iPad May Be Magical. Apps Aren’t. Here’s Why.

It has been nearly a year since I first came in close contact with the original iPad. It blew my mind, and since then, it has become a daily accompaniment. I create content on my MacBook Air, but I spend a lot of time consuming content and media on the device. In fact, if I had to guess, I use my iPad as much as I use my notebook computer.

Steve Jobs called it magical. Fast-forward to today, and I (and about 15 million others) agree. Wednesday, Jobs announced the newer version of the iPad. It’s lighter, thinner, has more curves, and it’s definitely beefier. What’s more, it has many new capabilities: cameras and gyroscope for example. In other words, it’s more magical.

However, if iPad, the device, is more magical, the applications (apps) for the device are anything but. For nearly a year, I’ve been waiting (and waiting) for experiences befitting the device and its hardware capabilities. Sure, there’s Flipboard, but as the saying goes, one swallow don’t make a summer. And same goes for the iPhone and other smart platforms.

Let me explain. On an iPad, you have four elements — big screen, touch, connectivity and location — that make it unique. The iPad 2 has added two cameras and a gyroscope to the mix, making the device even more potent. And yet, we’ve seen application after application come to market as just an incremental improvement of the web or desktop versions of the same (or similar) application.

Some of the magazine apps developed for the iPad are just simply horrible, turning out to be no more than bloated multi-media versions of the print publications. Even The Daily, the made-for-iPad publication from the house of Rupert Murdoch, is nowhere close to being able to leverage the iPad platform, despite all the help from Apple itself.

Why? Because apps, content and consumption experiences on iPads and other tablets need to be rethought and re-imagined by combining the hardware capabilities with software. As Steve Jobs said in his keynote yesterday:

Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC.

Since the iPad is connected and location-aware, I want my news (or news reader) application to serve me information with a local (or a regional context) as a starting point. Since news lives on an always-on connection, it should be near real-time. More importantly, since it’s again, news, on a touch-based device, it needs to be optimized for touch actions that are core to the iPad (or Android) platform so one can quickly consume the information.

It’s not just media apps; even games on these new platforms aren’t leveraging the capabilities of the platform. Earlier this week, Neil Young — co-founder of mobile games developer, ngmoco, now a division of DeNA — stopped by my office for a chat. I asked him if he’d seen games that leveraged the uniqueness of the smartphone and tablet platforms.

“I don’t think we are anywhere near to fulfilling the potential of the platform,” said Young. “The games that are popular today are either casual games and upgrades/variants of the games that have been hits on the web.” Like me, he’s looking for games that use touch, location and connectivity in a way that’s unique and entertaining. “On the tablets, I am finding it hard to find a great tablet experience.”

Like everyone else, Young too has been impressed with Flipboard, which has introduced a magazine-like user experience to iPad users. But that still doesn’t build on the uniqueness of tablet platforms.

Ronald Kuetemeier is one of my many super-smart readers. In an email, he pointed out the problem with the apps today is that many of the app developers are thinking with PC computer modality. What does he mean?

A spreadsheet may make perfect sense on a big screen device that takes its data input via a keyboard. Trying to retrofit it to a device with a smaller screen that uses touch for interaction is an exercise in futility. If I’ve used one of these apps — QuickOffice and Apple’s Numbers — it’s mostly as a way to read files attached to emails or shared via DropBox.

I’m hoping things will change in the near future. Yesterday, Apple showed off GarageBand for iPad 2, and to me, that was the highlight of the event (ahead of the smart-covers). Why? Because this is an app that was putting iPad 2’s capabilities to maximum use. This is an app made for the iPad.

Even from afar, it made sense: Touch is a better way of strumming guitars than using a mouse. Similarly, when hitting the drums, that the iPad’s accelerometer can detect the strength with which you’re hitting the screen could help translate into a better music. Apple could even take this app a step further.

Say, I’m in India (or Brazil). The app should surface some of the local musical instruments (and sounds) based on my location. Since iPad has a live connection, these add-ons should seamlessly download to the device in the background. Forget emailing the creations; the app should simply allow us to share the tunes via services like Sound Cloud.

Today, Stuck in Customs, the folks behind 100 Cameras and I, announced their app for the iPad 2, and boy, have they put the platform to good use. I saw the demo of it earlier, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this application, for it does leverage the hardware.

Another app you’ll find impressive is Shadow Cities, a real-world MMORPG developed by Finnish startup Grey Area, which recently scored over $2 million in funding from Index Ventures. It’s currently the number-one game app on the Finnish iTunes app store, lapping global phenomenon Angry Birds in the process.

What makes it so unique? It uses your real-life locations (with maps like you’ve never seen before) and real people, and puts them in a game-like environment. It doesn’t need any typing; touch is what makes it fun. And since it’s connected, it uses your social graph to build a whole new immersive experience.

Though it’s made for an iPhone, I believe this is an app that foretells the future of applications that really put an iPad to work, and in process, create magic.

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