Saturday, July 31, 2010

July 2010 Early Indications: Living with an iPad

I'm not typically a "gadget guy," one of those folks (Ed Baig at USA Today is one of the best) who regularly evaluate new devices. The iPad, however, stands as a milestone that redefines how people and technology inter-relate. A colleague is asking me to evaluate it as an educational tool, so I'm probably a bit more self-conscious than usual in my uptake of this particular technology. Herewith are a few thoughts.

The iPad perfectly embodies wider confusion over the intermingling of work and life. I have yet to load the office apps, so most of my reaction concerns the device used in "life" mode. That being said, the iPad is too convenient to ignore "just a peek" at e-mail. The screen is so bright and actually pretty that it's an attention magnet. The widely discussed aluminum case has just the right heft in the hand, just the right curve in the palm, that people (not just technologists) want to pick it up. From there, assuming a good wi-fi signal, I found everyone got up and running with very little coaching, usually without invitation.

I expect this will become more of an issue with work-related applications, but the iPad's limited text entry will be interesting to assess. Right now you can sort of double-thumb, sort of touch type, sort of trace letters with fingers (in 3rd-party applications). For short to medium e-mails, I did not mind, but a Crackberry addict might find the slow pace frustrating. The Apple case that folds back on itself to form a triangular base can be helpful here, from other people I've watched.

Similarly, I expect that at some point kludges or formal fixes will address the lack of printer support. Along the same lines, the single-threaded mode of operation can get annoying: leave an app to check something else (it does remember multiple web pages, however) and you face a full restart upon returning to whatever non-browser activity you were just doing. An update to the operating system should fix this issue in September.

The iPad rapidly changed some of my long-standing habits. Reading, however, is not one of them. I have yet to get on board the e-reader bandwagon, and have left several texts I should read for work untouched: I literally forget they're loaded and waiting for me. In part this is because I read scholarly books idiosyncratically, never starting at page 1 and proceeding to 347. Rather, I'll start by looking at the plates if the book has them, checking out the pictures bound somewhere randomly in the middle. From there I might look through the endnotes, or the jacket blurbs. I'll often skip chapter 1, at least initially, preferring instead to start with what often turns out to be the first body chapter with real evidence and real argument rather than introductory matter which some people find very hard to write. The point is that e-readers do not support non-fiction reading as well as they do a good mystery, where there's only one way through the story. Pagination also presents a real issue when you need to footnote a source.

To stay with the question of reading, what was widely called "the Jesus tablet" in the publishing industry can not yet serve as a replacement for a physical magazine -- particularly at the prices being suggested: $4.99 a week of Time or Sports Illustrated is not going to fly, I don't believe. Merely exporting static, dated dead-tree content to a new medium (which happens to be dynamic, real-time, and capable of multimedia) follows a familiar trap. The Wright brothers did not succeed by mimicking a bird. Printed books did not find a market mass-producing hand-lettered scrolls. Television quickly stopped presenting radio shows with visible people. Businesses are continuing to learn that the Web is not "television except different."

To their credit, the team at Flipboard is trying to transcend the paper magazine by integrating social networking feeds: "hey, did you see the piece in [wherever]?" The half-page-oriented turning metaphor looks clever at first glance, and some of the content is strong. The problem is it's too strong, too predictable: thus far it's hard to find fresh stories in the pretty format. Too many taps stand between "hmm, let's look at that" and the actual story, most of which I'd already seen in my other grazings.

In addition, the Flipboard business model looks extremely shaky: adding one more intermediary between any potential consumer and the brand creates disincentives all around. I'd also wager that the Web 2.0 Tom Sawyer approach -- let the crowd do your work for you and pay them in reputational or other non-monetary compensation -- can not run at the current pace forever. Sure, I recommend articles in my Twitter feed (38apples), but a) not at scale, b) not reliably, from an advertiser's vantage point, and c) not systematically, from a subscriber's standpoint. Dialing in the right balance between serendipity and editorial coherence (the current buzzword calls it "curated" content) is a new challenge. The New York Times, as good as it is at many things, has not yet found the key to this new medium, nor should anyone expect them to: it's simply too early. The same goes for AOL, for the BBC, for NBC, and for just about everyone else.

Because it is so relentlessly visual and was never trapped in a paper model, weather information can be arresting on the iPad. The Weather Channel app reminded me immediately of what I remember of Pointcast (which, as I pointed out on Twitter, would make a great iPad app: minimal text input, free-floating news and other topical links, ticker streaming, and other invitations to tap). Maps, graphs, videos, icons -- weather information works essentially perfectly on the iPad.

I did not find the same attractiveness true for Google maps. I believe this discomfort relates to the nature of wayfinding. If you're looking at a map, you're likely already doing something else: dialing a phone, looking out the window for a house number or street sign, holding a steering wheel, maybe grasping a slip of paper with an address. Given the iPad's two-handed operation, those other ancillary activities often make it the wrong tool for the job, particularly compared to a one-handed or voice-activated GPS.

I have yet to fly with the iPad but look forward to doing so: I never found the iPhone a desirable movie player, but expect my next long flight will pass faster with the iPad's vivid display of something I want rather than the typical choices on the airlines. One great feature of all operations: the iPad runs silently. The move to a world in which mobile devices rely far more heavily on broadband connections to "cloud" resources than they do on on-board storage will have many side effects, and the loss of noisiness is one of them. (I did not yet try any connection other than WiFi, but will attempt to assess how well 3G works once school starts.)

In my time with the iPad, the life-altering application has been Scrabble. It may actually be better than the physical board game. Let me count the ways:

1) You can't lose pieces.
2) You can't cheat by marking or memorizing tiles (as my late father-in-law was fond of doing).
3) The dictionary is hard-wired: no fights, though to be fair, in some circles the lexicographic litigation is part of the point, and that gets lost.
4) A partially completed game is trivial to save.
5) Lifetime statistics are kept automatically, including win-loss.
6) The touch screen allows automatic shuffling and very comfortable flicking of the letters in the tray, unlike the iPhone app Words with Friends, in which I sometimes must break out the physical set to parse a really tough rack.
7) You can play by yourself against the computer.
8) Virtual games against on-line strangers are also possible.
9) You can play in bed, on a train, on a plane, on a subway, unlike the original.

In sum, what do the various aspects tell us about the iPad? First, the device almost demands interaction, but limits its sphere. Highlighting and annotation, so far, have not worked well. The well-publicized exclusion of Flash from the device rules out many websites, such as those running Flash-based catalog apps. Typing remains problematic. Printing will have to be added soon.

Second, the rapid start (from sleep) and silent operation take the user away from the world of "computers" and into the domain of "appliances," which I say as a compliment. I will withhold analysis of the device's pricing for the moment, however.

Third, the particular combination of heft, touch-screen, and vivid display is so new to us as a user community that I do not think we have a large catalog of applications that exploit the new hardware to its fullest. While the iPad runs some games superbly well, it's not a PSP. Yes you can read books but the iPad is not really a proper reader, or if it is, it's a really expensive one. One can replicate laptop functionality, but the iPad is not conceptually a computer, unlike the Microsoft family of tablets from a few years ago.

Until we can say with subconscious certainty what this thing is (and does) and behave accordingly, just as we could identify a television and all that it embodied as little as five years ago, I believe the iPad's transformative potential remains only partially recognized.

(The best assessment I read while researching his piece is here)