On Wednesday of this week, Apple announced a magical and revolutionary device that will herald the future of personal computing. But it’s not a bright future, no, but a tragic, deeply cynical, disturbing one. People will be powerless to stave off the onslaught of evil, locked into a frightening future of a tightly-controlled app store. That is why it is imperative that no one must buy the iPad, or that the only moral, ethical way to save the future is to buy one and then hack it.
At least, that’s if you believe everything you read on the internet. If you’re still at all grounded in reality, you realize that Apple announced a big iPod Touch.
(That’s if you’re not still giggling over the name. And for the record, I never would’ve made the obvious joke had I known a) they were actually going to call it that, and b) it would so quickly become the 2010 equivalent of abbreviating Microsoft as M$ by YouTube & blog commenters).
I still don’t understand why so many Internet types — both criticizing and defending — seem to think that calling it “a big iPod Touch” is such a devastating ice burn. John Gruber insists that the iPad is what Apple’s had in mind all along; the iPad isn’t a bigger iPhone, but the iPhone is a stripped-down iPad. Whichever way you want to look at it: the iPhone is pretty cool.
The iPad announcement confirmed my own worst suspicions of the thing — not that I’m particularly prescient or even in the loop of the tech world, but just because it was the most straightforward and obvious thing that Apple could’ve announced. It’s designed for consuming media, not creating it. And according to people who’ve had a hands-on with it, it does a really good job at that. I’m inclined to believe Stephen Fry’s claim that you have to see it in person to really appreciate it — not because he’s any more or less reliable than anyone else as a technology commentator, but because I had the same experience with the iPhone. I’d been trying to talk myself out of getting an iPhone, but was completely won over as soon as I used a display model and saw the clarity of the screen and all the polish that’d been given to the UI.
And the iPhone is still pretty damn neat. It’s already obviated a laptop computer for a lot of the “casual computing” stuff I tend to do, and the app store has expanded its functionality several times over. And yes, I have often thought, “a faster version of this, with a larger screen, would be ideal.” So what’s the problem?
Spoiled Children of the Revolution
The problem, as I see it, is that developments in consumer technology have outpaced both content providers’ business models and consumers’ common sense. It’s resulted in a ridiculously over-inflated sense of entitlement that’s only made worse when dropped into the echo chamber of the internet.
Two of the most ridiculous examples are, unfortunately, on the only two Gawker blogs I can still tolerate reading: Lifehacker and io9. Annalee Newitz’s screed against “crap futurism” is the worse of the two, a depressingly cynical view of tech consumers disguised as consumer empowerment. She accurately describes the iPad as a device for consuming media, not creating it, but then barrels forward into a self-contradictory conclusion that paints this as not just a condemnation of consumer-oriented society but as something that endangers the very future of computing:
I know a lot of otherwise-savvy consumers and hackers who are already drooling over the iPad and putting in their orders. They hate the idea of a restricted device, but they love the shiny-shiny. I’m not saying that they should deprive themselves of this pretty new toy. What I am saying is that this toy represents a crappy, pathetic future. […] The only way iPads can truly become futuristic devices is if we hack them so that we can pour whatever operating system we want inside. We need to jailbreak these media boxes so we can install the apps we want, not the ones provided by the Apple shopping mall.
Or in other words: devices like the iPad lead us towards a future where we’re slaves to consumerism, unable to decide for ourselves but bound by some evil corporate giant’s decisions about what we’re allowed to watch and what we’re allowed to create. So the thing to do is go ahead and buy it anyway, and then violate the agreement you make with the manufacturer on activation. The genuinely crappy and pathetic future is one in which responsible adults actually behave this way and then attempt to justify it as noble.
Because, you know, you could just not buy it. That’s what Adam Pash advises us to do in his self-confessed rant on Lifehacker. But instead of seeming like common sense, it just rings hollow. For one thing, considering how much of Lifehacker is devoted to telling people how to take advantage of other people’s utilities or how to circumvent your ISPs policies towards downloading other people’s work without paying for it, I have a hard time taking their advice on making responsible consumer decisions.
But more significantly, it takes such a depressingly dim and cynical view of people by over-emphasizing the value of slabs of metal and glass and silicon. I frequently make fun of myself for being a slave to Apple, helpless to resist whenever they announce a new device. But it’s kind of depressing to realize that there are people who aren’t in on the joke. I guess I appreciate the concern, but it’s insulting to assume that we’re not responsible enough adults to decide for ourselves what to do with our own discretionary income.
