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Why I Can’t Wait to Get My Hands on My New iPad, All You Haters Notwithstanding

So yes, I did pre-order an iPad, or actually pre-reserve one with my college’s bookstore. And I intend to pick it up first thing tomorrow morning. And I absolutely cannot wait.

This is not a cool thing to admit in at least some of the circles I travel in. The open source/open content folks I know are understandably concerned about the iPad’s status as a tethered device, closed to programs and content not Apple-approved. I get that, and I’m concerned about it, too. At least for the couple of hours it’ll take before somebody posts a jailbreak for it, the iPad will be a closed system.

Except: there’s that web thing. While web apps on the iPhone haven’t been quite as flexible as one might like them to be, those difficulties have been due at least in part to the restrictions on browser window size, and in part due to the inconvenient crashiness of Safari. I have no sense, of course, that the latter problem will be fixed on the iPad, but the former certainly will be. And not having to use restricted mobile versions of web apps might change the game entirely; using Gmail in all its non-mobile glory might make me not care that it’s a web app. And as more and more of the stuff I do becomes browser-oriented, there’s decreasing cause for me to be concerned about the restrictions Apple places on the app store.

The other concern that many folks I know have voiced is that the iPad isn’t just tethered; in Jonathan Zittrain’s term, it’s appliancized. It’s a device primarily meant for consumption rather than production. And the more we allow our computers to devolve into appliances, the less likely they are to be generative devices, devices that allow for unexpected uses, for productive surprises, for hacking.

I agree with that logic, generally, but not as applied to the iPad in particular. The iPad is indeed primarily meant for consumption — which means that it can’t really replace the computer, and indeed shouldn’t. At least not yet, in any case; the iPad as it will be released tomorrow is a device that one can program for, but not yet a device that one can program on.

But that doesn’t mean that it will always be so. As Stephen Fry reminds us in his article in Time, the Mac was at its release “derided as a toy, a media poseur’s plaything and a shallow triumph of style over substance,” but the creativity that the Mac inspired transformed the landscape of personal computing; similarly, the iPhone was seen “as a plaything, but it transformed the smart-phone landscape.” None of us have any way of knowing what people will do with their iPads as yet, but don’t count ingenuity out. Engaging devices have a way of producing unexpected results.

I also take issue with the consumption/production divide that, as Matt Kirschenbaum pointed out this morning, is being reified by much of the technorati’s response to the iPad. On the one hand, I want to say “what’s so bad about consumption, anyhow?”; I’ve never been upset with my television for not allowing me to broadcast. And on the other hand, I also want to note the myriad ways that consumption has always led to production, has always been a necessary stage on the way to production. Writing is something we should all aspire to, but writing without reading is an impossibility. Devices that can provide for more engaging reading — and I mean that in the broadest sense, not just in the interaction with text but with images, audio, video, games — will inspire new kinds of writing, new kinds of creative production, in forms that we can’t as yet even imagine.

Play is inspiring. And as of tomorrow morning, I hope to be inspired, in new ways.

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11 Comments

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with everything you’ve said. The degree of iPad ire is a little surprising to me. And I say this as someone who generally dislikes Apple.

    Part of what is surprising about the iPad-hate is that Apple itself has never been a great friend of open source or “freedom.” iTunes restricts what one can do with an iPod (and, btw, there is no Linux version, making iPod compatibility a dickens of a problem for Linux folks… or it used to be; it is no longer). And Apple has been pretty aggressive about asserting its IP on OSX to keep it running only on Apple-produced hardware. Such are the profits and (I am more than willing to admit) the nicely-designed pleasures of a closed platform. So the iPad is hardly a departure in this regard, is it? (Putting aside the production/consumption binary which, I agree, seems to oversimplify what is at stake.)

    (As others have noted, the virtues of the iPad as an educational device seem very questionable. But there are uses/environments for a device beyond the purely educational I think.)

    What seems potentially significant to me about the iPad is its attempt to increase the ubiquity of one’s internet access by establishing a device between the laptop and the smart phone: a “lean back,” but full sized internet device. If Apple is good at anything, it is designing user experiences. And this device certainly seems like the best candidate the “tablet” form factor has ever had. It may just be a “giant iPod touch” (as many have described it), but if it changes people’s habits of internet use, that seems like something important.

  2. My main problem with Apple currently is the issue of consumption- consumption of resources by the constant updating/upgrading of devices that iStuff and the like encourage. Every new item that Apple puts out seems to be sold as a “must-have” thing, and creates a giant pile of hazardous waste heading to our landfills, and a large drain on resources (mineral and energy) as well. And I can’t for the life of me figure out iTune’s sharing issues. I just want to be able to play the same music on my computer and my husband’s computer without buying/uploading it twice, is that so much to ask?

