I tweeted earlier that after having slept with her (Ms. iPad), I woke up with morning-after regrets. She’s sweet and pretty but shallow and vapid.
Cute line, appropriate for retweets. But as my hangover settles in, I realize that there’s something much more basic and profound that worries me about the iPad — and not just the iPad but the architecture upon which it is built. I see danger in moving from the web to apps.
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. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.
That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.
The iPad’s architecture supports these limitations in a few ways:
First, in its hardware design, it does not include a camera — the easiest and in some ways most democratic means of creation (you don’t have to write well) — even though its smaller cousin, the iPhone, has one. Equally important, it does not include a simple (fucking) USB port, which means that I can’t bring in and take out content easily. If I want to edit a document in Apple’s Pages, I have to go through many hoops of moving and snycing and emailing or using Apple’s own services. Cloud? I see no cloud, just Apple’s blue skies. Why no USB? Well, I can only imagine that Apple doesn’t want us to think what Walt Mossberg did in his review — the polar opposite of Pogue’s — that this pad could replace its more expensive laptops. The iPad is purposely handicapped, but it doesn’t need to be. See the German WePad, which comes with USB port(s!), a camera, multitasking, and the more open Android operating system and marketplace.
Second, the iPad is built on apps. So are phones, Apple’s and others’. Apps can be wonderful things because they are built to a purpose. I’m not anti-app, let’s be clear. But I also want to stop and examine the impact of shifting from a page- and site-based internet to one built on apps. I’ve been arguing that we are, indeed, moving past a page-, site-, and search-based web to one also built on streams and flows, to a distributed web where you can’t expect people to come to you but you must go to them; you must get yourself into their streams. This shift to apps is a move in precisely the opposite direction. Apps are more closed, contained, controlling. That, again, is why media companies like them. But they don’t interoperate — they don’t play well — with other apps and with the web itself; they are hostile to links and search. What we do in apps is less open to the world. I just want to consider the consequences.
So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.
There are alternatives. I now see the battle between Apple and Google Android in clearer focus. At Davos, Eric Schmidt said that phones (and he saw the iPad as just a big phone… which it is, just without the phone and a few other things) will be defined by their apps. The mobile (that is to say, constantly connected) war will be won on apps. Google is competing with openness, Apple with control; Google will have countless manufacturers and brands spreading its OS, Apple will have media and fanboys (including me) do the work for it.
But Google has a long way to go if it hopes to win this war. I’m using my Nexus One phone (which I also had morning-after doubts about) and generally liking it but I still find it awkward. Google has lost its way, its devotion to profound simplicity. Google Wave and Buzz are confusing and generally unusable messes; Android needed to be thought through more (I shouldn’t have to think about what a button does in this use case before using it); Google Docs could be more elegant; YouTube’s redesign is halfway to clean. Still, Google and Apple’s competition presents us with choices.
I find it interesting that though many commercial brands — from Amazon to Bank of America to Fandango — have written for both Apple and Android, many media brands — most notable The New York Times and my Guardian — have written only for Apple and they now are devoting much resource to recreating apps for the iPad. The audience on Android is bigger than the audience on iPad but the sexiness and control Apple offers is alluring. This, I think, is why Salon CEO Richard Gingras calls the iPad a fatal distraction for publishers. They are deluding themselves into thinking that the future lies in their past.
On This Week in Google last night, I went too far slathering over the iPad and some of its very neat apps (ABC’s is great; I watched the Modern Family about the iPad on the iPad and smugly loved being so meta). I am a toy boy at heart and didn’t stop to cast a critical eye, as TWiG’s iPadless Gina Trapani did. This morning on Twitter, I went too far the other way kvetching about the inconveniences of the iPad’s limitations (just a fucking USB, please!) in compensation. That’s the problem with Twitter, at least for my readers: it’s thinking out loud.
I’ll sleep with the iPad a few more nights. I might well rebox and return it; I don’t have $500 to throw away. But considering what I do for a living, I perhaps should hold onto it so I can understand its implications. And that’s the real point of this post: there are implications.
: MORE: Of course, I must link to Cory Doctorow’s eloquent examination of the infantilization of technology. I’m not quite as principled, I guess, as Cory is on the topic; I’m not telling people they should not buy the iPad; I don’t much like that verb in any context. But on the merits and demerits, we agree.
And Dave Winer: “Today it’s something to play with, not something to use. That’s the kind way to say it. The direct way: It’s a toy.”
: By the way, back in the day, about a decade ago, I worked with Intel (through my employer, Advance) on a web pad that was meant to be used to consume in the home (we knew then that the on-screen keyboard sucked; it was meant to be a couch satellite to the desk’s PC). Intel lost nerve and didn’t launch it. Besides, the technology was early (they built the wireless on Intel Anypoint, not wi-fi or even bluetooth). Here’s the pad in the flesh. I have it in my basement museum of dead technlogy, next to my CueCat.
: More, Monday: NPR’s related report and Jonathan Zittrain’s worries.