Our Browsers, Ourselves

Using the healing power of blogging to rationalize an expensive and unnecessary purchase.

As one of the idiots loyal technology enthusiasts who bought an iPhone on day one, I was a little disappointed by the anti-climactic iPad pre-order event. In June a couple years ago, I was standing in line outside an AT&T store for an hour, chatting with the other saps fine people, only to be told at the last minute that they were sold out of the version I wanted. That led to my driving all over Marin county, eventually finding myself at an Apple Store, where I was welcomed by a double line of smiling Apple employees escorting me to the demo phones on display at their all-white tables, then putting a gentle hand on my back and leading me to the back of the store where they could take my credit card info. It was exciting and not at all creepy.

With the iPad, though, I just hit a button on a web form. Where’s the excitement? Or the exclusivity? It’s been over a week, and you can still order one online! You can even have it sent to your house, and miss out on all the energizing and totally not cult-like atmosphere of the Apple Store. I used the online form to reserve a pick-up at one of the stores in San Francisco. Conveniently, the very same form let me schedule a time and place outside the store to get mugged and have my iPad stolen from me.

I chose the WiFi 32 GB model, and I chose Darrel as my Forced Redistribution Representative. I figured that even the 64 GB model wouldn’t hold all of the music and video I’ve amassed over the decades, and the iPhone is a better music player anyway, so 32 GB could easily store a couple weeks’ worth of video and books until the next sync. And I liked that Darrel is a methadone addict who plans to re-sell the thing on Craigslist, so it felt like I was giving back to the community.

Now, I put a good bit of effort into talking myself out of wanting one of these things, and then calmly and rationally going through the pros and the cons, so that I could make an informed purchasing decision by the morning of the 12th. Apple ruined all that, by apparently having enough supply to meet the demand, but I hate to see all that thought process go to waste:

Cost-Effectiveness: When I moved into this apartment, I bought a couch for $600. It’s green and very comfortable. I also bought a chair from Office Depot for around $80. It’s oddly tilted and is bad for my back. When I get home after a grueling day of watching other people make videogames, I spend anywhere from two to four hours at my desk, reading news feeds and forum messages, starting and abandoning web posts such as this one, and obsessively checking Google for mentions of the game I’m working on. If it’s “Lost” or “Castle” night, or the day after “Community” and “30 Rock,” I might spend an hour on the couch in front of the TV. This means that every second I spend at my desk, I’m losing money that I spent on my couch. Being able to browse the web while reclined isn’t only more comfortable, it’s the right thing to do.

Productivity: Whenever I’m sitting in this uncomfortable chair reading the internets, I invariably run across a recommendation of some Flash game that I end up playing for longer than it’s worth. The iPad doesn’t support Flash. Big win.

Literature: I’ve still got all these books piled up from back when I used to intend to read things. But what a hassle! Those pages! Finding a light source! All the opening and closing! On the floor of my apartment, I’ve got a big stack of unread books just sitting there, mocking me every time I sit down to play a videogame or watch a movie. Just think of all the space I could save if I could have all those books on a single device that’s a half inch thick, and not read them there!

Health Concerns: The books that I do still read are comics, and reading comic books means leaving the apartment to take a bus down to the comic book store. And that means exposing my body to unhealthy UV radiation. In the perfect world of 2010, I should be able to buy comic books without going outside. And without waiting for the trade paperbacks to come out.

My Concern for You, The Readers: The one thing the best writers all have in common is that they have a singular voice, a defining characteristic. The one thing that all my writing has in common is that there’s a lot of it. If I can make blog posts from a touchscreen keyboard with the iPhone OS’s auto-correction, then I’ll be encouraged to keep it short and sample.

The Lamentations of Bloggers: There have been several bloggers calling out the iPad for representing the Evils of Closed Systems, writing post after post decrying the “walled garden” of the App Store and Apple’s unfair business practices. They suggest that consumers are complicit in the death of open software, lured by the status of an Apple logo and a bright shiny piece of electronics instead of getting a more powerful and more user-empowering computer. So I’m buying an iPad to make a statement. And that statement is: “Fuck you.” With the additional statement: “I know what I’m doing, and how I spend my money is my own damn business. If Windows or Android or Linux or HP or LG or whoever had beaten Apple to the system with a superior product, then I would’ve bought that instead. So suck it.”

