerged for your physical typing needs. Your dad probably loves his.
But that’s kind of missing the point. In hindsight it makes sense that the ever-creative accessory industry would meet the demand of those who wanted physical keyboards. Developers would find creative ways to build apps that didn’t need keyboards at all. The introduction of the iPhone was the dawn of a new era of minimalistic design, and the iPad took it one stage further, pushing us towards more gestures and less key-hunting. Now you have to wonder if we’ll ever miss physical keyboards.
The iPad’s size was one of the sticking points at the start, and how it was sort of just a 10-inch phone. Steve Jobs quite famously hated the idea of a 7-inch tablet. Not all tablets—just those ones with screens that were a little bigger than a smartphone but a lot smaller than a laptop. So along comes the 9.7-inch iPad, and man did that confound people. Longtime Gizmodo editor Brian Lam wrote in 2010, “Situated right between a phone and a notebook, the iPad is too big to pocket and too small to do any work on.” Well it was just right for something!
Apple eventually caved and released the iPad Mini, although it looks like Steve Jobs’s disdain for that size was justified. The original 9.7-inch iPad size is still the most popular. That form factor has become the definitive size for a tablet, one that’s big enough to watch movies on but small enough to throw in a tote bag. Although it turns out people love giant phones, the sales numbers prove that if they want an iPad, they want a big one.
This is perhaps the most misunderstood and yet most powerful aspect of the iPad’s existence. At first, people thought the iPad was designed to kill the laptop. But hey guess what. People still buy laptops. “We’ve got a tiger by the tail here,” Jobs said after Apple sold more iPads than MacBooks in 2010. “This is a new model of computing.”
That new model hasn’t amounted to the death of the laptop—not yet anyway. It meant the introduction of iPads where MacBooks wouldn’t go.
It’s pretty awkward to curl up on the couch with a laptop. There are a million other unexpected and even unimaginable uses for iPads, moments when we never knew we wanted a bigger screen than a smartphone or a smaller form factor than a laptop.
Like a toaster oven, many of us keep an iPad around for very specific use cases. The gadget’s made itself indispensable, if only because it’s perfect for one thing or another. For me, that something is following a recipe when I’m cooking. For my mom, it’s cruising Facebook. For my dad, well, Dad’s holding out for the iPad Pro. Bless his heart.
Image by Michael Hession