Despite not being completely blown away with it (the "it's indistinguishable from magic" propaganda from Apple was a bit much, even though I think the company is probably still the most innovative out there when it comes to making tech products that are actually a joy to use), I decided to line up for the Canadian debut of the iPad. From a pure software developer perspective, it's hard to imagine the future not being filled with more and more touchscreen devices like this, and I've had a few ideas rolling around about apps that might be cool when used with the larger screen (over the iPhone) that the iPad gives. Maybe I'll even be able to beat the expected dilution of the market as the app store gets flooded with iPad apps to do just about anything. (Need to walk your dog, but too lazy to do it yourself? There's an app for that!)
And, admittedly, although I don't share the love of Star Trek that has become part of the caricature of your average software developer, I do find it hard to resist getting to know a new gadget.
So now that I've had a few days to play with it, here's what I do think is amazing about the iPad. Here's the spoiler: it has nothing to do with the hardware.
That's not to diss the people who actually make those electrons flow down the proper channels in such a way that I'm able to hold a tiny screen in my hand for ten hours per charge that makes the room sized computers of fifty years ago seem like a joke. It's just not my domain. I don't see the value of objects in and of themselves. But if we can do something really, really cool with them, well that's when it starts to get fun.
And I think this might be why Apple's iPad has been met with a more dimmed enthusiasm than previous products. It probably doesn't have any more or any less innovation involved than any of their previous products had at the time. It just doesn't seem like as much of a leap. Why is that? I think that a big part of it this time around is that none of the software that Apple has bundled with the iPad is that much different. Hell, they're even using the same operating system that they use for the iPhone with it. I can have an extra column when I use email? A fuller looking calendar? I can read an eBook on it? Well, woohoo.
Then I decided to pull down the first iPad edition of Wired Magazine and I saw the full potential of what devices like the iPad might bring to at least one very troubled industry.
It's mainly about the advertisements.
I found myself almost more interested in them than the various articles. If this isn't the moment for the advertising industry to lead a full charge away from old media forms and onto the Internet, I don't know what is. While everyone uses television commercial breaks to go to the bathroom or refill their drink, the ads in Wired magazine actually made you want to poke around and learn more. They were able to prove you with a simple and elegant, non-intrusive introduction. No blinking neon signs here. Just flip the page to be onto the next article. But maybe something caught your eye? Well, there's a play button you can press to see a video version of the advertiser's message. And if you touch some of the headings, they'll pop up more info for you. Just if you're curious. You don't have to. It's up to you. And hey, if you're really, really interested, here's a link that will take you to their website to actually buy the thing.
It's like being able to have an entire website of information about your product embedded into a single page of a magazine. The purpose of advertising is to interrupt your routine. And that's not always a bad thing. Imagine if you had to actually go out and search for that brand new technology that will make your life so much simpler. How would you even know what to search for? While convincing us of needs that we didn't even know we had can be predatory, and in the current world of advertising it often is, there is nothing inherently evil about wanting to inform people about something they don't know about. What ads like these allow is for the advertiser to catch your attention with the typical "this will change your life" sort of appeal. But it also allows them to be more honest and give you more information right away so that you can decide for yourself how much your life will change and whether it will actually be for the better. I'm not so silly as to be utopian about this and say it's the end of deception in advertising. But I do believe that it provides an avenue for companies to get their message out in a way that doesn't litter our day-to-day lives so much. And that's good for everyone involved.
I imagine there'll be more than a bit of money out there in making these sorts of content rich ads easier to produce and embed. And I don't think there's much argument anymore that the Internet friendly ads like those in the e-edition of Wired are more valuable for advertisers and consumers alike than their old-media predecessors. It must be a heady time for the ad networks to consider the exciting possibilities ahead of them if they decide to go for quality over quantity.
So what else am I interested in seeing on the iPad? Textbooks. Imagine being able to open your calculus textbook, look at a graph it uses to explain a concept, and actually change values to see what changes on the graph? Or to be able to step through a virtual chemistry experiment? How about seeing the effect of your incorrect physics solution on the orbit of a space shuttle around a planet? I think that this level of interactivity could have an amazing affect in the area of education. And who out there doesn't believe that this is an area that we need to pay more attention to?
It's never the hardware that changes the world. It's how we decide to use it. And I can't think of any other device at the moment where this is more apparent than in the iPad and it's soon-to-be brothers and sisters. They could easily be a throw away fad or the future of computing, depending on whether or not they're able to capture the collective imagination of the software development world...
As this article points out, the Wired app may be, technologically speaking, a horrible mess. I agree that simply slicing up images to build your interface when you could be using a lot of HTML 5 to get the same effect is incredibly kludgy, and the amount of space that requires for an app is unacceptable in the long term.
However, I disagree profoundly with the idea that it was a mistake to move away from a more browser-like experience for the e-version of a magazine. I think us techies are sometimes too dismissive of the importance of how something looks. The success of Apple in recent years should have proven that to some degree, but maybe it's one of those never ending arguments. I've read other articles that suggest it's a step back that the Wired app doesn't try to more closely resemble a regular web browsing experience.
But I'd suggest that we shouldn't be so quick to say that the way information is organized right now on the web is at all optimal for every situation. In fact, an article in the current edition of Wired (which, granted, I couldn't have linked to in the app version) points out what I think anyone who still enjoys sitting down to read a real book or even magazine article will intuitively know.
The fact that we tend to follow links, etc. while reading content online, often only skimming content for something in particular that we're interested in, can result in a much more superficial form of learning. To be sure, we're able to get many more viewpoints around any particular issue, and thus get a more well-rounded perspective on it (and I think this is a very positive result of the web), but we're also less willing to sit down and give a lot of time to considering a single viewpoint before going elsewhere. There is a value that you get from sitting down with a single work (be it a novel, essay, or whatever) from a single mind, and giving it your full attention that you can't get in any other way. It may not seem as useful in the fast paced world of the web, but I think we ignore that at our own peril.
So I actually like the fact that the Wired App presents a unique and visually engaging experience that makes me want to actually sit down and read an article all the way through. It doesn't leave me feeling fidgety, wondering what else is out there on the Internet that I'm missing out on because I'm focusing all my attention on this one thing. And I hope that as we bring the experience of reading things like novels more into the electronic realm that we consider this. Yes, it's great to be able to cross-link and do all manner of Web 2.0 stuff with a novel. But I don't want that stuff to be in my face. I want it to feel like I'm reading a book most of the time. I think that's valuable. I like the idea of giving a designer control over everything, even the font face, so that he or she can present their full vision to me for a given publication.
There's a lot of thought that goes into laying out a magazine or even a novel for printing. Just go to any bookstore and pick out a pulp book to compare to one from an author du jour. Don't look at the quality of the writing. Look at the quality of the presentation. Taking away anything about the actual content (i.e. remove the actual author and subject matter from the picture). Which one's easier to read? Probably the one with the bigger budget. And that doesn't mean you need a big budget. It just means that considering those minute details involved in choosing typefaces, line spacing, layout, page-breaks, etc. (which tends to happen for books with a bigger budget) makes a difference. It's nice to be able to change fonts, etc. on something that's poorly laid out. But I'd rather just get a good quality layout. If I'm still paying $10 or more for an e-version of a book, I actually expect it. A plain text document might give me all the power in the world, unless my interest is actually reading the thing.
So, yeah. Can Wired on the iPad use some improvement? Certainly. But I still think it's a step in the right direction, especially for an avid reader, not to be confused with an avid web-surfer, although you often find people who fall into both groups.