By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
November 23, 2010

The latest software update is a big step forward, but we’re not home yet

iOS 4.2 took about 45 minutes to install, but it moved the iPad at least five months forward, giving it some key features that iPhone 4 owners have enjoyed since June.

The biggest one, for me, was the ability to organize apps into folders — putting maps with maps, games with games and so forth. From chaos to order in less than an hour!

Also much appreciated was Apple’s energy-saving version of multitasking. It’s mostly just a way to quickly switch from one app to another without having to shut either down. But iOS 4.2 also lets some programs, such as Pandora, run in the background. That’s pretty cool.

But I was disappointed by two of the most talked-about features: AirPrint and AirPlay. Neither serves my purposes, and I suspect I’m not alone.

  • AirPrint. When Steve Jobs demonstrated AirPrint in September, he promised it would do just what I wanted: output documents created on the iPad to the shared printer on our Wi-Fi network. What got delivered Monday was considerably less: the ability to print wirelessly to the newest Hewlett-Packard (AAPL) printers. I know it’s possible to get iPads to print to other shared printers — there are several third-party apps that will do the trick — but Apple still hasn’t delivered its solution.
  • AirPlay. This was perhaps the most widely praised of the new features, but it too was a let down. It’s great, I’m told, if you have an HDTV and one of those new $99 Apple TVs. Start a movie on your Apple TV, finish it in bed on your iPad! But if you — like most Americans — are HD- and Apple TV-deprived, it’s pretty limited. You can play music on an iPad and have the sound come out of speakers connected to an AirPort Express. But you can’t play it through, say, the original Apple TV or another Mac on the network. That, too, is surely doable. There’s a third-party app called AirFoil that works for Macs, but it costs $25 and due to Apple restrictions, its iPad client can only receive, not send.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my iPad — a lot — and I like what the update has done for it. I just wish it had done more.

Maybe what’s needed is something Apple doesn’t seem to be feeling: Some competitive pressure in the tablet space.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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