Sunday, February 14, 2010

Resisting The iPad

Remember when you were a kid, there was some toy that you just had to have. It was shiny and perfect, and you could only imagine the hours of finely sculpted joy you would have with it, if only you could buy it (or convince your parents to buy it for you). For me it was those little hand-held video games, the kind where it could only play one game because all the lcd segments were in pre-defined shapes rather than pixels. Then in high school it was a bulky, underpowered surplus laptop that was cheap enough for me to afford, but not powerful enough to run much of anything. Then in college it was a Palm Pilot, one of the old black and white ones that could sync to a computer and not much else.

The problem with all of them was that the reality never lived up to the expectation. The imagined joy instilled on whichever product was the object of my techno-lust was never founded in specifics, but rather a haze of half realized possibility fueled by colorful packaging and television commercials. I suspect everyone has something like this in their past, and that this feeling is not something unique to my own experience.

Which brings us to the latest in a long line of Over-Hyped Shiny Objects: the iPad. I will say one thing for Steve Jobs, he's damned good at making a sales pitch that instills this exact kind of unreasoning technological envy while making it look like he's doing the exact opposite. The announcement, streamed live on the front page of CNN (how they pulled that one off I have no idea), presented such a dizzying series of features and applications that it's hard to imagine there being any purpose the iPad couldn't fulfill. Don't worry about needing a reason to buy one, Steve just showed you fifty reasons; surely a couple will apply to you.

It's only when you take a minute to shake off the sales pitch and think objectively that the cracks start to show. For starters, there are some complete outliers that play right into the Shiny mentality. While it does look like the iPad would make a useful tool for digital graphics design, not that many people paint or draw on a regular basis. So what does pitching it as a graphics design revolution gain them? My guess is that the set of people who like to think they could be painters is a lot larger than the set of people who actually do paint, so Steve just bought himself a whole bunch of sales on the idea that, "I'll start painting if only I have this tool to help me."

That's not to say the iPad has no realistic uses. The main purpose of the system as it stands seems to be for media consumption, which is probably a large majority of computer use in non-business settings. So the question becomes, "how good is the iPad at replacing my other media tools?" Unfortunately, here it seems to fall short again. Let's go through the list.

For listening to music, the iPad is almost completely worthless. My principle test for whether technology is capable of reaching long-term adoption is that it's able to help you do something, and then get out of the way. The large screen on the iPad may be beautiful for browsing through your library, and for displaying the iTunes album format, but as soon as you've found the song you want to listen to you're suddenly stuck with a giant, bulky, fragile screen and nowhere to put it.

What about watching videos? The screen is beautiful, no doubt about it. But watching videos, especially long ones, is typically a very passive activity. With the iPad you're suddenly forced to hold your screen at a good viewing angle for the length of the video. No such problem with books and magazines -- you're already forced to hold them anyway -- but you get to stare into a brightly lit screen the entire time you read.

With "new media" the iPad seems to run into even more trouble. Someone high up in the design hierarchy at Apple seems to be in love with the idea that rotating the device should be the trigger for seeing an item full-screen. Want to see that YouTube video full screen? Get rid of the folder list next to that email you're reading? Just turn it! I wonder whether they forced whoever came up with this paradigm to actually sit down and use it for hours straight before shipping it in every application they could find.

That's just one design pattern, but the bigger problem in my mind is that new media, and the internet in general, is typically much more interactive. I don't just go read blogs, I respond to them. I don't just read email, I respond to it, and jump into instant messaging sessions with others on it. I write on my blog. Not just a couple words here and there, but thousands a day. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that touch-typing on an iPad is next to impossible, even if you can get into a position where your hands are free to do so while you're still able to see the screen and be comfortable. They do sell an extra dock with a hard keyboard, but have fun picking it up from the dock every thirty seconds so you can turn it to full-screen whatever you're looking at.

There's just no way around it -- the iPad is meant for consuming media, not generating it. Realizing that fact pretty much killed the veil of Shiny that Steve carefully wove during the presentation. If all this thing is good for is watching movies and reading books, I don't need it. I already have plenty of tools that can do both just fine, thank you, and much more besides. Movies and books aren't going to be any better because I'm viewing them on a five hundred dollar screen.

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