Neither revolutionary nor retrograde

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The case for Apple’s iPad seems clear enough. Some 700,000 were sold on Saturday, which was double what had been predicted.

The case against the iPad is based on two different but related arguments. First, critics say the iPad is designed mainly for consuming rather than creating content, and that it thus represents a corporate-driven attempt to put the Internet genie back in the bottle and return us to our former status as passive couch potatoes. Second, the iPad is a closed system controlled entirely by Apple, and will therefore stifle the sort of innovation that gave rise to such phenomena as Google and Twitter.

Both propositions are true. Yet they strike me as overblown.

The case against the iPad as a consumption-oriented device is summed up well by Jeff Jarvis, who writes — accurately, I think — that a principal reason the device has been the recipient of so much media buzz is that media executives see this as a chance for a do-over: this time, moguls will control the content and consumers will pay for it. Jarvis writes:

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them.

Yet the iPad isn’t just a repository for paid apps; it’s also a pretty good machine for browsing the Web. If you are currently reading the New York Times on the Web rather than paying for electronic delivery through Times Reader, for instance, well, the iPad will let you keep right on doing that.

As for participation and conversation, the iPad’s virtual keyboard is pretty lousy (based on my brief encounter with it at the Apple store in Peabody on Saturday), but it’s good enough for posting to Twitter and Facebook, or even for writing short blog posts.

Besides, as Howard Owens notes, “The vast majority of people … are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.”

The tech argument against the iPad strikes me as even more esoteric. The idea is that by requiring developers to write apps within a rigid, closed universe, to get them approved by Apple and to share revenues with Apple, Steve Jobs is stifling the innovation that gave rise to both the personal computer and the Internet.

At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow waxes rhapsodic over the days when the Apple II Plus came with schematics for the circuit boards, and quotes something called the “Maker Manifesto” in writing, “Screws not glue.” Doctorow’s point is that we should be able to rip our devices apart and customize them the way we like. Needless to say, Doctorow is not talking to too many people — just his fellow hackers.

Now, I don’t find either Jarvis’ or Doctorow’s critiques to be entirely without merit. But I’m proceeding on the assumption that the iPad is not going to take over the world. The iPad is an auxiliary device that will not take the place of computers. It’s also only one model for how to make a tablet computer. As Jarvis notes, Google is said to be working on a model, and it’s likely to be far more open than Apple’s. We’ll see if it’s as popular.

Personally, I’m not all that impressed with the iPad. I got to spend about 10 minutes with one on Saturday. Granted, that wasn’t really enough time to put it through its paces. But it was enough to see that the display is no better than that of a good-quality laptop; that the virtual keyboard is fairly unusable (you’ll be able to buy a plug-in keyboard, but wouldn’t you rather have a netbook?); and that it’s too heavy to wield like a magazine or newspaper.

Even for pure media consumption, it’s not necessarily better than a laptop. I’d rather take an iPad into the living room. But a laptop is better for propping up on the kitchen table during breakfast, because you don’t have to hold it up in front of you. I might get a later, presumably lighter, version. But I’m not salivating.

The ridiculous amount of hype that has surrounded the iPad, to which I am now contributing, has made all of us think this is more important than it really is. It’s not going to save the traditional media, however much media executives may wish it, and however much Jarvis and Doctorow may be gnashing their teeth.

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17 thoughts on “Neither revolutionary nor retrograde

  1. L.K. Collins

    Your last paragraph, Dan, is perhaps the most important.

    It plays to Jobs’ ability to trade mystique and promotion for sales.

    Ask yourself this question: How many units would have been sold on the first day if the hype did not have its central personality?

    As the carneys say, here come the suckers.

  2. BP Myers

    The days of the Internet as “wild west” are over, and things like the herd mentality of users of Apple products (ironic, considering its anti-“1984” roots) are to blame

    On NPR this morning, proponents of Apple’s closed system (mostly just regular folks) lauded Apple for their gatekeeping, one women saying it “kept out pornography” (whatever that is) and another saying it kept out “junk apps,” whatever they are . . . oh yeah. Whatever Apple says they are.

    Also received an e-mail from my brother this past weekend, who said it was a shame I wasn’t on facebook so he could keep up with me. I reminded him I’ve had a blog for a few years and kept it regularly updated. Told him as well that my tweets could be found there.

    So, to me, anyway, it looks like “the herd” is more than happy being fenced in.

  3. Jerry Ackerman

    What if the engineers could get weight and portability down to that of a magazine or newspaper – something you could almost literally fold up and put under your arm or in a small bag? I can see a future for such a device in place of the daily newspaper. Yes, it’s all push – just like print. I have very little desire to be interactive with every iota of the day’s news. All they want is the information, thank you. I don’t have the numbers but suspect the actual percentage of people inclined to do what I am doing right now is in the low single digits. For them/us there are and will continue to be other devices.

  4. Al Fiantaca

    I don’t know if the early adopters who rushed to Apple stores to get the first ones released were suckers, but I feel the the media, who did so much of the heavy lifting hyping the iPad, were. That has to be as much of the first day sales success for Apple as the actual units sold were. They gave incalculable free promotion to Apple in the name of news. BTW, entertainment was in on the story, too. “Modern Family”, an ABC sitcom that ran this week had a storyline in which one of the lead characters desperately wanted one of the first release iPads. I don’t recall who sponsored the show.

  5. Jack Sullivan

    iPad=Segway in my mind. Not a true game-changer in any sense of the word, just a more technologically advanced status symbol despite the revolutionary hype for both. My BlackBerry and Trek do the same things with a little more effort on my part but a lot less stress on my wallet.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: What a game! I don’t write about the Red Sox here all that often anymore because I tend to do it on Twitter. But man. One semi-sour observation: The first major unpleasant matter that Tito is going to have to consider this season is what to do about David Ortiz. At the very least, Lowell should be the right-handed DH.

  6. Steve Stein

    Regarding Papi – I am hoping that Ortiz was playing last night solely because it was opening day, and that Lowell *will* be the DH v. LHers. (He’s better v LHers than RHers, and quite a bit better than Ortiz.)

  7. BP Myers

    Hilarious, @Steve. Gotta assume that’s a prude filter that can be turned on and off. Or is it?

    Anyway, thanks for the chuckle.

  8. I’ve been looking at the iPad with interest, because I’ve actually written quite a few stories on my iPhone — but I have to email them for someone else to post (or to myself if it isn’t breaking) rather than post to TheDailyGrafton.com myself because the iPhone screen is just too darned small to navigate the CMS (sadly, there isn’t an app for that, although I can post to my WordPress blog fairly easily). I don’t have a laptop with me all the time (bulky) and when I do, there’s not always wireless available. A device that’s small enough to fit in my purse, with 3G, that’s bigger than my phone sounds like an excellent in-the-field reporting device.

    I won’t be an early adopter, however, because Apple always needs a couple generation to get all the bugs out and the expense down. I’m told I’d need an adapter to download photos from my camera.

    But it seems like it would be a great device for someone like my father, who LOVES his Kindle and brings it everywhere. He should probably be getting a commission from Amazon for the number of people he’s directed to the Kindle by giving demos at my son’s Little League games and at the gym.

  9. Lou Gawab

    Just curious if there are any complaints about the iPad not having flash (or is it java?).

    Seems like a TON of websites are using it nowadays, and it is hard to work without it.

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