The IPad and Its Real Audience
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.)