10 PRINT “I’M BEING REPRESSED!” 20 GOTO 10
And in the world of people who don’t get paid to post, there’s Alex Payne’s flowery blog post of Revelations about the dystopian future promised by Apple’s control over the App Store. He says:
The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. […] The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.
Which isn’t just overblown pessimism, it’s actually insultingly condescending if it you give it more than a moment’s thought.
My parents bought us an Atari 2600 — without the BASIC cartridge, even! — and I still became a programmer, for better or worse. Having a passive videogame-playing machine didn’t turn me into some mindless drone (any more than any other American kid in the 80s, anyway). In fact, it did the opposite: I wanted so much to see my own stuff up on the TV screen that I whined and pouted until they got me a Commodore 64. Saying that an iPad will discourage kids from wanting to create their own software is like saying that an iPod — or Rock Band, more appropriately — will discourage kids from wanting to create their own music.
It’s not even the case that people will be turned away by Apple and forced to resort to Linux or Android or something equally horrible to get their code on. Apple sells Macs. It’s kind of their thing. They didn’t draw a big X over the MacBook and declare that the future was the iPad; they deliberately put the iPad in a space between the iPhone and the Mac. And no matter how much tech evangelists go on about the iPad’s being the future of computing, Apple is going to keep on selling Macs, for the simple reason that they need people to write iPhone OS software. You can’t use “140,000 Apps Available on Day One” in your marketing material unless you’ve got tens of thousands of people diligently working on fart apps, and most importantly for them: buying Macs to do so.
The evil, technology-stifling corporate giant Apple sells a computer for about the same price as an iPad that comes with a professional-grade development environment absolutely free. That is miles ahead of anything I could get back when I started programming. (Although I remain convinced that HyperCard was the Greatest Development Tool of Any Generation). You can even download the iPhone OS SDKs for free, and write apps for them to your heart’s content. That’s not an accident, and that’s not just generosity on Apple’s part — it’s all part of their devious plan to sell devices that have software running on them that people want to use. And the $99 that Apple charges to distribute those apps on the App Store is still less than what I had to pay for Microsoft Basic on my old Mac Plus.
Or in short: if the App Store’s certification process, or the $99 annual fee, or hell, the lack of Adobe Flash support, are bothersome to you, then the iPad just isn’t made for you.
It’s just plain arrogant to assume that it’s not made for anyone else. There are plenty of people who want exactly the kind of “protected” environment that the iPad promises. And not just the “casual” users who Payne says would be completely flummoxed at the idea of saving a web link to a home screen — people like me, who are perfectly capable of opening Terminal or writing an AppleScript, but enjoy that we don’t have to every time we want to look up something on the web. And who appreciate that we never have to think about malware or viruses or even just a poorly-written app that locks up our entire computer. That is the audience the iPhone OS is aimed for, and just because that doesn’t necessarily include you doesn’t make it evil or ominous.
The only concession that I’ll make is this one: it is a drag that you have to fork over Apple’s $99 annual fee just to run apps that you write on your own machine. It was somewhat understandable for a device that piggybacked on another company’s already-feeble cell network; it’s less appetizing for those of us who’d be perfectly content to have a wifi-enabled web browser and e-book reader that we can write apps for. I think Pash’s suggestion of a “restricted” section for the App Store would violate the whole principle of the App Store as a protected environment. But it would be very nice if Apple added local code-signing so that you could write an app for a specific device — as far as I’m aware, that’s only possible currently by being a paid member of their developer program.
Speaking of consuming vs. creating, I’ve written a treatise here just responding to what other people have said about the iPad, but haven’t yet offered up my own observations about the thing.
And that core observation about the iPad — that it’s designed for consuming media instead of creating it — is key to the whole conversation. But instead of presaging a dystopian future where we’re all locked into blind consumption, it does the opposite. It puts it squarely in the category of luxury item, where you have to be a responsible adult, and acknowledge that you’re buying one because you want one, not because you need one.
It’s a lot easier to justify “needing” a cell phone to put you in contact with people, or a laptop computer if you plan to get some work done. You can even rationalize an MP3 player as a “necessity” if you spend a lot of time commuting. But the iPad is a magazine-sized computer that lets you browse websites and read books using your fingers.
