iPad First Impressions: Consumption Machine

18:52 Sun 23 May 2010
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I got an iPad for work on Friday, and have been playing around with it. I would not have bought one for myself, and have grave misgivings about the device, primarily due to its highly proprietary, locked-down, walled-garden approach.

That being said, I think it’s an extremely slick, well-designed device, and may represent the first steps towards a new phase in accessing computer and/or internet artifacts.

Before I get to that, I want to note that I hated having to synch it to iTunes before I could use it. For a “next-generation” device, one that supposedly breaks with older computing paradigms, that seemed rather pathetic. Also, I can’t stand iTunes, and the iPad setup was the only time I’d started it in the years I’ve had my Macbook Pro.

Once that was out of the way, however, it was all slick and smooth thereafter. Using the device: easy. Installing applications: easy. Browsing the web: easy.

The interface is, as promised, extremely intuitive. It works as you expect it to work. It’s also just fun to use, somehow.

So what’s the problem? Well, all of the criticisms about its closed model remain true. That it’s not easy to tinker with, that applications have to be approved by Apple, that getting data on and off it has to be managed by iTunes or some other application—these are all really bad things, in my opinion. That ground has been covered before, and if you’re interested you can read Cory Doctorow’s take, which I largely agree with.

What struck me even more than those issues, however, is just how geared towards consumption the iPad is. You add functionality via one mechanism: the App Store. While you can get some things for free there, the name makes clear that it’s about buying things. You can get content through the iTunes store. Many of the other apps, like the amazon.com application (or the Kindle application), are focused on making it easy to buy things.

Beyond that, the activities the device is suited for are consumption activities. Reading, browsing, buying, and watching videos are all really easy. I haven’t tried games on it yet, but I suspect that while games on it will be fun, they won’t (yet, at least) be as deep as games on dedicated platforms or on fully general-purpose computers. It does, however, support “casual games” quite well.

Up until this point, all general-purpose computing devices have been geared towards productivity of some kind. Even if they ended up being used as gaming boxes or as entertainment and netsurfing devices, they were designed for production of some kind, usually writing, programming, or management. This is not the case with the iPad. Regardless of whether or not you could actually edit video, or create music, or write efficiently, on it, its primary purpose is consumption. As such, I think it represents a significant break in the history of computing and the internet as the first mass-market, general-purpose device that is geared towards consuming rather than both consuming and producing.

This raises a question, one that is critical to assessing the validity of many of the criticisms of it (such as Doctorow’s): have computers been combined production/consumption machines up until now merely due to technological limitations, or is that combination an essential part of what a computer is? I think that what Jobs has done, deliberately and effectively, is tried to separate those two parts and get rid of the irritating bits that support production so that consumption can be made accessible and easy to more and more people.

Furthermore, Apple recognized that what made this attempted break with computing history possible was the touch interface. Crucially, the touch interface removes a layer of abstraction. Now there’s no cursor to move around with a mouse, and no commands to invoke via unknown (or clumsily announced) keystrokes. No abstraction, and hence almost no need for training. In many ways, the iPad is a device aimed squarely at the people who can’t tell the difference between an article about Facebook’s login page and Facebook’s login page itself.

This is in many ways an inevitable step. URLs aren’t the best-designed things in the world (having the hierarchy go specific-to-general for domains and general-to-specific for resources on a domain, for example, is clearly screwy), and turning sites (accessible by URLs) into applications (accessible like other applications, by an easy launch mechanism) is probably inevitable too. But there’s clearly a loss with this, as abstraction in computing generally means power. That is, being able to manipulate resources with abstractions gives the user power, and abstracting things out before they reach the user takes power away from the user while making the smaller set of tasks they’re still able to do easier.

Many people will be in favor of this tradeoff; I’m not one of them, although I’d feel a lot better about it if it were a transient state that one could get past on a device (which I hope will be the case with the post-iPad tablets that emerge) rather than the state the device desires to keep its users in (which is the iPad’s approach).

2 Responses to “iPad First Impressions: Consumption Machine”

  1. Steve Casey Says:

    This has been the first commentary on the iPad that makes me think it has a possible future or significant niche in which it can fit. The question is, are there enough people out there that would buy a computer, but don’t need to use it for anything productive?

    For what it’s worth, assuming it follows the pattern of the iPhone, it is a transient state. Clever teenagers in their parent’s basements should soon have hacked it and enabled us to program on it, albeit likely being restricted to having to use OSX as a medium.

  2. Kevin Teljeur Says:

    I had a ‘play’ with the iPad in the Apple Store in New York, and I think that the device is misunderstood, not least because of Apple’s marketing for it. It’s being pushed as a consumption device because it is very, very good at that; a screen with all the various nuisances of a modern computer/notebook removed, to pare it down to the very basics. A screen you can directly interact with.

    Now, I am a ‘fan’ of Apple products, although not an uncritical one, and I do follow developments of what they’re producing, roadmaps, strategies and the like, so I tend to appreciate where they come from when they bring out something new. And by new, they’ve very rarely brought out anything truly new or revolutionary. It’s almost always a very good, but not best in class, take on a form that already exists, and it’s always at the high-end of consumer. They know their market. And with that, they are first and foremost a hardware design and production company, which creates software with which to drive use (and sales) of that hardware (I know you know this, by the way, it’s for the benefit of the audience, if it exists.).

    So, I disagree with Cory Doctorow very much, in that I think he is willfully misunderstanding the device and the platform. To achieve what he sees as flaws would make the platform and the devices much less consumer friendly, and I think it stems from a dislike of the notion of consumer-friendly technology. I truly believe that this is coloured by an elitist belief that people need to know more about computers and technology, rather than those being more accessible. The iPhone OS platform isn’t intended for technical activities. It has a system for adding functionality, but the concept is that it should never make any aspect of the platform obscure or hard to use. So there’s a trade-off, in that the system is what non-technical users see as streamlined, focussed and easy-to-use, but for technical users it is constrained, restrictive and over-protective. But is it really such a terrible thing to finally deliver a mass-market device which has all the distractions removed, when you actually don’t want or need them? I think there’s a sense of threat, about the idea that this specialised knowledge may not be required by some people any more, to do the same task as specialists. To say, surf the web, without knowing how a computer, or computer operating system works. A device which a cat can use.

    Here’s my biggest problem with commentary about the iPad: the ‘tinkering’ argument. It’s not designed for that. It’s a consumer device. If you want to go to the trouble of hacking up your own OS install, then there’s your tinkering avenue, but Apple isn’t going to make it easy for the average person to make a meal of their device, any more than Sony, Philips, Samsung or Nintendo do, and that’s the yardstick. It’s a symptom of the technical elitism which comes from the technical knowledge required to be productive with computing equipment, such as a notebook. You’ll never hear moaning from Doctorow about what he can and can’t do with his digital TV, because it has been presented to him specifically as a consumption device. He’s not going to try and optimise the extensive operating system which it runs.

    I agree completely about the whole iTunes syncing mess, by the way. It’s a ridiculous situation, with what are technically very advanced and well-designed devices. I think it will get ‘fixed’ very soon and have some web-based system, it’s really a legacy from the iPod ecosystem, but it has to go. The app store concept is one I understand, and it’s part of what has made this platform work (it’s part of what has made the platform remarkably consistent and stable), but it comes at a price which I’m not completely comfortable with, which is that it’s a bit too tightly and unpredictably managed. I’m also (as I’ve said before) looking foward to Google’s Android developments. It’s good, healthy competition in a market that sorely needs it.

    Anyway, enjoyed the reading your take on it. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with the platform.

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