Research: There are plenty of other e-book readers and personal media players and netbooks out there already; I believe that the new thing that the iPad will bring to the market is genuinely social computing. As in: a direct, tactile connection to the content displayed on screen; and real, face-to-face communication with another person while sharing the contents of the screen. Apple mentioned both aspects during the iPad keynote, but the “sharing” part was kind of an afterthought. I believe that’s were it’s going to make a real difference, though. (It’s also what the Microsoft Surface project has been all about, but they got locked into the mindset of a big-ass table. Instead of a portable device, which they always tried to turn into just another Windows machine). Apple mentioned showing off pictures with an iPad, but I think that’s because Steve Jobs feels about games the same way George Bush feels about black people. Board games and card games are just a different experience than playing single-player or even multiplayer games online, and it’s an experience that I don’t think computers have been able to replicate yet.

I do honestly believe that there’s going to be a subtle shift in the way people think about computers once more of us can show someone else a web page or a photo or a video simply by handing them the screen. But I think the most exciting stuff on the iPad is going to come from two areas: online magazines, and social games. (And hopefully, we’ll be able to take the term “social games” back from all the people making Facebook games).

One more thing: I’ve seen several articles — this one on Macworld by Jason Snell is just one of many — touting the advantages of getting the 3G model instead of the WiFi. Snell makes it clear that he’s not saying the 3G model is right for everyone, just that it’s worth considering, and he predicts that it’ll become the de facto standard on future models. I’ve got a few problems with his arguments, though:

  1. “All you’re paying … is $130.” That’s still quite a premium, even for an Apple product. Most of us still have no idea how much we’d actually be using this computer. I can think of several cases where it’d be useful to have one, so I’m taking the plunge, but I can’t predict whether I’d ever be as dependent on it as I am on my cell phone or desktop computer. So saving $130 on what could turn out to be a failed experiment sounds a lot safer.
  2. “The iPad’s 3G service has none of these drawbacks: It can be set to auto-cancel and requires no commitment.” It’s undoubtedly better than a traditional cellular plan, but it still requires cash and effort. A minimum of effort, granted, but still. The most brilliant thing Amazon did with the Kindle, in my opinion, is make the 3G connectivity completely invisible. You don’t have to pay extra, you don’t even have to do anything; it just works. Maybe someday Apple will reach a similar deal with a service provider as Amazon reached with Sprint; until then, the iPad is a tablet computer with a 3G modem. It’s not Hitchhiker’s Guide-caliber magical and revolutionary technology.
  3. “Apple has cut a remarkable deal with AT&T…” Yes, it’s a remarkable deal. But it’s with AT&T. It’s little exaggeration to say that here in San Francisco, getting onto a WiFi network is usually easier than getting onto AT&T’s 3G network.
  4. “Plenty of commuters don’t have access to Wi-Fi during their journeys.” How important is it to get streaming or real-time data during a commute, though? I could sync a week’s worth of video to the iPad every Sunday night and be good to go. Or cache all my RSS feeds with a newsreader in the morning.
  5. “When you’re traveling, Wi-Fi can be hard to come by.” If you’re traveling out of the country, international roaming that doesn’t cost a fortune can be hard to come by. If you’re traveling within the US, finding a hotel without Wi-Fi can be hard to come by. If you’re traveling in the desert or the woods or somewhere else that doesn’t have Wi-Fi, put the computer away and enjoy being outdoors for once.
  6. “I didn’t even mention the other serious hardware advantage of the 3G-enabled iPad models: They come with GPS capability.” So does my iPhone, which I almost always have with me, and which is more convenient than a 10-inch tablet computer.
  7. “The iPhone has taught us that it’s really, really nice to have a 3G data network available whenever you want.” And again, that’s why the iPad isn’t a replacement for a smartphone. If I need to check e-mail or even Twitter, or anything else that requires real-time updates, then the iPhone will work as well as it always has. I just can’t see walking or driving around with a 10-inch screen that needs to be constantly updated.

And, of course, the iPad that’s going on sale next month is so obviously version 1.0 that it might as well be stamped in big red numbers on the back of the case. The thing hasn’t even been released yet, and there’s already enough speculation about the upcoming camera that you’d think people had been using it for months. It’s true of any piece of technology that there will be a better and faster version of it released soon. I’d say that it’s especially true of the iPad, since Apple is trying to sell people on a concept as much as they’re trying to sell a device. Since it’s a version 1.0, I wouldn’t be able to rationalize trying to “max it out” with 3G or with a larger flash drive. I’d even think that the 32 GB was overkill, except that if I do get one, I’d need it to last a couple of years.