How to sell me an iPad

As much as I would prefer a tablet computer to be an honest-to-gosh computer, rather than a media consumption device with support for small-scale commercial applications, I am not opposed to the concept of a “limited” device. I just think Apple has limited theirs too much.

What would be the killer app for me, something that would justify the cost of an iPad? A full-featured light table. Here’s the scenario:

It's 6am, and I'm out on the coast with a thermos full of hot tea, my best camera, a GPS tracker, and a tripod. I shoot the sunrise on the bay, mist and fog giving way to a sparkling ocean. When the light becomes too harsh, I pack up, find a restaurant for a late breakfast, and settle in to examine the fruits of my labor.

I plug first the tracker, then the camera into The Tablet, watching as it files away the RAW images and geotags the matching JPEGs for preview, and then I begin. Sort, arrange, compare, focus-check, rate, annotate, crop, rotate, and flag for further editing, all with a flick of a finger. Then off to the zoo for more pictures, and then lunch and more review.

Back at home, I plug The Tablet into my computer, and it syncs up with Aperture, seamlessly importing the RAW images with all of my annotations and edits intact. Any time I want, I can sync parts of my library back to The Tablet for further review.

Key elements:

  • It uses the JPEGs for review, but imports the RAW images as well, and preserves the link between them. Apple's supplied Photo viewer won't do that.
  • It supports standalone GPS trackers as a data source, which means reading USB mass-storage devices, something the iPad currently doesn't allow.
  • It syncs to something other than iTunes, passing arbitrary data. Yeah, that doesn't work right now, either; most third-party apps have to sync through an ad-hoc wireless connection, which is painfully slow for this use.

It is genuinely new functionality, something I cannot do today on a desktop or laptop. There’s nothing in software right now that gives photographers the power they had with a light table, a loupe, and a box of slides. Sure, you can keep track of 50,000 images on your hard drive, but it’s basically just a poorly-edited dumpster. A real light table will teach you more about photography, your camera, your lenses, and your subject than iPhoto, Aperture, Lightroom, and Photoshop put together.

(all of this would be just as cool to have on a larger tablet computer, of course, especially a home machine with a 30-inch multitouch monitor/canvas, but one dream at a time)

[Update: Now that the camera-connection kit is out, there’s a little more information available. Not from Apple, sadly; their product description and documentation are still quite vague. Short version: it will import some raw formats into Photos, as well as some movie formats; it doesn’t appear to sync seamlessly back to iPhoto on a Mac, yet, but can be used as a manual import source; and it has some problems with MicroSD. So, not useless for my scenario, but still very 1.0 and limited. The surprising news is that people were able to connect USB headsets through it and get them to work; no thumbdrives, as expected, but at least they’re letting some data in, unofficially.]