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.