  3. Thanks for a great piece, Kathleen. I’m excited about getting an iPad too (though I won’t have one tomorrow :'( ), though I feel a lot of the worries you’ve cited here.

    I’ve worried especially about Zittrain’s point, which Alex Payne nicely called a “tinkerer’s sunset”. http://al3x.net/2010/01/28/ipad.html But in the months since the iPad was announced I have become increasingly fond of thinking about the issue in the following way: New waves of technology tend to shift the strata of interesting hacking up a level. Programming languages made hardware hacking a bit less interesting; the web made OS-level hacking a bit less interesting; etc. I tend to think that not much is lost in each of these steps of a progression, and generally a lot is gained. It’s possible that there’s another layer of hackability that hasn’t really come into focus yet, one that tech like the iPad – with its decreased hackability at strata that current-day geeks have grown accustomed to – may cause to emerge.

  4. I don’t know if I’m one of the haters, or one of the technorati, but I’m certainly one of the skeptics. To your points:

    Consumption leading to production: depends on the timeframe and the ecosystem of devices. So yes, American broadcast tv in the 1960s did lead to (among other things) Star Trek fans mimeo-ing fanzine and slash. But that depends on framing the question quite broadly, assuming that “tv” as a system includes a large variety of other devices (typewriter, mimeo, snail mail), knowledge, and collaborative attitudes. That’s not usually what Americans thought of, or think of, when we say “tv”. And my example includes not only one of the triumphs of fan fiction, but also one of the acmes of tied-down, corporation-driven, few-options broadcast.

    Apply that to the iPad and again it becomes a question of framing. If the iPad is one screen among a set of devices, like the 3 screens model, then awesome. I’ll read a Wired story on it, say (but not hyperlink out very far, apparently), then write it up on my laptop. I do something similar, now, with shifting my attention from an e-book reader (Kindle 1) to laptop (Dell Vista). But this ain’t how the iPad is being marketed. Remember how, for example, Jobs explicitly positioned the iPad in opposition to netbooks, emphasizing office productivity tools, and how many reviewers are calling it a potential laptop-killer. Maybe that’s how it’ll be used, maybe not. We’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Back to framing: how many IP-based companies see social media as an existential threat? How many of those would be delighted to see people shift their consumption from a production device (laptop, desktop) to a consumption-centric one? That’s a potent lockdown logic for quite a few businesses, and we’d be blind not to see it.

    But I do think you’re right, that we need to watch for its emergent properties. It’s too early to celebrate or condemn entirely… but not too early to be critical.

  5. Agreeing with Chris about the usual Apple ecosystem. I hope iPad users will keep using the open Web (except Flash, ahem), not just apps.

    Chris and karikraus et al, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with talk of ire and hate. I admit to not following the full depth and extent of iPad reactions, but I’m seeing the usual range of responses to new commodity technologies, from hope to criticism, love to skepticism. Why fold criticism into hate or disdain? What qualifies as “hate” – are their iPad bonfires I’m missing, or Stephen Fry getting burned in effigy?
    Or, from the other angle, do you recognize how Apple cultishness grates on some ears?

  6. Hi, Bryan. Thanks for the comments! I do agree that there’s room for criticism — I’m critical of several aspects of the iPad myself — but I think that much of the discourse has swung over into “hating,” at least in the pop-cult sense: the reflexive need to dismiss something that seems popular, usually without any real attempt to understand its appeal, and in so doing to paint anyone who actually likes that phenomenon as stupid. I see that in Cory Doctorow’s Boing Boing article from this morning (from which I derived my title) — not content to criticize the iPad, or to suggest ways that it could bear improvement, he both dismisses it and suggests that anyone who would buy one is hopelessly misguided.

    In any case, I do agree with you about the three-screen potential, and think that’s where this is headed; Jobs’s initial introduction to the iPad focused on the netbook as its target not because it’s a “laptop killer,” but because it does a terrible job of inhabiting the third space between laptop and smartphone. That’s the iPad niche — it’s a mistake to think that it can take the place of the laptop, at least in its current configuration, but as a device primarily meant to access the web and a range of media content, it’s got a place.

    Oh, and as an update to my Gmail suggestion in the post, there’s this from Google today. Very interesting.

  7. This is really a beautifully reasoned piece, Kathleen.

    But I think what has me perturbed (and I haven’t really been one of the iPad trashers, truth be told), is the series of events that preceded it.

