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The iPad is Magical, and I Think Lessons Learned from Commodore are Why

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 04/05/2010

NOTE: Welcome, AROS fans. I’m an ex-Commodore employee and once-hardcore Amiga fan–the one who went to the shareholder meetings in 90 and 92 to try to talk some sense into Gould and Ali.

iPad is MagicalThis Monday morning, I’m sitting on the subway, typing one-handed, large Dunkin Donuts coffee in the other, and iPad in my laptop bag, waiting for Kindle-like freedom. Old habits die hard–3-years old to be precise, as I was one of those in line day-one for the iPhone (but in the AT&T store in Harlem), and have upgraded with each new version–both my wife and myself. So now not including replacements, we’re on iPhone #5 and #6. So of course when the iPad was announced, we knew we were destined to get one, given our shared belief of how life-changing the iPhone itself was, and we both would very much appreciate that 4x larger, thank-you.

But we resisted pre-ordering, with some notion that we’re not complete Steve Job fanboy minions, so decided we would try one out first before buying. But considering day-one craziness of these Apple new product releases, we knew we may be in for a hellish day. Even though I live in Manhattan, I still avoid the Apple on day-one because of the lines. There’s always a better way. Last Saturday for the iPad, this meant a ZipCar rental and ride up to Best Buy in Yonkers. We got there at 10:30 AM, 1/2-hour after opening, and bought 2 of the 16-GB versions. There was no line. The only people we competed with to pick up and play with iPads were Best Buy curiosity-seeker customers who happened to be in the store anyway. Sweet.

After about 2-seconds of playing with the thing, I told Rachel to continue trying it out, while I went and “locked in” our purchase. Turns out, I didn’t have to since they had 30 of each model in stock, and no crowd. So we got 2 of the 16 GB versions, knowing they’re going to be obsolete as fast as we buy them. Each model up is $100 more dollars, going up to 64 GB, with the only difference being memory. So since I was buying 2, going with the 16 GB version makes it cost $400 less than I might have spent. The idea is to maximize the amount of pleasure we can extract from these things (including day-one ownership). So two shiny new iPads in tow, we proceeded to maximize our excessive time reservation on our ZipCar rental shopping in Yonkers, thinking we would have to contend with lines.

I proceeded to play with the iPad through the weekend, installing first all the paid-apps that I use which made a “universal” version, requiring no new purchase. This included InstaPaper, Instaviz, iSSH and MindNode (thank you!). Then, I loaded in the must-have free software that had iPad versions like TweetDeck and the Kindle reader. I then investigated offline RSS news readers to find one as compatible with Google Reader as MobileRSS on the iPhone. There is none yet. They all have a smattering of support, but none have star, share, like, and share with note. And certainly none of the now-expected iPhone/iPad flourish of easy page-flipping. So, I’m in RSS-reader limbo. I’m going with FeedlerRSS for now, because it’s temporarily free and seems promising.

Next, I purchased all three of the new category of software from Apple, including Pages, Numbers and Keynote. They look decent, but make me reflect on the client software vs. the cloud issue. The ideal software runs locally offline, but syncs the first chance it gets and makes the cloud-and-browser version first-class versions of the app. The promise of the cloud with pad terminals is not yet fulfilled. Auto backups whenever you sync is a nice small first step for data security.

Next, I did the forced re-purchases including GoodReader and Photogene. I didn’t like having to re-purchase software, but the prices are right, and they’ve achieved that “can’t live without” status. Next, I investigated the state of painting software, hoping Brushes was ported, and it was. But on that investigation, I discovered Autodesk SketchBook. Now, Autodesk is one of those dark-horse companies in the industry, starting out as high-end computer-aided design (CAD) software on PCs back in the late 80’s, and bought Corel, one of Adobe’s principle competitors in the Photoshop space. Corel had this status because they bought Fractal Painter, an upstart in the mid-90’s, which brought natural brush-strokes to PC screens. And now, they’re making touch-screen paint software. Cool! I went ahead and bought it. Haven’t played with it much, but from the reviews, I’m very hopeful.

My iPad came about 70% charged, and I used it hard over the next day and a half. I downloaded 8 episodes of Invader Zim from iTunes, making it my first non-app media purchase directly on the iPad. I watched half of them. I surfed constantly. I turned brightness way up. And by Sunday night, when I was going to sleep, it was down to 8% charge left. It charged from 8% battery remaining to 43% overnight–about 6 hours of charging. Having so many iPhones in my life, there’s a very good chance I used one of it’s chargers, which this article explains is inadequate. I will experiment tonight. It’s supposed to regain full charge in a few hours. Either way, I hope each attempted charge DOES NOT count as a full-charge against the life of the battery, because I already feel compelled to use a “topping-it-off” approach, which is not always advisable on rechargeables. Time will tell.

And now for the experience itself. You’ll get the technical specs from 1000 other sources. I’m going to focus on that “magical experience” thing. As an ex-Commodore Amiga user, I know about magical computing experience, and a very high bar has been set in my mind. If Steve Jobs is going to call something magical, he had better be ready to measure up to Jay Miner, RJ Mical and his crew. But being an iPhone user now for 3.5 years, I had a pretty good inkling that they were on the right track. Specifically, I fell in love with vertical app scrolling on the Amgia. Thanks to it’s “Blitter” chip, the Amiga let you have this springy-scrolling experience for peeking behind one app to look at the next–sort of like Windows, but without the messiness. I see a lot of the Amiga in the iPad. It’s the first platform that gives me the same feeling as the Amiga.

