Hello iPad

I work with publishers, iPad enthusiasm can feel boundless. I’ve used them briefly a few times. I’ve read many articles and reviews. I’ve waited for the hype to subside, it seems to be increasing. I’ve waited to see if it would be useful for work, several folks at work have replaced their laptops in meetings. Last week I spent 6 hours on a cross country flight jealous, not of the folks in first class but of the folks with that magical device. When I got home I broke down and bought an iPad.

So for the last couple days we’ve had our very own iPad at home. This is a bit of what I found.

I started off resisting and ended up a believer, in just a couple of hours. It wasn’t one particular app that got me there. It was the total experience of the device today, the potential it holds, and the gestalt or gist or essence or zeitgeist that it represents. It’s like the sea change when you become a parent. Everything changes, forever, irrefutably. When you don’t have kids your friends that do are happy to explain to you how wonderfully different everything is. A comparison of social calendars though illustrates quite the opposite! But then you have kids and you realize, oh, this is what they mean. In some ways it’s hard to even grasp what it means, what is different, what will be different. As you move through the experience you start to see not just the obvious but the subtle things that have changed, and they are everywhere. And there is no going back.

immersive intimate – I hear these two words a lot when friends describe the iPad. They are accurate. There are many great things about the device that are just different enough. Just the right screen size, no cords to mess with, no case to open, usually on, lightweight, simple to use… but the touch screen at this scale is transformative. The mouse and keyboard are no longer in the way. They become options, tools to use if you need them. In the same way using a mouse to point and click is more intuitive than using a command line to run archaic commands, touching a screen to interact is not just intuitive, it’s native to humans, it is how we’ve interacted with the world since day one, direct touch.

I’ve witnessed very few 2 year olds effecively manipulate a mouse but every 2 year old I know (and I know quite a few these days) that has been exposed to an iPhone knows how to make repeatable things happen with the device and, by the way, expects every screen to have a touch interface. There is no hesitation, a learning curve that is so fast it feels instantaneous, and the engagement is deep. The ability to interact directly with the items on the screen brings us closer and lends a major, if not primary, hand to the sense of immersion.

Unlike every other computer, laptop, or mobile device I’ve used, the iPad is comfortable to use everywhere. Office desk, home couch, standing, sitting; it fits your needs. I can flip through it as a magazine, lay it flat to play a boardgame, prop it up in the kitchen to refer to recipe, pop it on for a second to look up a movie reference, or scribble down the latest “great idea.” I’ve spent a lot of time with computers but I’ve never really wanted to curl up with one on the couch. Ok, maybe I came close with the Amiga but I was only 13, what did I know?

The iPad is comfortable to use anywhere for a broader array of activities than other devices, it expands the contexts where it makes sense to use a computer. With that simple step it it has permission to play a broader role than desktop, laptop, or even cell phone. In this way it is a more intimate device, it plays a part in our lives throughout the day.

physically social – The iPad is physically social in a new way. With a mobile phone the screen is so small it is basically a single person at a time device. With a desktop or laptop there is only ever one person steering the keyboard and mouse. With a touch screen of the size of an iPad multiple people can interact directly with the device simultaneously. It reminds me of the microsoft “surface” demos or the awesome reactable demo. one big difference though: those tabletop touch screens are all about themselves, I have to go to them. The iPad is about me, portable social computing that can be driven by multiple people at the same time.

And as I am just starting to discover there are applications that can tether iPhones to the iPad. The first form of this I saw was Scrabble for the iPad. It allows you to use your iPhone to hold your letters while the iPad acts as the board. Genius! And clearly this is just the beginning for this type of in person and physical social interaction with the iPad. I can imagine applications that treat the iPad as an instant on local server allowing physically present as well as virtually present people to interact, like a temporary virtual flashmob.

What’s Missing? The iPad, coupled with the enormous number of mobile devices, feels like it signifies the early phase of a major shift in the way we interact with computers. Of course this implies there are shortcomings today. There are:

  • application interconnectedness is weak. Very few applications can work with each other. I want to edit text documents stored in dropbox with the notes app.
  • it’s a new type of social device that doesn’t support the social environment it exists in, yet. Just like a mobile phone I see people loading an image or video and handing their iPad to other folks so they can have have the same experience. Cell phones generally make it back to the user. Not so with the iPad. We’ve had it in our home for less than 24 hours and it clearly belongs to the family. Even the idea that I needed to tie the iPad and applications to a specific user when configuring it seemed weird to me. I want two instances of flipboard, one for me, one for my wife. I want to flip it into “kid mode” and let my daughter play with a set of apps that I have filtered. This is the first computing device that I have experienced that demands to be physically shared and I don’t think it knows that about itself quite yet.
  • Mutitasking is blatantly missing. Thankfully the fine folks at Apple have been on the case for some time.
  • Typing is still awkward. I think this is more my own shortcoming but I don’t find myself wanting to write anything on it. I also don’t want to plug a keyboard into it. Hmph.

I fought it but I finally broke down. I’m glad I did. I hated hearing Apple’s boss call it a “magical and revolutionary product” but I think there might be something to that description.

Some Other Notes

  • Something I read that helped push me over the edge, the most interesting look at the iPad that I have found, was this in depth post from John Borthwick about his experience over 11 weeks of exploring the iPad.
  • I should be writing a letter to United that goes something like this: “Dear United, Handing out media players in Business Class? Installing video in the seat front? Forget about it, give us iPads loaded with HD content…”
  • The day the iPads came out I heard a 20 something remark publicly about his friend, I assume also 20 something years old, that had gotten an iPad: “Is she a grandma now?!” Intimating that she couldn’t see well enough to use a cell phone. It seemed wrong for the long run given that I know at least one real life grandma has more apps and coolness on her iPhone than most 30 somethings. And she has an iPad. I include this because I couldn’t get this generation gap comment out of my mind; the iPad may not be cool for the younger generations.
  • The apps people are building on the iPad remind me of the immersive nature of the primer in the Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson; an educational interactive multimedia “book” for children.

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