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!