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Free the iPad!

Listening to Andy Ihnatko & Scott Bourne on a recent PadPundit podcast (www.padpundit.com) reminded me of my #1 wish for the iPad. As I anticipate picking up my own iPad on April 3, I think about what I expect to do with it.

For the most part, especially at first, I expect the iPad to be a larger and more capable device for doing many of the things I now do on my iPod Touch (or, as Andy Ihnatko refers to it, “the iPad Nano”). I share my thoughts (and get the thoughts of others) via email, Twitter, the web, and this blog. I tap the Collective Knowledge of the Universe via Wikipedia, IMDB, dictionary.com, Google, etc. I control my Apple TV and Boxee. I read books and comics, listen to (and view) podcasts, enjoy music, watch TV shows and movies. I play games, of course. (Damn the TWiT crew for starting me on Plants vs. Zombies! I can’t put that one down! And now there’s going to be a version for the iPad, too!) When I have the iPad I hope to do a lot more creating as well, thanks to things like the iWork suite, which are a lot less practical on the small screen of my iPod Touch.

What I don’t do very often at all, however, is sync my iPod Touch to my computer.

Why should I? I carry my entire music library on my 32 GB iPod Touch already, and buy most new additions directly from the iTunes store by wifi. I can’t get to my subscribed podcasts or video library without syncing, so I find myself downloading the podcasts direct as I need them instead of worrying about subscribing, and streaming my videos via Air Video. I buy new apps directly from the App Store without syncing as well.

Syncing takes a significant amount of time — time spent with the iPod Touch plugged into a cable in my office instead of in my hand or at my belt where I may need it. The device has become so essential to me that I don’t want it to be out of action that long. It could sync while I sleep, but with my office in one end of the house and my bedroom in the other, that’s pretty inconvenient if I want to do some insomnia-driven reading or web-surfing. I have chargers all over the house and in my car to keep the juice in the device topped off. So I go weeks at a time without syncing at all.

Andy Ihnatko pointed out on PadPundit #3 that there are really only two reasons one must sync the iPad. First, you cannot update the operating system without it. Second, you cannot back up the device without it. The former problem is only an occasional (but inevitable) occurrence. The second, however, can bite you in the ass without warning.

Not syncing is playing Russian Roulette with your data. I had a reminder of that today when I went to look for a tune I knew was on my iPod Touch — and discovered that I could not find any music there at all except the last three or four songs I’d purchased from the iTunes Store. Yikes! I realized that something had glitched and I frantically wondered how many songs, videos and apps I’d purchased since the last time I’d synced — at least a month back! Fortunately, nothing was really gone — it was a database glitch and it went away as soon as I synced the device. Nothing was lost at all, including my recent purchases. But it reminded me that syncing isn’t just to get data TO my iPod Touch — it is to back up data FROM the machine as well!

Wireless sync and backup would be a welcome thing for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Ideally, I’d like to see the device quietly and automatically sync itself in the background by wi-fi whenever it is:

  1. in wi-fi contact with my office computer via a trusted network,
  2. plugged in so that the syncing won’t drain my battery, and
  3. not otherwise having the processor called upon for immediate tasks.

That would allow the device to sync up painlessly when I am not using it and still be available 24/7, as a good pocket-sized device should.

That would be sufficient for the iPhone and iPod Touch, which are intended as portable connections to your digital world, not as the hub around which all things digital rotate. But the iPad is not just an oversized iPod Touch. It is a much more capable device, and for many uses and many people could completely replace a desktop or laptop computer.

In point of fact, the iPad is the first device that I believe has the potential to be a real digital hub for the vast numbers of people who just don’t want to bother with a full-fledged computer and all the maintenance, operational and learning-curve hassles that come with operating computers. The iPad could be the breakthrough digital lifestyle device for the vast majority of people out there who need a digital media, entertainment, learning and communications connection — but really don’t need (or want to bother learning to use and maintain) — a computer.

Right now, those people will be held back from purchasing an iPad by one thing — a required tether to a computer once in awhile for updating, backing up and loading your external music library to the iPad. Can that requirement be dispensed with to allow the iPad to be purchased and used by a non-computer owner? I think it can. For the iPad to reach its full potential, I think it must be free.

I think the updating, backing up and music loading functions necessary to maintain a complex device like the iPad could be accomplished without a computer, using methods so transparent to the user that they will be as easy to use as the iPad itself. Here’s how I might approach these tasks with methods that should require no hardware changes to the version 1.0 iPad at all.

Updating

Updating the operating system of a device like the iPad can be painless and easy — and can be done without access to a computer. Wireless operating system updates are possible, but some such would involve files so large they could be prohibitive to move in such a fashion. Also, an iPad-paralyzing failure in mid-update is more likely when you add in the potential for local wifi interruption or network problems.

