January 26th, 2010


The incredible iPad

As the tech-savvy amongst you will know, Apple is set to make a major new product announcement tomorrow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Most observers have guessed that Steve Jobs will be unveiling Apple's new tablet computer, and I can confirm that this is indeed the case.

How do I know? Because, since early December, I've been one of a tiny group of privileged iPad beta-testers. The day before I left for Japan, a high-security van -- the kind normally used for delivering cash to banks -- drew up at my house, and I signed for a package about the size of a pizza box, elegantly decorated with splashes of paint, the Apple logo, and the word "iPad". I also had to sign a non-revelation agreement, but since the final date for my period of public silence was listed as January 25th (Apple originally planned to unveil the iPad today), I'm free to speak now. This will all become public knowledge tomorrow anyway.

So, where to begin? The first thing to say is what an incredible machine! If I hadn't been using this gadget myself for the past two months, I truly wouldn't believe its specification possible. Imagine an iPod Touch with a ten-inch screen, running Mac OSX 10.5, and featuring a powerful projector that lets you blow up whatever's on the screen to a bright wall-projection which can rival, for resolution and brilliance, a cinema showing a 70mm film print.

Above you see me using the iPad as a Kindle (the text on the screen is The Book of Jokes), but its abilities so outstrip Amazon's device that it's not even funny. The Apple iPad, for instance, not only shows you the text of a book, but reads it to you. It also has what Apple calls "active catch-up"; if you lose your place in the book, or need a recap, or don't understand the plot, the iPad (in a soothing voice supplied by critic Frank Kermode) gets you up to speed, reminding you what's been happening, and what everything means. It's the semantic version of GPS: you need never be lost in a text again!

But that's just the beginning of the iPad's capabilities. It doesn't stop at reading; this machine can write too! I don't just mean via its touch-screen keyboard (though that's a vast improvement on the stabby, haphazard typing experience of the iPhone / iPod, of course). No, the iPad can actually compose. At the touch of a button marked "create text", the machine will generate any text required, from a blog entry to a technical report, a novel or a poem. Apple has developed a system of "predictive semantics" which learns as it goes along, so it pays to write a few things by your own hand first, just so the machine can get a grasp of your style and your recurrent concerns. After a month or so watching me write, the iPad grasped that I love to use the literary technique known as "lying"; to be honest, it's writing this entry for me now.

There are other powers hidden in the incredible iPad that you probably won't believe until you get your hands on one yourself; for instance, if you can tuck your bum onto the ten-inch tablet and hit the right button, the tablet computer readily transforms into a cross between a hovercraft and a flying carpet. You know how I claimed to have flown to and from Japan via a Finnair Airbus A330? Well, I can now reveal that I went on the iPad, whooshing merrily along a mile or so above Siberia. It was cold, but beggars -- and beta testers -- can't be choosers.

As for the repercussions of all this, we'll have to wait and see how they unfold when the machine goes public. Apple is anticipating big sales; they expect to build ten million iPads in the first year alone. Not everybody will be happy if this machine succeeds, though; travel agents and airlines, literary critics and authors -- not to mention cinema chains -- will all be joining Amazon and Microsoft, crossing their fingers and hoping fervently that each and every Apple iPad crashes, sooner than later, into a mountain.