8 Apple iPad questions Apple just won't answer

What we don't know about Apple's upcoming slate PC

As the smoke clears from Steve Jobs launching the Apple iPad, missing details suggest there's less to Apple's tablet than meets the eye.

It's just over two weeks since Apple unveiled the iPad, however details about the device still remain sketchy.

If history is any guide, Apple's ongoing silence may mean the first-generation iPad will not be as compelling or as useful as many of us had hoped.

I've asked Apple a set of questions about what Jobs and Apple have not revealed about the iPad over a week ago. However, Apple's PR has yet to get me the answers or receive permission to relay those answers publicly.

Others in the press and analyst community are also getting the silent treatment regarding the iPad capabilities that matter to many prospective users.

Famously tight-lipped, Apple often views the press as an extension of its marketing effort, treating all but a favoured few to a sadistic game of hard-to-get.

When Apple extends this silence beyond a product's razzmatazz unveiling, it's usually meant that the product in question could not deliver the functionality journalists have asked about.

With that in mind, unanswered queries about the iPad may imply that the iPad is less "magical" and "revolutionary" than Jobs suggests.

Here are the questions Apple has not yet answered, and why the 'silence = no' implications diminish the iPad's value.

Can you save and transfer documents to the iPad?

Anyone who uses an iPhone or iPod touch with an office productivity app such as Quickoffice knows how frustrating it is to access Office documents.

You have to set up a wireless connection over a local Wi-Fi network, enter the IP address, and transfer the files, or you send the document via email on an Exchange account so that it can be opened as an attachment.

Apple says its 'no save' restriction is meant to prevent malware from being placed on the iPhone or iPod touch.

I've never bought that argument, as the iPhone and iPod touch allow you to save images to what is in essence a folder and sync those images via iTunes - so why not other file types?

Of course, that may be a loophole Apple is closing: the iPad's Photos app (a photo gallery), like the iWork for iPad app, appears to do away with saved photo files altogether, instead embedding them into the app itself.

Yet it doesn't appear that the iPad will let you transfer files in folders via iTunes, email attachment downloads, or wireless networks. (I do, however, expect some of the Wi-Fi file-sharing hack apps will enable you to transfer files, though it is unclear whether Apple's iWork productivity app will be able to see them.)

Given that Apple will offer a version of its Mac-only iWork suite for the iPad, it would make sense to be able to transfer files to and from the iPad.

Unfortunately, Apple's website only mentions access to iWork and Office files from email and avoids any claim of saving the file to the device.

The implication is that iWork for iPad can open email attachments, edit them in memory or within protected cache in the app itself, then send out the edited version in email.

It's also apparent that iWork can read both Office and iWork documents, but only send back iWork or PDF documents. Again, Apple remains silent on this discrepancy, one that essentially restricts document editing to Mac users who have iWork - an extremely tiny sliver of the world.

Does the iPad support Microsoft Exchange email?

Apple mentioned several web-based email providers that would work with the iPad's Mail app, such as Gmail and Hotmail, but Microsoft Exchange was conspicuously absent. I first assumed that the iPad would support Exchange and the same handful of Exchange ActiveSync security policies as the iPhone and iPod Touch, but now I'm not so sure.

My colleague Jason Snell, editor-in-chief of Macworld, would be surprised if Apple removed Exchange from the iPad, given its place on the iPhone and iPod touch, but he too can't say for certain.

Analyst Chris Hazelton from the 451 Group noticed the Exchange omission back on January 27 and said the iPad categorically won't support Exchange.

He acknowledged that this was a supposition on his part, not a confirmed fact, but that Apple has not responded to his inquiries.

Apple hasn't responded to me on this, either, and neither he nor I can fathom why Apple would not clarify this simple fact immediately.

If you, like me, see the potential of the iPad as a laptop surrogate for short business trips, the lack of Exchange support kills that potential, and it signals that the iPad is not a dual-purpose business/consumer device as the iPhone and iPod touch are. Instead, it is, as has been suggested by some, just a big iPod.

Apple's announcement of the iWork productivity app for the iPad led many of us to see the iPad as a lightweight laptop for email, web access, and basic document work - but the lack of Exchange, coupled with iWork for iPad's inability to save files in Microsoft Office formats, would mean that the only business users who could harness the iPad for work would be that tiny portion of Mac-based professionals who don't run Exchange email.

Does the iPad support VPN and configuration management?

If the iPad doesn't support Exchange, I can't imagine it wouldn't work with VPN and configuration management, two capabilities that the iPhone and iPod touch can claim.

Although the iPhone and iPod Touch doesn't support over-the-air management of the device or its security capabilities, they do support these capabilities using emailed or web-downloaded configuration files.

This management approach is nowhere usable for enterprises, as it gives no assurance that users have the right configuration, but small businesses with local IT staff can deal with it. (Yes, several vendors such as Good Technology now offer more enterprise-class management tools for the iPhone.)

