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.


  1. "first computer worth criticizing" . . . I like that. Yes, I think you are spot on here. These, or similar devices, will be as common as a newspaper on a coffee table was in 1975.

  2. The iPad was indeed developed for "normal people" and a lot of technologists do unfortunatly miss that fact but this doesn't absolve the iPad of all criticisms.

    Sure, the iPad 1.0 may be lacking certain features but it should be obvious to anyone who can think that these missing features, if they are ultimately deemed a liability (and some will not be, after all the iPad doesn't have a floppy slot either), they can easily be addressed in later versions (or by competitor's versions). These things are non-issues.

    The real concern by the more attuned techies is this: Apple is the ONLY gateway to it's device. This is the very thing that makes it "just work" so effectivly -- Apple's iTunes staffers making sure that all the applications submitted to it meet with Apple's standards.

    On the surface this is brilliant, as you and others point out, this completely removes the bar so "the rest of us" can get down to actually using our iPads for Real Work as opposed to dicking around with the messy internals of technology.

    But lets spin this another way, would you be as comfortable with this arrangement if instead of Apple running the iTunes store, a Government ran it? All applications (and therefore content) passing governmental "standards" before inclusion on the device?

    Apple has not been shy about declining (or pulling after the fact) applications that run counter to it's so-called "standards" (aka business goals). As a former journalist, this should make you uncomfortable, it does me.

  3. -30- : Toyota is the ONLY gateway to the engine of my Prius.

    I can hack and fix my 1967 Jeepster (not always well) but I wouldn't even attempt to mess with any modern computer-based engine.

    Should I ditch the Prius for the Commando as an everyday driver? Not likely.

  4. Actually, that's not true at all. You can still tinker with your Prius. You may break it, you may void your warrantee, you may blast yourself apart by grounding the thing, but as long as you have a metric wrench set you most certainly CAN get in there and tinker.

    Were it illegal to do so, THEN you'd have a comparison.

    Were that the case then yes, you should definitely ditch the Toyota air car in favor of the Barchetta... much better for the one lane bridges anyway.

  5. I think you're wrong on this, too.

    It is perfectly legal for me to blast myself apart screwing with my Apple device.

    It is not legal for me to do it to yours.

  6. Anonymous10:14 AM

    First off Howard, it's good to see you back here. I always find your posts thought-provoking.
    That said, however, I find myself agreeing with -30- here. I'm convinced iPad is going to be the next in a long line of really hip gadgets for people who like really hip gadgets and don't have to count the cost.
    To me, it's just one more opportunity to pay through the nose for something I used to get more or less for free, like television.
    For years, I carried a battered but beloved Sony Watchman. It kept me informed when earthquakes and ice storms wiped out power and cable TV and entertained me while my wife shopped for clothes.
    Now, we're digitally revolutionized and there is no practical portable television anymore -- unless, of course, you pay $199 and $15 a month to FloTV.
    I'm sure the iPad is going to be big fun for two years or so, until Apple introduces -- BIG MEDIA-DRIVEN FANFARE HERE -- iPad II, and iPad 1's start flashing "Content no longer supported, please upgrade your device."
    The really irritating part of this is that guys like me carried Apple on our shoulders when it was beaten and bloody, because we were appalled by a Windows-only world. Now, Apple is proving itself to be as rapacious and controlling as Microsoft ever was. Hard to believe this is the same company that made the "1984" ad.
    And with regard to the Prius analogy, I seriously considered buying a Prius but went with a Smart instead, precisely because I CAN take care of it myself. If the computer goes, I'm screwed, but at least I can forgo the $170, 10,000-mile maintenance calls and change my own oil and air filters. Right now, not having to rely on Toyota for my ongoing mobility is looking like a pretty good call.
    My advice, keep the Jeep.

  7. I think your logic is smart and compelling and your conclusion is wrong.

    I think odds are that the iPad will be most attractive precisely to those people who have the fewest other devices and who are least capable of or interested in tinkering with them.

    It will be window. Now, what will be out there for them to see?

  8. Anonymous12:16 PM

    Howard, I appreciate your response.
    The answer to your question of what will be out there for them to see is chillingly simple: whatever Apple allows them to see -- primarily its own orchard of products and those of companies it cuts business deals with.
    And I think you might be misunderstanding who I'm talking about when I say those who will like the iPad are those who like hip new gadgets.
    I'm not talking about techie gearheads, they'll see the iPad's shortcomings from a mile away.
    I'm talking about the person who never outgrew high school and has to have that $200 iPhone or iPod, because it's what the cool people have, when their needs could just as easily be met with a $30 Palm Centro or $50 Sylvania MP3 player.
    Of course, their frivolous overspending is their lookout, not mine.
    But my experience is that such people have little interest in news (except maybe fashion trends and American Idol ballot counts), and even less of a contribution to make to news coverage. I shudder to think what will happen to the quality of national discourse if we tailor our content to their wants and desires.
    At $500 to $800 (with 3g data plan sold separately), I just don't think iPad's going to bring about the democratization of news distribution and creation you (and I) are hoping for.
    To the extent it does, it will be an Athenian democracy, for the propertied class only.