Reinventing the Newsroom

The IPad and Its Real Audience

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, IPad by reinventingthenewsroom on January 27, 2010

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.)


15 Responses

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  1. John Hayward said, on January 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm


    I think you are right about the iPad as a tool to use to read newspapers and magazines. It would be nice to sit in a chair (on the porch) or even in bed (for us 70 yrs) with a Kindle of iPad and review/preview the (next) days paper. In this household we have eshewed carbohydrate newspapers – maybe we are too lazy to walk up the drive or want to save trees. But – all too often i have printed a story or three out after having spent much of the day staring at WSJ – Bloomberg etc.

    Perhaps the iPad would be perfect – but at $899 – eek! I could go through a whole forest before I got a payback on that!



  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on January 28, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Thanks John — after sleeping on it for a night, I think the changes for publishers will be larger than we thought on first glance, but take longer to arrive than we’d hoped before the event. Which is probably just reality shining through the hype….

  3. Erwin2000 said, on January 28, 2010 at 10:40 am

    I think my main issue with the iPad is security.
    It seems awesome, but I can’t find info anywhere about just how secure is it.
    Can I trust it to keep my stuff safe in case I loose this gigantic iPhone? Or should I keep on keeping on carrying my encrypted usb drive around?

  4. Steve said, on January 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Hi Jason,

    Nice post. Nice reading. I too was sort of initially underwhelmed, but I think it’ll grow. It’s a bit like music. That catchy song gets really annoying, very quickly. Better ones grow on you, and I think the iPad will.

    I think you hit the nail on the head: it’s a new experience. I don’t visit the web on the iPhone except for basic needs (or boredom if I’m travelling), and while I can pinch and zoom and all those nice things, it’s not the same as a big screen… but am I going to get my 50lb laptop out on the subway and browse (or even read an ebook, or whatever) – nope. So this offers another opportunity to do more.

    And the price – $899? – no it’s $499. Do I really need 3G? Maybe not… wifi hotspots are perhaps good enough, and there’s little reception in the subway anyway. 16Gb? 15Gb more than I need. My photos, my stuff are in the cloud. And I have a 32Gb iPhone with music on anyway (oh, and I only have 22Gb of music anyway, so I’m sure if I trimmed Miley – and Billy-Ray – Cyrus, Abba and whatever else godawful on there – 16Gb’d be fine.

    Therefore, a nice way to view photos, browse content, read stuff, probably cool apps, music, video, 10 hour battery life, just sit and ‘connect’ – yes, it’s growing on me too.

    Oh, I can also use it as a picture frame when recharging – gimmicky, but nice… – I can also stand it up on my piano to read music off of (very handy!), I can stand in the kitchen to read recipes (or more likley, keep an eye on the football scores while cooking my foccacia), and who knows what else.

    So I’ll get one. Probably version 1 too. I do believe this is a new category, so well done Steve Jobs.

    Oh – and iWork. Never. Boring old PC is best for boring old Excel.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on January 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm

      Now that I think about it, the picture-frame thing is actually pretty darn cool. And one of those things that’s perfectly obvious … to the second guy who thinks of it. Thanks Steve!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pécsi Ferenc/pollner, Ken, Jason Fry, Jason Fry, Michael Fitzgerald and others. Michael Fitzgerald said: Two takes on what ipad changes. such guessing games make me wonder if Apple missed. […]

  6. uberVU - social comments said, on January 28, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jasoncfry: Geekerati are wrong abt the #iPad for a familiar reason: They’re not the audience. Reinventing the Newsroom.

  7. Keena Hoffmaster said, on January 29, 2010 at 2:31 am

    Lots of of bloggers are not very happy with the new iPad.There was too much hoopla regarding it and lots of blogers got disapointed.Quite frankly, I can actually see lots of the cool potential of this gadget. Third-party applications for working with music, games, papers and magazines and FFS books, all sorts of neat stuff, but they just didn’t really sell it very well (aside from the books). It looks kinda incomplete

  8. Jim said, on January 29, 2010 at 8:33 am

    I thought this was well written and makes some intelligent observations about the potential of iPad. However, I disagree about the utility of a keyboard. If the average Joe can write with Notes and do spreadsheets with notes and/or run TurboTax, this device will do pretty much everything most consumers want with a home PC. Plus you can read the NYT on the couch. So for me the keyboard is a big, big reason why I’d be interested in one. It allows this thing to displace a lot of the tasks I currently need a desktop or laptop for. And really, why COULDN’T you write a novel on this thing, or put together a corporate budget. Is there an obvious reason?

    It also strikes me that the iPad is a tabula rasa (sorry about that), and that even the digerati have not yet figured out it’s potential. I am not a blind Apple follower, but I think this thing may turn out to by strangely compelling to a lot of people when they realize what it is capable of.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on January 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

      That’s a good point — and another example of how we can get blinded by our initial point of view. I got very tired of pundits who dismissed the iPad because they don’t think it makes for a very good laptop, but I was thinking of “good laptop” in a lean-forward, worker-bee way. As you note, the iPad might be a perfectly good laptop for the more casual consumer, who’s mostly going to lean back but occasionally needs to do some basic office-type stuff. In other words, maybe I’ve been just as blind to some iPad possibilities as some of the critics I inveighed against in the very same post. 😉

      Thanks Jim!

  9. […] to a different audience than most new tech products (the casual, “lean-back” user, says Jason Fry; the content-inhaling youth of the world, says David Carr). It makes content creation critical (see […]

  10. […] My own first reaction to the iPad was that the largely disappointed digerati were missing something basic — they’re not the iPad’s intended audience. The digerati saw the iPad as a neutered computer, while many consumers will see it as a superb way to read, play games and do some simple Web exploring without a lot of squinting or fussing with settings. For the digerati, “simple” plus “closed system” equals “bigger iPod Touch” and is a letdown; for Apple’s intended audience, “simple” plus “closed system” equals “bigger iPod Touch” and is great news. […]

  11. […] 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 […]

  12. […] was as guilty of this as anybody else. Annoyed with the techie grousing about the lack of multitasking, cameras and HDMI […]

  13. […] of the iPad as a “lean-back” device instead of a “lean-forward” one is helpful, but only one aspect of what it […]

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