If Apple has pulled these capabilities from the iPad, then almost no business can seriously allow an iPad on to its network. Apple won't say.

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Can you use media services other than iTunes on the iPad?

The idea of a highly portable media player is compelling - I'd love to have one when travelling so that I could watch what I chose, rather than be stuck with the usually uninteresting terrestrial fare.

My MacBook Pro gets too hot to place in my lap, and watching a DVD or streaming video on the MacBook Pro while sitting in a hotel desk is not very pleasant.

But there is no way to watch streamed video from other services on an iPad. On an iPhone or iPod touch, the screen size doesn't make for great movie-watching, so the lack of apps on those devices isn't so bothersome.

On an iPad, it will be. So far, it appears that iTunes will be your only quality media source on the iPad (YouTube doesn't qualify; it's more of a needle-in-the-haystack source for amusing clips), which means you can't use a service from someone else that you already paid for; instead, you'll need to give Apple money. Maybe using my laptop isn't so bad an option after all.

Will Apple allow the use of such video services? There's been no comment so far.

Can the iPad be used for videoconferencing?

The iPad has no embedded camera, as the iPhone and MacBooks do (but not the iPod touch).

That's riled many people who could see the iPad as a great videoconferencing tool.

There's potential for adding a camera through the iPad's sole connection port; after all, companies have offered plug-in microphones to iPods this way. But it's unclear that even with an add-on camera whether Apple would allow videoconferencing apps on the iPad.

One theory is that The health care industry has long been interested in tablets but has not liked the bulky, hard-to-use Windows offerings, and an Apple tablet is conceptually appealing to hospitals.

However, a built-in camera would raise too many privacy issues for them to adopt the iPad. If true, that's easy to address: Apple can offer a camera-less model. In either case, Apple won't say.


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Will the iPad's internal storage be upgradable?

We do know that the iPad's internal flash memory will not be user-upgradable - you can't just swap in a new card.

But will Apple provide, or let others provide, an upgrade service for the iPad, similar to how you can have a battery replaced in an iPhone or iPod touch by an authorised service provider? Apple won't say.

Will the iPad allow multiple apps to run simultaneously?

The iPad has as much in common with a PC as it does with an iPhone: iPad developers can use desktop UI conventions such as menus and dialog boxes, and the bigger screen opens up the possibility of apps that can do more desktop-like things, as the bundled app shows.

So iPad users will expect to be able to run multiple apps at the same time. (Some parts of the iPhone OS do run simultaneously on the iPhone and iPod touch, but beyond those core capabilities, Apple forces apps to suspend or close when the user switches to another app, ostensibly due to memory-usage and processor-performance issues.)

Apple's use of its own processor chip, the A4, in the iPad raised the possibility of running multiple apps at once. But Apple won't say.

Will Apple allow the use of Flash on the iPad?

Users have been complaining about the lack of Flash support since the very first iPhone three years ago.

Apple has said little, though Jobs has criticised Flash for taking too many system resources and Flash Lite for being not capable enough.

It's true that Flash technology is often used to create buggy, memory-sapping videos and animations - you see that in your desktop browser all the time. But as Apple increases the performance of its mobile devices, you'd think it'd hit a point where it can support Flash and let ill-behaved Flash files simply close the app running them.

The iPad is a natural device for playing back Flash files, both on the web and as native files.

Apple should let Adobe release a Flash Player app and Safari plug-in, and if Adobe screws it up, Adobe gets the blame.

I suspect the issue really isn't about Flash performance issues, but instead is about blocking a video-delivery conduit that Apple doesn't control and can't charge for.

Whatever the truth is, Apple won't say.

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If Apple won't say, maybe you shouldn't buy

I'm as guilty as any other writer in getting swept up in the iPad's promise. And my 18-year history of dealing with Apple means I know all too well how the company withholds information, thus creating a vacuum that allows rumours and speculation to run rampant, while keeping Apple top of mind at no cost to the company.

I also know firsthand that Apple typically makes better products than its competitors. I have no doubt the iPad will be compelling to some users.

But I now have major concerns that it will fulfill the potential beyond being an iTunes delivery screen that I and other industry observers saw. I can't blame Apple for not delivering on promises it hasn't actually made, but I can be fed up with its lack of information on its products' basic capabilities.

It's to Apple's advantage for us all to assume the iPad can do whatever we want it to do - that's likely why Apple won't say. But it's not to your belief to believe the iPad fulfills your own desires.

Within a few weeks of the iPad's availability this spring, we won't have to speculate about the iPad's actual capabilities, limits, and sleights of hand. We'll actually know. Then we can make rational decisions of whether and where the iPad makes sense. Ultimately, we users get the final say.

If Apple can't take customer questions seriously, maybe we shouldn't take its iPad hype seriously. No one should buy an iPad until we really know what it can do and what limits Apple has set on it. Maybe it does all the things Apple is silent about. But maybe it doesn't.