On Tuesday Paid Content’s Staci D. Kramer grabbed the legendary design guru and visual journalist Mario Garcia for a quick interview at the Poynter Institute, where he was the keynote speaker at Poynter’s Power of the Tablet conference. (Disclosure: I spent my teenage years as a Poynter brat, and so have been lucky enough to know Mario since I was a kid.) It’s a good interview, which you can watch here as part of Kramer’s report.
In it, Garcia says something I thought goes to the heart of the appeal of the iPad and whatever tablet computers successfully emulate it: The iPad, he tells Kramer, “allows you to feel disconnected when you are connected.”
Yes, I thought, that’s it exactly.
The question of whether the iPad is a vehicle for production or consumption is an interesting one, but misses the point. Similarly, thinking of the iPad as a “lean-back” device instead of a “lean-forward” one is helpful, but only one aspect of what it does.
Many of us feel ambivalent about how technology has remade our lives. On the one hand, we love being connected in a way that feels active, as opposed to taking in information from a TV or a print newspaper. Take away Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and our RSS feeds and our browser of choice and we feel a gnawing insecurity: We’re out of the loop, and things are happening out there that we don’t know about. On the other hand, we remember when things weren’t like this and we never felt that insecurity when not always connected, and wonder if the bargain was worth it. Now and then, if we manage to get past that twitch of needing connection, we find ourselves relaxing and wandering in our own minds in a way we haven’t for a while — and may think, Gee, I should do this more often. I refuse to get Wi-Fi on planes because I like the experience of losing myself in a book for a few hours or simply staring out the window and seeing where my thoughts go. The shame is that I’ve trained myself to think I can only do that on an airplane.
The tablet has the potential to split the difference: It’s a device that allows connection, but encourages contemplation. It gets us out of our busy, working/searching desktop or smartphone postures, returning us to the feeling of curling up with a book. It lets us check email or do some quick surfing, but also makes it easier to stop. It’s not a surprise that early iPad news apps are uncomfortably positioned somewhere between print and online experiences — so too is the iPad. Our job as editors and designers and thinkers is to get rid of the “uncomfortably” part — in other words, to create something that lets you feel disconnected when you’re connected.
Yes, that’s it exactly. Thanks Mario!
This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.
Once we got done making jokes about the name, one of the more amusing aspects of the iPad’s launch was how many people made up their minds about the product’s worthiness and market fate without the benefit of using one for very long, if at all. The iPad was a closed computing system that was an insult to people’s intelligence, a walled garden appealing to publishers’ retrograde tendencies, a perfect-for-Grandma gift combining an e-reader with a good digital picture frame, and a brilliant new device that would free us from the twin annoyances of peering at smartphones and gazing at desktop monitors. As well as most every other point on that curve. (The New York Times’s David Pogue cleverly squared the circle by running two reviews in one.)
I was as guilty of this as anybody else. Annoyed with the techie grousing about the lack of multitasking, cameras and HDMI ports, I pointed out what I thought such critics were missing: Techies weren’t the intended audience for Apple’s new device. The iPad, I predicted, would let people do at least three things a lot better than current devices: watch a movie, read a book, and casually surf the Web. And those improvements alone would be enough to make it Apple’s new device a hit, since (a) a lot of people like doing those things, and (b) our enchantment with being able to do those things on a smartphone or computer has blinded us to the fact that we can’t do them very well. It’s amazing to be able to watch a movie on a phone or use the web in bed; it would be a lot more amazing if you didn’t have to peer at a screen the size of a deck of cards or leave your legs sweating beneath a laptop’s heat and weight.
After swearing I’d wait for version 2.0 of the iPad, I wound up buying one, and waiting eagerly for it to arrive. (As always seems to happen, the case and the dock arrived first and sat around for a forlorn, purposeless few days.) So after a couple of weeks of using it, how closely does the device fit my preconceptions? Pretty well, for the most part — but with one exception. The thing is, that exception has made me think about apps and publishers’ hopes for them very differently.
