Saturday, January 30, 2010

iPad will help us most when it disappears

Both in anticipation of and reaction to the Apple iPad, people playing the Future of News Game tended toward superlatives. It would save traditional models, some said, by making Plain Old Newsprint pretty and shiny and worth charging for. Others looked at the missing Flash plugin and multitasking capability and dismissed the device as irrelevant.

They’re both wrong—and the truth isn’t somewhere halfway in-between them, either.

Here’s the most important thing about the iPad: it can be one of the biggest steps yet toward taking the technology out of our way and letting human beings get on with communicating, creating and consuming news. In much the same way the desktop metaphor and mouse made computer power more accessible than the command line, iPad’s touchscreen, instant-on availability, intuitive interface and extreme portability promise still greater opportunity.

If the Macintosh was “the computer for the rest of us” (and it was), maybe the iPad will be “networks for the rest of us.” If it’s easy, intuitive and relatively cheap to experience constantly updated Facebook and Twitter and the New York Times on a bright, colorful screen, doesn’t it make sense that more people will do so?

The technoids who instantly set upon the iPad for what’s missing — Flash, total multitasking, no camera, no SD slot, yada, yada — don’t get it. Apple didn’t build the iPad for them (although I’ll bet most will end up owning one). They built it for the people who love it when technology “just works.” (It’s also illuminating to see what these critics had to say about the iPhone in version 1.0; they look silly now. By the time iPad cycles through a few software and firmware updates, today’s arguments will be even more hollow.)

It’s also obvious that expecting a miracle cure for what ails newspapers and magazines is deeply stupid. The fact that the iPad’s roughly the shape of a published page, or that it will be used primary by holding it in your hands doesn’t offer any new hope for content created by hierarchical, top-down newsrooms that haven’t figured out consumers are in control. People will get news about subjects they want, when they want it—and many will be creating it, as well. What the iPad’s likely to mean for them is that they’ll get what they want easier and consume it more pleasurably—but it will be what they value, not what a gatekeeper decides to give them.

Here’s what I think—and devoutly hope—will happen: the iPad (and even better devices sure to follow) will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.

For all their failings, newspapers were equally accessible to everybody who could read: cheap, portable, intuitive, ubiquitous. Poor boys had about the same chance as bankers to keep up with the news. Good newspapers worked to shape content to meet a wide range of interests—football scores and shipping schedules and how-they-voted charts—because they knew a lot of different people would be looking through the window those pages opened.

Alan Kay, the computer visionary who famously declared Macintosh “the first computer worth criticizing, hasn’t weighed in directly on the iPad as far as I know. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t see it a significant realization of his Dynabook dream, a tool that makes information and communication ubiquitous and makes devices disappear.

In the middle 1980s, Kay visited Alaska for a lecture and was interviewed in the Anchorage Daily News, articulating intoxicating ideas that helped awaken me to the brewing information revolution. He was careful even then to caution against focusing too much on devices. “The music’s not in the piano,” he said. “If it was, we’d have to let it vote.”

When iPads start arriving two months from now, we’ll be a lot closer to realizing his long-time vision.

The device is becoming as simple as a newspaper—and infinitely more capable. It’s now up to producers to be sure what they offer thrives in a world where accessing their work (or a competitor’s) is as easy as picking up a book, or the newspaper.