The “magical” of which Mr. Jobs speaks in great part (at least for me) springs from the scrolling. There’s any-direction scrolling in Maps. But there’s also vertical scrolling “on-rails” of which I was first exposed to on the Amiga. Well, the iPad has taken that springy vertical scrolling to the next level. Sure, the iPhone has been doing this for over 4 years, but seeing it on a 2.8 inch screen is more like a tantalizing promise, on which the iPad fulfills. With the iPad and the correct apps, you’re vertically scrolling through an endless world of data-flow. InstaPaper would be one example. It’s like spinning the giant Price is Right wheel, seeing windows on the world scroll-by for nearly subconscious review of data, and slamming on the breaks by touching-to-stop. I haven’t had that feeling of coolness since 1988. It’s over 20 years later, and someone else got down the trick. Ironically, Apple.

And how precisely is Apple doing this trick? Stripping out just about everything that’s not necessary–right down to the silicon. Specifically, when you cobble together generic components to build such a device, you have to make all sorts of compromises, including thousands, tens-of-thousands or even millions of transistors that go unused, and only serve to gobble up power, and in the case of mobile devices, battery life. If you want the longest battery life possible, you put on the exact amount of transistors for the specific functions you need to accomplish, and leave everything else out. And on top of that, you own as much of the supply-chain as possible, so you are dependent on as few suppliers as possible. Commodore owned MOS Technology, makers of the 6502 chip, much to the chagrin of Apple and everyone else who used the 6502. This not only helped Commodore immensely with the Vic20 and C64, protecting the availability of critical components, but it also helped with the Amiga, having the ability to create exactly the right silicon wafers to achieve Amiga’s remarkable multimedia performance, without cobbling together generic components for more of the schlock PCs everyone else was putting out.

Almost 25 years later, and Jobs is using the exact same tricks, to make what in my heart is the next generation Amiga. The iPad is indeed magical in a way I have not experienced since my early days of the Amiga. That Amiga technology fading into oblivion as kludgey lowest-common-denominator slow screen refresh blinky choppy tearing graphics inherited the earth was one of the biggest heart-breaks of my youth–especially considering I was working for Commodore at the time, which was in my back yard. I attended their shareholder meetings in the well fortified Bahamas retreat to try to talk some sense into them. And eventually I moved on, resigning that the old girlfriend, the Amiga, was an anomaly in the computing world, never to be reproduced.

I have already written about the remarkable set of events that has made Apple’s achievement equally significant in the industry as that of Commodore’s with the Amiga. Commodore acquired MOS Technology by putting ridiculously large orders, not paying, then buying the company that they themselves put into an ailing position, giving them the Commodore PET, VIC20 and C64 advantage. Owning MOS equated to an advantage with the Amiga years later, due to the ability to be their own manufacturer of the custom chips required by the design. Almost no one manufacturers chips for their own computers anymore. But the Amiga design itself was (again) dishonorably acquired by squeezing entrepreneurial ex-Atari engineers into a ridiculously cheap deal.

Apple, on the other hand, teamed up with Acorn and VLSI to design a next-generation 6502 chip with greater graphics capabilities. They were inspired out of the Berkeley RISC project, combining the best of the 6502’s “minimal transistor” design–already a proto-RISC chip, with Berkeley’s more formalized RISC concepts. The result was the ARM processor, which has gone through many iterations over the years, but always remained a design specification that licensees could have built, and in some cases improve upon. One group to do the improving was Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), who made the StrongARM version of the ARM processor, which got acquired by Intel to become XScale. Somewhere along the way, this all resulted in a spin-off company named Palo Alto Semiconductor (or PA Semi, for short) founded by the lead StrongARM engineer, which turns out to be the processor company that Apple bought. Getting the picture? The iPad is the culmination of some VERY long-term (honorable) bets by Apple that are paying off in a very big way. And the latest rumor is that Apple is buying Intrinsity, the company that partnered with Samsung to do a 1GHz ARM chip, called the Cortex-A8, which is the one used in both the latest iPhone and the iPad.

Getting the story? The iPad is nuance built on top of nuance built on top of nuance in a way that makes Bill Gates look amateur. It is Steve Jobs working at a strategic level that builds on things he had done before leaving to create NeXT in 1985, which incidentally was wrapped back into Apple as the core of OS X, and was fundamental in the migration onto Intel processors. And so while the Macintosh is sitting there as a POSIX-compliant mainstream UNIX computer and cool home PC, he quietly rekindles the RISC vs. CISC war on the mobile device-front, where battery-life and every wasted transistor hurts you. And meanwhile, all the haters are piling on Apple, claiming how proprietary silly and useless it is, while Apple sells perhaps over 600,000 in the first day, their owners taking them home to use them in bed more comfortably than any laptop ever could, quietly understanding what the Luddites hate to admit… the world has changed once again.