I initially treated the iPad like an iPhone that couldn’t make a call — which, thanks to AT&T, is also an excellent description of my actual iPhone. I spent a couple of hours looking for iPad equivalents of my iPhone apps, downloading iPhone apps that didn’t have iPad versions yet, transferring photos and music, and futzing with settings. Then I downloaded a handful of news apps for the iPad — WSJ, New York Times Editors’ Choice, USA Today, AP News, and BBC News. And then I found a comfortable spot on the couch and played around.
As I’d suspected, reading a book and watching video was very different than on my iPhone, laptop, or desktop. Ebooks were finally an intimate experience like reading physical books. Videos felt big and bright. Games were a joy — gathering my impressions was delayed by my son’s love of Flight Control HD and Sparkle HD. Battery life is impressive — I had to train myself to always keep tabs on my iPhone’s battery indicator, but the iPad does fine if it’s plugged in every few days. Using the iPad is generally a comfortable, pleasurable experience — a good design scaled-up to a useful size — and using mine quickly became part of my daily routine.
What I hadn’t considered was the browser. We’re used to subconsciously pausing to twiddle our thumbs after visiting a web page, because we’re waiting for it to load. But web browsing on the iPad is startlingly fast. And the type in particular looks great. I’d figured I’d spend some time using my iPad to lazily surf when I didn’t feel like getting up and using a laptop. But I found myself doing that more than anything else.
Which brings us to the first round of news apps. As others have noted, some are good and some aren’t — though all deserve to be assessed as the early-stage experiments they are. I think USA Today did the best job bringing its aesthetic to the Web — I like the clever navigational trick of using its section banner to switch between News, Money, Sports, and Life. (But where’s Technology?) The Times’ photos look beautiful, and the navigation feels intuitive, but the content is so paltry that the entire app feels like a demo for something still in the works. As a Wall Street Journal veteran, I appreciated WSJ’s wink to tradition by billing the app as the paper’s six-star edition, but the navigation borders on incomprehensible.
Some of the confusion is to be expected — it will take a while for standards to emerge that utilize the iPad’s new vocabulary of swiping, pinching and expanding views. And apps will get richer and deeper.
But I keep coming back to the browser.
After about a week of using the iPad, I started deleting apps, because the websites themselves were perfectly adequate. This is the reverse experience of the iPhone. On the iPhone, the browser was used only in emergencies, and apps ruled. On the iPad, at least for now, the opposite is true — the browser is superb, and renders many apps superfluous.
That complicates things for news organizations. Many have already put too much faith in the idea that being able to charge for apps will reinvigorate their financial prospects. Now, they have to confront the reality that their apps may compete with their own websites — and right now the apps don’t win that competition.
Yesterday morning, like most everybody else, I sat down to read James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story on Google and the news industry. When I saw it was six screens long, I sighed. Then I reminded myself, and reached for my iPad. As I walked to the couch, I looked for an app from The Atlantic, mostly out of duty. There wasn’t one. It didn’t matter.
Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)
As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)
Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.
Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.
Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.
I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.
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Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.
Back in January, Judy Sims pleaded with editors and publishers to keep the print guys away from the process of developing apps for Apple’s forthcoming iPad:
The format and shape of the iPad feels comfortable and familiar to print guys. And for that reason, they will think they know how to design for it despite having little or no digital product experience. They will want to lay out pages the way they do in a newspaper or magazine. They will want to charge per article or figure out a subscription model that can be included in their ABC numbers. They will want to keep reader interaction, community and linking to a minimum.
In short, they will kill any chances of real innovation. Don’t let them do it.
Sims’s plea was for editors and publishers to put together a team of digital innovators and send them away for a few weeks, without any rules, to create something that “just might blow your socks off.”
Judging from the iPad concepts dribbling out from various publishers (check out this slideshow from paidContent), it seems pretty clear that Sims isn’t going to get her wish. Most of the concepts I’ve seen are heavily printcentric, seeking to use the iPad’s screen and form factor to replicate the magazine experience in ways that haven’t worked particularly well on screens until now. Yes, a photo or bit of text may lead the viewer into a slideshow or video or give them something to interact with, but you’re recognizably within a slightly reimagined magazine and a controlled environment.
