The real question about Apple's new multitouch pseudo-computer, dubbed the iPad, is not whether it sucks or rocks. What all of us really want to know is whether it will change the future. The answer? Yes, but badly.
The iPad And The World Of Tomorrow
For those who spent yesterday glued to the State of the Union address instead of tech news feeds, Gizmodo has a terrific summary of Apple's new device. To break it down: The iPad looks basically like an iPhone, but with a 9.7 inch screen. It runs the same software as the iPhone, can connect to the internet, and seems to work nicely for reading books, newspapers and magazines, watching video, checking Google maps, reading your email, surfing the web, and casual gaming (though not PC gaming, as Kotaku's Stephen Totilo points out). Like the iPhone, it has no keyboard - you can touch-type on the screen. Or you can buy a keyboard attachment separately.
Why is this outsize version of the iPhone so important that the internet basically exploded over it yesterday? Mostly because Apple's last two new mobile devices - the iPod and the iPhone - changed the way people think about computers. They really did change the future, by making it glaringly obvious that computing devices are not all desktop PCs - they can be specialized music players, or telephone/internet toys that put the web in your pocket. They are the beautiful, cool poster gadgets for the mobile computer generation; they are what we imagine when we think of tomorrow's machines.
The Mythical Convergence Device
The iPad promises to be just as revolutionary as its predecessors, for one reason. It embodies, as much as possible, the mythical convergence device that technophiles have been craving for almost two decades. The convergence device, which people began to discuss seriously in the 1990s, would be a unified gadget where you could consume many kinds of media, especially TV and the web, with the same gadget.
This is exactly what the iPad does, helped along by the fact that so much television is available online already. And you can add books to this convergence, too (possibly even with a Kindle app). The iPad is also the perfect shape for a convergence box. Its screen is about the size of a quality paperback or small television set. There's none of that scrunching your forehead as you peer into the teeny screen of the iPhone to read a book or watch YouTube.
What I'm saying is that the iPad appeals to a very deep and longlived fantasy in the consumer electronics world: A device that does it all. At least, if all you want to do is consume media.
And there's the problem.
Reinventing The Television
Apple is marketing the iPad as a computer, when really it's nothing more than a media-consumption device - a convergence television, if you will. Think of it this way: One of the fundamental attributes of computers is that they are interactive and reconfigurable. You can change the way a computer behaves at a very deep level. Interactivity on the iPad consists of touching icons on the screen to change which application you're using. Hardly more interactive than changing channels on a TV. Sure, you can compose a short email or text message; you can use the Brushes app to draw a sketch. But those activities are not the same thing as programming the device to do something new. Unlike a computer, the iPad is simply not reconfigurable.
The iPad emulates television in another way, too: You can channel surf through the Apps Store, but you can't change what's playing. Every single app that's available for the iPad has to be approved by Apple first, just like apps for iPhones. That means censorship of "offensive" apps, no apps that compete with Apple (i.e., no Google Voice), and no random app somebody wrote to do whatever obscure shit you want to do. So you've got thousands of channels and nothing on. You can only keep flipping through the channels, hoping in vain to see something other than reruns of Cheaters and Alf.
If you want something new, there are very limited ways of getting it. You can write an app, and it might be accepted to the Apps Store. Or you can write your own (unacceptable) app and hand it out to a few friends, if you and they are technically savvy enough. But most users won't be in that position.
As futurist Jamais Cascio told io9:
This is Apple's big push of its top-down control over applications into the general-purpose computing world. The only applications that will work with the iPad are those approved by Apple, under very opaque conditions. On a phone, that's borderline acceptable, but it's not for something that is positioned to overlap with regular computers.
The iPad has all the problems of television, with none of the benefits of computers.
Back To The Shopping Mall
So if it's not a computer, what exactly is the iPad? It could be just a really tarted-up ebook reader, which would make sense if you consider that the iPad is competing with Amazon's Kindle. So it's a reinvention of the book, a fairly old technology, but in a gleaming new package. Except that package isn't even very new, as futurist and science fiction author Karl Schroeder pointed out. He told io9 that the iPad isn't about brilliant hardware innovation, and that in fact the device doesn't even use state-of-the-art ebook tech like e-ink.
Speaking to us via email, Schroeder said:
What Apple has done (again) is seize the moment with a combination of a device and a business model . . . even if e-ink provides a better reading experience for books (reading on an iPad will continue to literally mean staring into a lamp, just like reading on a computer screen), it doesn't matter because it's the total package of iTunes, iBookstore, 3G, games, apps etc. that will pull ebook readers along with it. Consider that the iPad is a closed platform that doesn't even multitask; if the technology mattered, those would be major considerations for the buyer. But they won't be, because when you buy an iPad, you buy access to the whole Apple business ecology.
Looked at from this angle, the iPad isn't so much new technology as it is a shiny, pretty doorway to a mall where you can buy everything from books to movies.
The iPad hasn't brought us forward into the future. It's taken us backward to a world of strip malls and televisions.
Another Vision Of The Future
So the iPad takes us back to the 1980s, or maybe even the 1950s. It's likely to be a device that changes our future, but what that means is we're facing a tomorrow where true innovation is sidelined by a device that represents a convergence of old media and shopping.
But as John Connor would say, we can change the future. That might be as simple as pushing Apple to change its App Store policies to make iPads less like TVs and more like computers. As Lifehacker's Adam Pash put it, "The App Store isn't exactly the problem-it's the way Apple runs and limits the App Store." He suggests that Apple could create a special "Restricted section" for its App Store. He continues:
Rather than reject applications that it feels may confuse the user (like they claimed Google Voice or Google Latitude might), or applications that allow users to access naughty pictures, or even applications that it hasn't had time to vet for the App Store proper, [Apple] put those applications in the Restricted section. Before a user is able to install applications from the Restricted section, that user has to agree that the application may confuse their feeble minds, offend their delicate sensibilities, or even slow down their device. Is this such a problem? . . . Even better, [the iPad] could work like the package manager it actually is and allow users to add their own trusted repositories as sources for other applications . . . The point is, users should at least be allowed to flip some switch, somewhere on the machine, that says, "Hey computer, I'm an adult, and I take responsibility over how I use this machine."
A convergence device that can also be reprogrammed the way computers can? Now we're in the twenty-first century.
Another possibility would be for developers and investors to focus on hardware that truly is innovative and futuristic. Schroeder says:
There's really nothing in the iPad that's new; if you want truly new, disruptive tech that would be at a similar price point if commercialized, look at Pranav Mistry's SixthSense and related projects.
SixthSense is a gesture-controlled mobile device with a projector - you can see its telephone app at work above. You project the phone onto your hand and press the buttons. You can also use gestures to take pictures. This is truly the next step in mobile computing, and will likely revolutionize computer networks in ways we can't yet imagine.
What Is To Be Done?
I know a lot of otherwise-savvy consumers and hackers who are already drooling over the iPad and putting in their orders. They hate the idea of a restricted device, but they love the shiny-shiny. I'm not saying that they should deprive themselves of this pretty new toy. What I am saying is that this toy represents a crappy, pathetic future. It is no more revolutionary than those expensive, hot boots I bought at Fluevog, and only slightly more useful.
The only way iPads can truly become futuristic devices is if we hack them so that we can pour whatever operating system we want inside. We need to jailbreak these media boxes so we can install the apps we want, not the ones provided by the Apple shopping mall.
Do not be content with a television when you can have a computer.
Do not be content with yesterday's machines, because the future is before you. Ready to be hacked.