iPad mania

January 29th, 2010

Most of my reading on the web over the last 24 hours has consisted of various takes on the significance of the Jesus Tablet iPad.

The most enthusiastic endorsement I read was Stephen Fry's paean to a stunningly exciting object (or, more accurately, to the iPad 3.0 once it arrives a few years hence):

In the future, when it has two cameras for fully featured video conferencing, GPS and who knows what else built in (1080 HD TV reception and recording and nano projection, for example) and when the iBook store has recorded its 100 millionth download and the thousands of accessories and peripherals that have invented uses for iPad that we simply can’t now imagine – when that has happened it will all have seemed so natural and inevitable that today’s nay-sayers and sceptics will have forgotten that they ever doubted its potential.

At Pentagram, reflections on Five Ways the iPad Will Change Magazine Design:

A reset on advertising

"The mean little conventions of online advertising – banner ads, pop ups, and so forth – aren't popular with readers, with advertisers, and certainly not with designers. The iPad's a new medium that will create a whole range of opportunities. Once people start exploiting what it can do, we may see the kind of creative renaissance that will deliver the next George Lois or Lee Clow. People will start subscribing to certain i-mags just for the ads alone."

Where by "people" they mean "design professionals". This strikes me as wishful thinking. Does anyone else actually buy paper magazines just for the ads?1

John Gruber is convinced that the iPad heralds a sea change in the way people relate to computers:

Car enthusiasts (and genuine experts like race car drivers) still drive cars with manual transmissions. They offer more control; they’re more efficient. But the vast majority of cars sold today are automatics.2 So too it'll be with computers. Eventually, the vast majority will be like the iPad in terms of the degree to which the underlying computer is abstracted away. Manual computers, like the Mac and Windows PCs, will slowly shift from the standard to the niche, something of interest only to experts and enthusiasts and developers.

Much of my handheld computing experience over the last decade has been with Palm handhelds which did a great deal to hide the details of the underlying file system from the user. I understand the attraction of that approach to computing. Why should a user care where their device stores a letter they've written, as long as they can access it again when they want to. However, as with any general purpose computer, users will eventually find themselves wanting to do something that the computer's maker didn't cater for. This might involve improving on the functionality of one of the bundled applications. It might involve doing something that wasn't even conceived of when the computer was produced, like deciding in 1993 that you want to add a 'web browser' to your PC running Windows 3.11.

This is where the iPad experience may fall a bit short. On a classic PalmOS device3 there was plenty of third party software you could get to add functionality to your handheld. You could buy it on disk by mail order, get it from an independent online store like Palmgear, or download it direct from the author's web site. With the iPhone and now the iPad, the App Store rules. Rafe Colburn sees the implications clearly:

Apple decides which software I can run on my iPhone. Apple provides the only means by which I can get it. The platform is for all intents and purposes, closed, and the hardware is closed as well. Sure, the iPhone is great to use, but the price of using it is that you’re rewarding Apple’s choice to bet on closed platforms.

What bothers me is that in terms of openness, the iPad is the same as the iPhone, but in terms of form factor, the iPad is essentially a general purpose computer. So it strikes me as a sort of Trojan horse that acculturates users to closed platforms as a viable alternative to open platforms, and not just when it comes to phones (which are closed pretty much across the board). The question we must ask ourselves as computer users is whether the tradeoff in freedom we make to enjoy Apple’s superior user experience is worth it.

Even if the approvals process for the App Store didn't have a terrible reputation for producing capricious, not to say downright laughable decisions, the prospect of Apple acting as gatekeepers to my computer would be distinctly off-putting.

My prediction, for what it's worth, is that the iPad will be like the original iPod: Apple weren't the first company to produce a tablet computer, but they'll be rewarded for the sheer attention to detail they put into the machine's design. They'll dominate the category, and may well grab a chunk of the market currently served by netbooks and cheap laptops, but five years from now there will still be plenty of demand for general-purpose laptop computers and desktop computers in various more traditional form factors.

With any luck, somewhere along the way Apple will take that lovely iPad hardware and use it to run a slightly scaled-down Mac OS X, instead of iPhone OS. That's the iPad I'd like to buy.

  1. That is, buying magazines for the pleasure of viewing the ads. I assume some people still buy magazines to check out prices and specifications if they're in the market to make a purchase, the way I used to make a point of picking up a copy of PCW and/or Computer Shopper back in the late 1980s or early 1990s when I'd outgrown my old computer in order to compare the deals on offer for a newer model. Somehow, I don't think that's the sort of buyer Pentagram are thinking of.
  2. Just to nitpick for a moment, this view of the car market is a tad US-centric. In Europe, the vast majority of cars still come with a manual transmission, though admittedly the market share for automatic vehicles is on the increase, albeit fairly gradually.
  3. i.e. everything prior to the Palm Pre.

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3 Responses to “iPad mania”

  1. Kris Says:

    Knitters. Knitters buy magazines just for the ads. According to the Snook, so do home brewers. I'm thinking it probably extends to anyone in a niche hobby that requires you to get stuff from shops that aren't local and may not be on the Internet.

  2. John Says:

    Fair enough. However, isn't that another case – like my buying computer magazines back in the day to get a sense of the sort of deals that were out there – of being drawn to the magazine by the information in the ads, rather than because you're keen to admire the ads for the sake of their clever/quirky/innovative design.

    It seems to me that the passage I quoted from the Pentagram article clearly implies that once designers come to understand how to exploit the iPad's features and user interface conventions it's the design of the ads, rather than their content, that will cause readers to buy a magazine. I'm still not buying it.

  3. Caleb Nelson Says:

    I think that if we take a second to study the success of the iPhone and the App Store, we will recognize that Apple has found a remarkable niche in mobile computing. People don't mind not having complete control of their devices; I'd even venture to say that after 2 decades of Windows, people DON'T WANT control of their devices. Consumers want to keep it short and simple, and these devices along with the App Store provide them a short and simple service.

    Additionally, I think it'd be to our benefit to expect our computers to do more. The iPhone is wildly successful because it does more than just process data. What makes it unique are the tricks that it can perform. It doesn't just get on the Internet; it manipulates the Internet to your particular liking. What the iPad offers is this unique experience on a larger platform. I think you're right. We haven't seen anything yet!