It’s a potential trend that worries Reuters’ Felix Salmon. Last week, he wrote that Wired’s iPad strategy, as seen at South by Southwest, “is both the obvious one and the sensible one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” From what Salmon saw, Wired won’t include Wired.com stories on the iPad, will return to holding print content back from the Web, and will generally mark a retreat from Web principles: “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience.”
Salmon notes that this is good from media-company and brand-advertising perspectives, as it offers a better chance to recreate magazines’ glossy ads and re-attract the dollars that come with them. But from an open-Web perspective, “the Wired iPad app marks a clear retreat back towards what were once known as walled gardens.”
I think Salmon’s right — the first wave of iPad apps are going to be a return to walled gardens, fueled by a renewed sense of control that designers feel they surrendered in the Web era. What’s really interesting will be what comes after that.
I don’t think the slicker, more-controlled formats ushered in by the iPad will necessarily be a bad thing. As I wrote in my initial reaction to the iPad’s unveiling, the device will create a different, largely new experience than that offered by the Web or smartphones — for the first time, we’ll really be able to “lean back” with a properly sized screen while reading something digital, watching a movie or casually surfing. I think that will prove enormously appealing to a lot of people, and create a model that could have staying power.
Moreover, most magazines haven’t worked very well on the Web. A good magazine is a vibrant, lush experience, but it’s also a finite one, and that’s satisfying in its own right. You can read an entire issue of the New Yorker or the Atlantic and feel like you’ve accomplished something. For all its wonders, the Web doesn’t offer that — rather, it replaces it with a vague sense of insecurity. On the Web you never run out of things to read; you just run out of time.
Given all this, I won’t be surprised to see some magazines stick with a closed, controlled iPad presentation. And I won’t be surprised to see some of those publishers focus on iPad presentations at the expense of the Web.
But those closed presentations will compete with the Web anyway, even within the iPad. And this is where a lot of the iPad concepts I’ve seen get awfully thin. With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them. Quick will trump lush; free will trump controlled.
How publishers address this problem at a time in which they’re diverting resources to the iPad will be interesting to watch. I bet some will abandon the Web, or retreat to using it for shovelware versions of their titles, seeing the iPad and print as a better product mix. (Correspondingly, a lot of Web sites will go through a phase of making lousy, static-feeling iPad apps.) A brave few publishers will take Sims’s advice and create something interesting that feels new. But not many of them. And meanwhile, the real innovation will come from new publishers who approach the iPad without the cultural and business-model baggage of the print or the Web.
We won’t really know where we’re headed until we’ve seen a few iterations of this process. This is where I disagree partially with Sims — I don’t think the iPad will kill real innovation so much as it will delay it. And this is where I think what Salmon worries about will prove true, but a passing phenomenon. By the time a few cycles of iPad development have run, we’ll have seen some iPad hits, some interesting misses and a lot of dull missteps. Lessons will have been learned by those interested in learning them, and the device itself will have gained new capabilities. That’s when we’ll see some of those Walled Gardens 2.0 reopen — alongside ones that decide to stay shut.
Like most everybody else in digital-pundit circles, I watched every bit of Steve Jobs’s iPad introduction while in typical ADD multi-tasking mode: CNBC on TV, Engadget on one tab, audio of the event streaming (as well as buffering and stuttering) on another, Twitter reactions volleying in on a third. Like many other people, my first reaction was one of vague disappointment: This is kinda cool, but it sure feels like the Earth is still spinning on its old familiar axis. And where’s the WPA For Laid-Off Journalists app?
But a couple of hours later, I found myself thinking about Apple’s new device differently. What the geekerati are missing is the same thing I missed at first: We are not the intended audience for this device, at least not at first.
No multitasking! No Flash! No phone! No HDMI out! Got it. Understood. I thought variants of the same thing. But instead of thinking about what the iPad doesn’t do, think about what it does do. And instead of thinking about technology, think about activities. It does at least three things I can think of a lot better than current devices.