But even a major system update can be made nearly foolproof. One example is the procedure many use to “jailbreak” their Apple TV and add features such as Boxee. This is no longer a feat just for the experienced hardware hacker. You can download a computer program that will gather up everything you need from the internet and out it all on a self-launching solid-state flash drive “key”. Then you plug the key into the Apple TV’s (otherwise unused) USB test port, start up the device, and the new software magically installs itself. You can even buy the software already installed on a flash key for you.

Apple could do the same for iPad updates, making them available through the same stores that sell the iPad on a pre-configured flash drive attached to an iPad universal port connector. The ability to recognize the connection of such a self-installing key could be built into the iPad’s firmware, or driven by a downloadable iPad app. Run the app, plug in the key, and the system updates itself and reboots, ready to go. Sell the update keys for just a little more than the cost of the media, packaging and distribution - it should come to well under $25, which is certainly a bargain for a good software update. Apple Stores might even offer to let you use a key for free to do the update right at the Genius Bar, or do it for you on designated “update weekends”.

Backing Up

My backup bugaboo makes it clear that the more you use your iPad to download books, music, movies and apps directly, the more you need frequent connection with a computer to back them up in case of a device-centered disaster. The software and interface for doing this is built into iTunes on the host computer. How would you back up without that computer?

There seems to be no reason, however, that the backup interface can’t be on the device itself. An interface similar to the iTunes sync panels that controlled backup and restore through the accessory port, using a port-to-USB adapter to plug into any USB hard drive. A firmware update could make it possible for even a badly-glitched iPad to be wiped factory-clean and totally restored just by plugging it into a USB drive that contained a stored drive image. You wouldn’t need a computer — just an inexpensive USB hard drive big enough to store everything on your iPad. Heck, Amazon will sell you a 64 GB solid state flash drive capable of holding everything from the largest capacity iPad for under $130.

Loading Music

This covers all the bases if you buy all the media you want on the iPad directly from Apple via the iTunes store. But without a computer, you can’t get your existing music collection (either digital or CD-based) onto your iPad.

The digital files could be handled by a second “tab” on the same iPad app proposed for use in controlling backup and restore without a computer. The app only needs to be able to recognize a USB drive through an accessory port-to-USB adapter and be able to parse the file system to locate usable digital audio files. A simple selection screen would let you choose files to be added to the iPad, copy them to the device, and enable you to add or update metadata as needed. For many reasons, I suspect Apple would prefer this sort of app be available only from Apple. (Call it “iTunes Lite”…)

What about those CDs you have already? This would be a good third-party opportunity for a small piece of hardware — a small stand-alone CD drive that ripped any inserted CD and dumped the tracks to a thumb drive through a USB port. The files could then be uploaded to the iPad using iTunes Lite.

One more little wrinkle — your home wireless connection

A final hurdle remains for the person who wants to use the iPad as a solo device without owning a computer. What do you do for a home wireless connection to the internet? You have no computer, so you have never needed an internet connection at home before!

Your local cable company will probably be happy to hook you up, though they may find it odd that you want an internet connection without a computer. (If this catches on, the surprise of that will soon fade.) I find an increasing number of installers these days put in cable modems that have built-in wi-fi routers as a matter of course, now! My own father-in-law has one iMac and no wireless devices at all, but when he moved into a new apartment complex recently, the cable folks provided him with one of these at no additional cost and without even asking him if he needed wi-fi. He didn’t even know he had it until I visited. Needless to say, it comes in handy when my wife and I drop in!

Most new wi-fi routers are configurable from the web, and can be easily managed from your iPad via Safari. Glaring exceptions to this trend, however, are Apple’s own Airport Extreme, Airport Express and Time Capsule, all of which must be initialized and administered using a special piece of desktop computer software. For this reason, I think Apple needs to provide an Airport app for the iPad (and probably the iPhone and iPod Touch as well). This app would detect and allow the administration of Apple’s wi-fi hubs directly from the iPad.

With a mobile Airport app, I could toss an Airport Express in my iPad case and use it while traveling to connect my iPad to the internet in any hotel room with an Ethernet port. Such an app would make a Time Capsule a must-buy for any Solo iPad user, functioning both as a wireless home internet connection and the perfect iPad backup device. (Yes, you can do all that without the iPad Airport app now — but only if you have a friend with a computer who can initially set up your Airport device for you.)

Perhaps Apple doesn’t really want to make iPad users too indpendent. After all, they do want to sell Macs, too. But let’s face it — the mobile market is really where Apple is making their bread and butter these days. The iPad is so close to the perfect “no-computer for the rest of us” that it would be a dirty shame not to make the few minor tweaks that will free the iPad entirely and enable an entire new market for Apple to embrace.

Or have Steve and his iPad crew already thought of all this? I find it hard to believe that they have not thought this exact scenario through. Is it possible they are just waiting to spring a fully-untethered iPad capability on us at release, or perhaps soon thereafter? We’ll have to wait and see.

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