I don’t doubt Jobs’s claim that the iPad is better than a cell phone or a laptop at doing most of the stuff he demonstrated: it’s a great size for reading e-books, it’s more convenient for watching video, it’s more tactile than a desktop for browsing the web. The question is whether you do enough of that to justify paying $600-$800 for the convenience.
And I’ve done more foolish things with my money, so let’s assume that I could get over that roadblock and convince myself that I’ve got a need for something in between a cell phone and a full-powered laptop. The biggest draw for me would be e-books, magazines, comic books, web/RSS browsing, drawing, taking notes, and games.
I’ve been spending the past couple of months skimming the gadget blogs and hearing various reports from CES about all the “Apple Tablet killers” that were being announced, so I’d assumed there’d be a ton of alternatives to whatever Apple came out with. What’s been the most surprising to me is that it’s not just the Apple Effect at work: for what I’d want out of a device like this, the iPad really is the best-looking candidate.
My biggest disappointment is still that all of the devices around this size & price level have screens designed for multi-touch, not for drawing. The iPad still seems like it’d be the perfect size for using as a pen-based sketchbook and notebook, but there’s no pressure sensitivity and relatively limited resolution. Apple demoed the Brushes app at the keynote, but again, it’s finger-painting, not drawing. I’d be interested to see how well the Pogo Sketch Stylus works on it, but I’m not getting my hopes up. If I wanted to get serious about having a computerized sketchbook, it looks like the best candidate would be the HP TouchSmart tm2, which would require $1200 for a decent-powered machine, and then re-investing in Windows software after almost a decade with the Mac. (Not to mention all the iPhone apps I’ve already got).
As for the rest, they fail for me for the same reason that Macs succeed: Apple designs both the hardware and the OS. They’re made to work together. (Which is exactly why so many people complain about Apple’s controlled, closed systems). The HP Slate is about the same size and form factor as the iPad, plus it’s better-suited for watching HD video — but it’s running Windows 7. And if I can’t use a pen, I’d rather be running an OS designed for fingers than for mice. Almost all of the others are running Android, and I haven’t yet seen a demo of Android that looked enjoyable as opposed to just functional. This is a luxury device, remember, so slick presentation and little details of animation and typography are just as important as functionality.
One of the best, most reasonable, and unlike this blog most concise descriptions of the situation is Joe Hewitt’s post retitled “The Essence of iPad” on GigaOM. (And, notably, this is the guy who’s frequently cited as poster child against App Store Oppression). It’s clearly a version 1.0 device: there’s absolutely no question that future versions will come with a camera, and we can all hope that there’ll eventually be a button to lock the screen orientation, an OS that supports multitasking, and maybe someday a pen-enabled digitizer. But the biggest draw to the iPad is its potential. You can’t see the thing without imagining how you’d use it.
ComiXology has already announced an iPad version of its comic-reading app. If they can just get DC and Dark Horse on board, I’d be able to pack away all my comic books and have an apartment that doesn’t look like a creepy man-child’s.
For “real” books, in addition to Apple’s reader, Amazon’s already announced an iPad-enhanced Kindle app, and there’s little doubt that the free book readers like Stanza would follow suit. Magazines, blogs, and newspapers have already released iPhone apps separate from their web-based counterparts, but there’s rarely any use for them. It’s a no-brainer to assume that iPad-specific versions of those apps would actually be enjoyable to read.
The game demos at the Apple keynote were the least impressive, because they were all basically scaled-up iPhone games. But the potential for games is what has me most excited about the iPad, because the screen size and form factor are suited to a significantly different type of game than either the console or the mobile phone. Even the most straightforward types of games — card and board games — become more tactile and lend themselves to multiple players. Add in the potential for tabletop role-playing, collectible card games, real-time or turn-based strategy games, and you start to see how the whole platform opens up. (Imagine any of the prototypes aimed at the Microsoft Surface, without having to pay $10,000).
It sounds like I’ve just talked myself into getting one, and I still might in a weak moment. (For the record: I don’t see the appeal of the 3G model. Being able to download a book from anywhere becomes a lot less appealing when you don’t have the Kindle’s free data plan). I hate to argue with Apple’s marketing team, but there’s nothing really magical or revolutionary about the device. The magical and revolutionary part is going to come in when people start making stuff for it.