- Video: Watching a movie on a plane/bus/the subway/etc. remains one of those dancing-bear dog-walking-on-hind-legs experiences — its relative novelty causes us to focus on the fact that it’s being done at all and to ignore the fact that it’s not being done well. Watching a movie on a laptop stinks. You worry about the battery life, envision the guy in front of you violently reclining his seat and snapping your screen, and find yourself leaning forward, like an office worker on vague furlough. Watching a movie on an iPhone or iTouch also kind of stinks — the screen’s nice, but movies aren’t made to be watched on screens the size of playing cards. The iPad offers a much better experience — good battery life, decent-sized screen, and a device you can lean back and cradle.
- Books: The iPad has received the best reactions for the introduction of iBooks, and deservedly so. I’d of course want this impression confirmed firsthand, but it looks like a much lusher, immersive experience than the Kindle or the Nook, and one that’s closer to sitting down with a physical book. Meanwhile, the bigger screen holds promise for adapting magazines to a new format, and possibly the same will be true of newspapers. More on them in a bit.
- Casual Web Surfing: I doubt I’d want to use the iPad for frenetically beavering away for information over multiple sites, but it’s great for unwinding with some time on Facebook, sorting through emails that aren’t mission-critical, goofing around reading blogs, or looking for stats while watching a ballgame. Here, again, no existing device has been a great fit. I’ve never liked sitting in bed or on the couch with a laptop — they’re heavy, radiate heat and you tend to scrunch yourself forward to engage with them. And surfing on the iPhone is a messy tango of picking windows and pinching and zooming in on a small chunk of a page — I’m glad I can do it, but I try not to. The iPad offers the first real chance that this kind of casual surfing could actually be pleasurable.
For geeks (and I’m a card-carrying member) this kind of stuff is a recreational sidelight to the real business of a device, but not everybody is like us. Lots and lots of folks are happy to spend time watching something, and then settling in with a book, and then casually surfing some favorite sites, and now they have a device that improves on current ways to do all three of those things. It finally makes the digital version of all three a “lean-back” experience with a normal-sized screen. That’s new, and I bet it will be welcomed.
And the iPad will prove reassuring in other ways, too. As with the iPhone, the complexity of setup is largely submerged, which is the way computers should work in the first place: If you can hook up a cable, drag and drop things and remember your password, you’re good to go. The iPad will handle photos and music just fine. It doesn’t demand a year’s commitment to a wireless carrier. And it comes with the usual Apple cool factor. For a lot of people, that’s a pretty great combination.
Am I going to rush out and get an iPad? Probably not — I generally opt for Version 2 of devices, when the kinks are out and new capabilities have been introduced. I thought the least-convincing part of today’s presentation was the attempt to portray the iPad as a productivity tool: Hooking an iPad up to an external keyboard and making a spreadsheet with it seems more like proving a point than taking advantage of its best features. Besides, I’m used to leaning forward and dorking around with settings and drivers. But I think I’ll get there eventually — and I won’t be surprised if my opinions have changed by the time I do.
Which brings us to newspapers. No, there was no walk-on-the-water moment for publishers. But I think the fervent hope for one says more about publishers’ dire straits than it does about reality. This is a transitional device for publishers, but let’s not overlook the potential importance of that. Getting consumers of news and information to lean back in a digital setting may be more important in revitalizing our industry and rebuilding our bonds with readers than we initially think.
When the New York Times appeared on the iPad’s screen, my first reaction was disappointment. Oh goody, it’s print. It was elegant and pretty, but it also looked static and antique. But you know what? It was easy to read. The layout did invite you to linger. And the video was there, as I presume slideshows and other goodies would be too. (Not to mention it’s Version 1.)
And then I realized for a lot of people this was comfortable and familiar, and remembered the lesson I’d drawn elsewhere: I’m not the audience. At least not yet.
(Hat tip to my EidosMedia pal David Baker for remembering Johnson’s original quote was about a dog, not a bear. This is another reason bloggers need editors: They not only find your mistakes but can also help you with that reference you suspect you don’t have quite right.)