The Chair

Even the chair on the stage was the same.

Yesterday’s iPad 2 introduction felt like a repeat of last year’s event for the original iPad. Same place. Same pace and structure for the presentation: a brief prelude of statistics showing how well Apple is doing company-wide; a positioning statement for where the iPad fits, why it exists; the reveal of the product; the specs; a tour of the system software; and, then, some demos of a few impressive iPad applications from Apple that are available for just $4.99 in the App Store.

Delightfully, the host was the same as last year, too.

(Have you ever noticed that Steve Jobs is not introduced at Apple’s events? Music plays while the audience fills the room. (Well-chosen popular rock, some new, some old, often Dylan. Now, it’s all Beatles, all the time. It’s as though Apple now treats the Beatles catalog as the company’s official soundtrack.) Eventually, a few minutes before the start of the show, there’s an announcement asking everyone to silence their phones. Then, one or two more songs, and then there simply is no next song. A few seconds later, Jobs strides out, unheralded.)

One difference between this year and last is that Jobs’s presence was not expected. The ovation that greeted him yesterday was loud, almost raucous. We were, simply, happy to see him.

The biggest difference, though, was this: last year Apple didn’t yet understand the iPad. They knew it was good. They knew it had potential. But they didn’t know what it was. They had a sense that in the conceptual space between an iPhone and a MacBook there was uncharted, fertile territory. And they set for themselves a wise metric: the iPad would only succeed if it could do some of the same things a Mac can do, but do them better. If it wasn’t better in several important ways for several common tasks, it would not succeed.

What they didn’t know last year was how people would use it, for real. They know now.

Last year’s flagship app demos were the iWork suite: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. The message was: the iPad is like a PC, just different — word processors and spreadsheets have been the standard answer to “Why would you buy this computer?” going all the way back to VisiCalc in the early ’80s.

This year, Jobs stated explicitly and repeatedly that the iPad is not a PC. Jobs’s repeated categorization for the iPad: post-PC device. And the demos this year were of a slightly different tone. iWork is, well, work. Making movies and music, though? That’s play.

iMovie for iPad seems like the realization of Randy Ubillos’s vision for movie editing software. Seldom does an app as popular and useful as iMovie get a genuine “let’s just start over from scratch” redesign like iMovie did on the Mac several years ago. And the current Mac version is, without question, a major improvement over the initial redesigned version. This iPad version, though, feels like the real deal, and makes the Mac version seem like the imitator. The concept, visual layout, and intended workflow are naturally suited to touch. This is what the new iMovie is supposed to be.

And GarageBand for iPad — impressive doesn’t even begin to describe it. There are a bunch of musical instrument apps for the iPhone and iPad, and they’ve been used to great effect by many musicians. (Insert your own smirking mockery of those who insist the iPad is only for consumption and not creation here.) GarageBand for iPad is of a different scope. This is Apple taking the idea of the iPad as a musical instrument and tackling that idea with the full strength of its collective creativity. It is the most iPad-ish iPad app I’ve ever seen. Good iPad apps can make the iPad feel not like a device running an app, but like an object that is the app. GarageBand isn’t a musical app running on an iPad. It turns an iPad into a musical instrument. The interfaces for each GarageBand instrument are exquisitely skeuomorphic. Every control — every button, every switch, every slider — is custom designed. The keyboard’s use of the accelerometer to detect how hard you hit the keys seems impossibly accurate for a device that doesn’t have a pressure-sensitive display. If anything, in practice, it worked better than the on-stage demo implied. GarageBand isn’t the iPad doing something better than the Mac. This is the iPad doing something new, things that couldn’t be done on the Mac.

Jobs seemed particularly ebullient throughout, but never more so than when discussing the iPad’s competition. There’s a palpable sense among everyone from Apple I spoke to yesterday that this is the biggest and most important thing in the history of the industry. The this isn’t just the iPad. It’s the whole iOS ecosystem — iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, the App Store, the 200 million iTunes Store account holders, the Apple retail store empire where customers get to touch these things that must be touched to be understood. But the iPad best exemplifies the advantages Apple draws from these things.

Last year, Apple’s take on the iPad seemed to be that they believed they had something good. This year, they seem to know they have something enormous. Presumably, there’s an A5-based dual core iPhone 5 coming in June and a corresponding new iPod Touch and who knows what else coming in September, but Apple is already, a mere two months into it, calling 2011 “The Year of the iPad 2”. Apple sells every new product hard, but they’re not prone to that sort of hyperbole.

In his conclusion, Jobs said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough.” That’s what separates Apple from everyone else, and the iPad epitomizes it. It’s better designed, has more developer support, and it’s cheaper. There are aspects of this that Apple’s competitors seemingly can’t copy — lower prices from economies of scale, amazing battery life, UI responsiveness, build quality.

But there are other things any competitor could copy, easily, but they seemingly don’t even understand that they should, because such things aren’t technical. Take that chair. The on-stage demos of the iPad aren’t conducted at a table or a lectern. They’re conducted sitting in an armchair. That conveys something about the feel of the iPad before its screen is even turned on. Comfortable, emotional, simple, elegant. How it feels is the entirety of the iPad’s appeal.

It’s a shame, almost, that we squandered the term “personal computer” 30 years ago.

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