Thursday, January 28, 2010

On the iPad as a consumer device

When Apple's Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, expectations were high -- no, scratch that, expectations were enormous. Everyone more or less knew that it was going to be a tablet -- a tablet that very likely will be based on the a touch-screen, a tablet that will offer electronic book reading, etc., etc. Expectations were so high that there was no way Apple could live up to it -- after all, they couldn't possibly top the iPod and the iPhone, could they?

Unsurprisingly, the reaction in the media has been mixed. Numerous newspaper columnists and bloggers have written critically about various features that were less than optimal or were lacking, starting with the bezel, the lack of support for Flash, yada, yada...

I had a very different reaction.

In fact, I wasn't going to blog about it or anything, but when I saw the NYT headline "With Its Tablet, Apple Blurs Line Between Devices," I decided that I will, after all, present a simple point that seems to be missed by geek bloggers and mainstream journalists who generally seem to parrot some of what the geeks and some Wall St. types say.

The iPad is a device for consuming Web content -- information as well as entertainment.

It is not for programmers or professional photographers or bloggers or journalists or music makers or the guy who will be writing the next Great American Novel or the amateur videographer. Or, at least, it's not for them when they are creating content.

It is for the rest of us who, for the most part and for most of our lives, are consuming information or entertainment. It is for those of us who don't know or don't care what Flash support is or multitasking is or what Firefox is. It is for all of us when we just want to curl up with our book or our Web, preferably on our couch.

Experiencing the Internet doesn't have to be done crouched in front of a desktop and a keyboard, or lugging a 3 lbs. or more device on your lap. If all you're doing is consuming Web content, you might as well sit back, relax, and enjoy it. That's precisely what the iPad will let you do.

To be sure, you can do quite a bit more (write short emails, tweets, interact with web sites, fill forms, etc.), and with a few tweaks, it will let you do even more: Stick it into the keyboard dock, fire up Google Docs on your browser, and you can write your book report or term paper or maybe even a chapter or two of the Great American Novel; plug in your headphones, fire up Skype or Google Voice and you might be able to make phone calls as well. Yes, you could do these, but they are not the primary intended use case.

And this is where the NY Times headline is so wrong: Apple has not blurred the line between devices, it has made the line very clear. Consuming information and entertainment is a very different activity from producing it -- your interaction with your device can take full advantage of a lovely touch screen and speech interfaces where meaningful, but for the most part you don't have to actively do anything beyond simple, lightweight, gestures. Relax. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the Web!

When the Kindle came out, I was excited like never before (my father and grandfather are in the printing business, and I grew up with alloy typefaces, a bazillion font names, heady-smelling printing ink, language like "galley proofs" and "offset" and "treadle" printing machines and such). And since I am a computer scientist, I could imagine a lot more: I could see the Kindle completely revolutionizing the book experience -- textbooks would no longer be the same, there would be videos and animations and high-definition images that would teach our kids and their kids in a very different way.

Except it didn't.

The dull-gray background is painful to read on; it's a royal mess to find the meaning of the word you encounter -- you push around a teeny-weeny joystick to highlight the word and click on it; there is just one font -- one lousy font -- in which you can display content; the e-books often butcher pictures and superscripts (for chapter notes). At least the iPad will fix all these. And it will make reading on a device a joy.

So I hope the geeks will stop whining about minor issues -- yes, you can't listen to Pandora radio while you read your email, but can still listen to music on the iPod app; yes, it doesn't come with Flash support, but come on, that's a matter of software, and will more likely than not be fixed and patched even after the device is bought; yes, there is no camera, but surely somebody will come up with a tiny camera that sticks to the iPad so you can do video chat, etc., etc. Instead, it would delightful if the geeks would find novel applications to write for this new form factor (the size of a Mead composition notebook) that has a gorgeous touch-screen and an accelerometer.

There's a time for unleashing creative energy. For all other times, there is the iPad. Enjoy!


Suresh said...

Excellent analysis. For people like us though, we do both creative work and relaxing web surfing interchangeably, especially at a conference. I'd love to lug an iPad around at SODA, but I can't prepare a talk on it.

so it becomes (for me at least) primarily a home device, to replace the laptop sitting on the kitchen counter.

D. Sivakumar said...

Yes, as cs researchers/teachers, we are beleaguered by our multiple personalities: the programmer, the professor, the conference speaker, the blogger, etc.

The interesting thing about the iPad is that it has the potential not only to replace the laptop on the kitchen counter, but also invade our dining table or even our bedroom -- seems entirely reasonable to read a book, set the alarm, leave it on the bedside table for charging, go to bed, wake up and catch up on email/news/etc. before starting the day.

Anonymous said...

I was prepared to be excited by it, but I'm not. It's too big to make a good ipod/cellphone replacement. It's not a real computer with a real multitasking OS. And it doesn't have the nice sharp black and white text of the Kindle. What it does have is the same form factor as the Kindle, with a color screen and the ability to play youtube videos. So as far as I can tell it's trying to be a Kindle-killer, but is aimed at people who watch TV instead of reading.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you could prepare a presentation on it. For my presentations, I need a sketching app (usually OmniGraffle), a LaTeX app (LatexIt), access to images I have rendered previously for my papers, and access to previous presentations and the slides/images inside them. If the filesystem were exposed, then all this would be easy.

For a conference, though, I would also want the ability to use a stylus to take notes, and also to draw on my slides. The potential is there, but I won't get one.

Suresh said...

I've been told that there is a stylus for the iPhone so chances are good that this device will work on the ipad.

Veena Kannan said...

Agreed that this device doesn't blur the line but clearly defines it. The question is, are the tasks in our everyday life so clearly defined that we can separate consumption and production of information neatly?
The "bookshelf" is definitely intriguing after my disappointing trial with Kindle. I can almost buy into the idea of curling up with my iPad (and some peanuts on the side), reading my favorite book; almost..

Michael said...

When I figured out what the iPad was, I googled 'iPad consumer device,' and there was your blog, saying exactly what I thought.

Anonymous said...

What is so exciting about a mono-task tablet with a cute GUI? Is it that it gives people less computing power than they had for the last 15 years? What's so great about it? Taking it to your bedroom? Replacing an alarm clock?
As Veena said, the line between producers and consumers is blurred. People don't want to be passive consumers. A TV is good enough for that.

k said...

"The iPad is a device for consuming Web content -- information as well as entertainment."
so flash is everywhere! You are not a 'geek' so you don't see it. When you will try to watch video or play some little game, you will see it, but it will be too late. No way apple will put flash as a patch, the cult leader said so.

Winger said...

Now u have multitasking too ! and many websites have HTML5 video up for iPad.. Social gaming centre will replace the need of flash games ... now u can hear pandora while u compose a mail!! skype running on the BG .. awesome aint it!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sivakumar,

Did you teach complexity theory at Stanford once (I believe in 2003 or 2004)? If so, I attended it, and it was one of the best classes I ever took.