Those who hailed Apple's tablet, the iPad, as the future of computing seem to have forgotten about one little thing: the present.
While it's conceivable that it's the first example of a fundamental shift away from traditional computing towards a world in which we spend less time ministering to, and more time using our computers, Apple still positions the iPad as something that plugs into your PC or Mac.
Article continues below
After all, most people use their PCs just for email, browsing the web and knocking out the odd document; the iPad's pretty good at all of that. And the trickle of iPad-optimised applications from third-party developers, sure to turn into a torrent in the months to come, is already demonstrating that the strength of the iPad is its ability to turn into any one of a million different devices simply by dropping 59p or more on an app.
The simple and regrettable answer, however, is that the iPad just isn't ready yet to be the sole computer for almost anyone.
It starts as soon as you get it out of the box; it's useless until you plug it into a computer running iTunes. OK, you think; I'll just go round to a friend's house to complete that first stage and then I'll be on my way. Sadly, no. Here we'll discuss the limitations of the iPad as a primary computer, and show some ways in which those limitations can be minimised.
Storage capacity is a bit of a canard; sure, 16, 32 or 64GB – the iPad's three capacity options – doesn't sound like much to traditional computer users, but it might be perfectly adequate for those who would seek to depend solely on the iPad.
If all you're doing is email, browsing the web and interacting with cloud-based services such as Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter, you're barely using any local storage.
Music and movies
For most of us, the stuff that eats up space is music and videos, which brings us to the next problem. In order to get existing media onto an iPad, you have to sync it from an iTunes library; there's no way to copy a CD onto it directly, for example.
This might not be a problem for someone who has never owned a computer before – they could simply choose to purchase music, audiobooks, TV shows and movies, and subscribe to podcasts, directly from the iTunes Store on the iPad – but don't buy an iPad thinking you'll be able to transfer your existing collection of physical media.
Buying stuff directly onto your iPad raises another concern, however. Every time you sync an iPad with a PC or a Mac, its configuration and contents are backed up to that host computer, but if you try to use an iPad stand-alone, there's no way to back it up; if you damage it or it gets stolen, you'll lose all the media you've bought.
iPad for office tasks
The iPad's actually pretty good at office tasks, thanks to Apple's iWork suite of apps. Keynote, Pages and Numbers – $9.99 each, currently only available in the US store – are genuinely competent applications, but there are two major problems.
The first is that it's tricky to get files onto and off the iPad; files aren't synced from your PC or Mac as you might expect, and you have to instead copy and convert going each way through a clumsy iTunes interface. It's possible to open attachments from emails at least, though not all file types and apps are supported yet.
You can email documents from these apps, but only Pages allows you to convert its documents to Microsoft Office-compatible files as you do so, which could prove problematic when collaborating. And because there's no central file system, you can't move files – with the exception of images stored in the Photos app – between different applications.
Worse, there's no system-level framework for printing from the iPad. Some printer manufacturers have created apps for the platform that let you print pictures from the Photos app to some of their higher-end, networked printers, but Apple doesn't currently let third parties access the documents held in other apps. You can't just plug a printer in; you need a PC or Mac to print from.
Indeed, you can't really plug in any peripherals. Apple does make adaptors that let you connect cameras to copy your photos, but that's it. (Actually, some have reported that the USB version will let you use a keyboard or USB headset, but officially, the only other peripheral that Apple supports is a Bluetooth keyboard.) There's no built-in webcam, and no support to add an external one.
The iPad is even compromised in some of the things it claims to do well. Though it's a phenomenal web browser, its lack of support for many media plug-ins, most notably Flash, means you will miss out on some web content.
Most sites delivering video are transitioning to offering different players for their content, and the iPad even has a YouTube app, but that still leaves some sites that will break.
Short of remotely controlling a PC or Mac on the iPad's screen, there's just no way round this; happily, future developments with HTML5, and the burgeoning adoption of the iPhone OS platform, is likely to coerce sites into reducing their dependence on Flash.
You need to apply iPad system updates through iTunes on a PC or Mac, too.
There's no doubt that the iPad has tremendous potential, and it does most of what the majority of us want from a computer. As it stands, though, it's most definitely a peripheral, not a computer in its own right.