    The truth is, the Mac has always been a drag to program. When I came back to the platform a few years ago (after a 10-year Linux hiatus), my first thought — on visiting the Apple developer site — was that absolutely nothing had changed. They were still viewing their dev program as if third-party developers were a kind of necessary evil. It’s true that they offer development tools, but the whole thing has always felt sort of — oppressive. “Yes! Develop apps for Mac. Just don’t depart from our vision in any way.”

    When the iPhone came out, every coder I knew was dying to write for it. And this time, Apple figured that they could get away with being even *more* fascistic about the way they treat developers. You have to get the app approved? Are you kidding? They initially claimed that it was a security thing, but then they started removing dictionaries that had the word “fuck” in it.

    So now the iPad comes along, and it’s amazing. It’s just beautiful. Everyone is excited. People will fall over themselves to write apps for it (again). And they will discover — as iPhone developers discovered, and Mac programmers before them — that it *sucks* trying to write programs for this platform, because Apple tightly circumscribes what you can do on it. But because it’s wildly popular, Apple will draw the conclusion that this is as the world should be. Screw the developers. It’s all about the *users.*

    If you want to see where this ends, look at Verizon. They have done everything possible to make it so that very few people can actually write software for that platform. And so the phone OS just sucks. iPhone development is perhaps marginally less restrictive, but I think Apple will eventually realize that Verizon had it right. And by the time they realize that, everyone will have an Apple device and companies that don’t develop for the platform will be screwed.

    All of this sounds great, from a certain perspective. Who would want to be against the users? Problem is, you can’t screw the developers and be for the users. Because the developers are creating apps *for* the users, and as along as that freedom is tightly curtailed by a company, that company is determining what that experience is like. I take your point about Web apps, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Apple started doing something with “iPad-approved” sites. We’ve been there before, after all.

    It’s not that you can’t program on the iPad. It’s not even that Apple makes it a pain to develop for the iPad. It’s that they give you a word processor, tell you what you can and cannot write on it, and then have the gall to tell you that you’re moving forward. Everyone is getting excited about the iPad, and with very good reason. It’s a really, really cool thing. But if it succeeds, Apple will take that as evidence that their view of the development community is the right one. I thought it sucked in 1986, and think it sucks even more today.

  8. That’s a solid bit of criticism, Steve, absolutely; to the extent that Apple throws real roadblocks in the paths of its developers, the value of its platforms diminishes. I wonder, though, about the extent to which such roadblocks have produced the kind of ingenuity that we’re seeing in terms of web apps and the like. I’ve always had the sneaking sense that the relationship between Apple and its developers/hackers was less genuine opposition than strategic opposition of a Cat’s Cradle-ish type, in which the oppressiveness of the ruling body is in some sense meant to spur the opposition on, to produce a kind of balance. (Of course, in the novel, that revelation utterly defangs the opposition, which finally reveals itself to work hand in glove with the oppressions wrought by the ruling body, so this may be a very bad comparison.)

    But yes, you’re absolutely right: Apple has always seen its developers as a necessary evil at best; it seems they’d rather produce perfectly working appliances that they utterly control. The result, however, has been some awesomely nice devices that do “just work,” way more than most such devices — as well as a thriving developer base that can’t ever be fully controlled…

  9. Great conversation! I’m inclined towards seeing the half-full view (consumtion -> poaching/production), in large part because people will use Safari to browse, and that’ll reward standards-compliant websites. (Dan Cohen rightly points out that a number of digital-humanities sites rely on Flash, but Omeka’s framework doesn’t, I think Hypercities eschews it, etc.)

    And through a browser (and a number of apps), people can create, or poach, or critique. I’m anticipating being a user of one way the iPad interacts with education: sitting somewhere with a bunch of PDFs and annotating. Then there is blogging and microblogging as well as interacting with websites such as the Bracero Archive.

    It’s a highly imperfect device, but it’s still usable for all sorts of creative activities as well as consumption.

  10. I was offline on Friday when you wrote this, but I appreciate the perspective. I wonder how much of the hating derives from the increasing popularity of Apple devices in general. After all, Apple’s marketing strategy from “1984” to the present has more or less been versions of “Think Different,” even if they’ve dropped that motto. At some point, more and more people have begun “thinking different” so that we (especially at the MLA) all appear to think differently together. The only predictable thing to do when your favorite indie band or computer gets popular is to turn on it when the newest thing comes out.

    That’s a far too simple explanation of things…but it’s an angle that I don’t really see being considered yet.

  11. That’s an excellent point, Brian: there’s definitely a thread of “I was a fan of Apple back when they released the Apple ][ but now it’s clear that they’ve totally sold out” running through some of the responses to the iPad. There’s of course more to it than that, but I do now wonder if the feveredness of the iPad hating comes from that affronted fanboy/girl position…