I succumbed to the iPad, as I knew I would. I’ve had it just over a month now and I wanted to reflect on this device, what it’s like, and what it means.
When it first arrived I was disappointed. I think I was expecting a computer. I took it to the British Library loaded up with a fairly complicated document and tried working on it. That was laborious; the iPad isn’t geared up for working in that way. I found myself thinking I had basically bought a very rudimentary laptop.
If there is a problem for Apple - and given that they projecting 385 million iPads sold by the end of this year, there probably isn’t one - I think it’s this mentality. The iPad is trying to carve out a new space between the phone and the computer and it’s easy to imagine it’s an inferior computer or a bulky phone.
In fact, it really is something quite new. It’s a space that’s been occupied before by the Netbook. These were actually rather high-powered machines, often running desktop operating systems, with full-featured versions of desktop software, but with internet connections and smaller hard drives. The iPad tacks slightly west of that; it’s nearer a phone - it shares the iPhone OS and needs scaled-down versions of the desktop software. Of course, the huge difference is the touch-screen which transforms the experience. Using an iPad is a delightful, seductive thing. You get so used to swiping and tapping that already my computer keyboard feels clunky.
And once you get the idea, once you shake yourself free of the idea that this must be either a phone or a computer, you also realise that you’re heading into an entire new world of computing. For twenty years or more, we’ve assumed that when you buy a computer, you’re buying a data storage unit too. The web is now ready to be our storage. For most day-to-day purposes, all you need is a lightweight interactivity device with your own specified group of applications and a fast internet connection. Your data is in the cloud, on a server somewhere, and shared across all your devices.
It also becomes clear that most of us don’t need very complicated software. I use the Microsoft Office suite, but I’m sure I only use 25% of what Word can do, even less of Excel. So why not just buy a basic version and then add apps for the specific extra functions you need?
On Monday, Steve Jobs and co. announced, among other things, iCloud which is their revamp of MobileMe, already a cloud computing service. iCloud looks to be the service that will make even more sense of the iPad. Automatically backing up your documents to the Cloud, it means you have access to all of your documents and photos, anywhere you go. And, for a fee, you’ll also have all of your music. My old iPod, 160GBs of it, will be happily redundant, because I’ll be able to get one of my (currently) 36,742 tunes on my phone.
In the last month, I’ve found myself leaving the laptop at home and taking my iPad everywhere. I took both to a development event in York and I only used the iPad. I took the plunge and took only the iPad to a conference in Germany. Not only could I very happily make notes on other talks on the iPad, I delivered my own talk from the iPad as well. It doesn’t need to power up, you just take it out of your bag, flip it open and start working. I’ve used it on trains, planes and on the tube.
What about its carbon footprint? One green website, using Apple’s own figures, suggests that in terms of CO2 emissions, it’s equivalent to 17.4 books. So if you read 18 e-books on the iPad - actually, if you just buy 18 e-books on the iPad - you’re making a saving. There are issues about the materials used, their disposal, and indeed ethical issues about the poor working conditions in the Chinese Foxconn factory, where there has been a wave of suicides amongst its workers. We need to keep watching this story and not forget it as we gaze into the iPhone’s lovely surface.
A note on eBooks, though. I have now read a few books both on the iPad’s resident iBooks app and on Amazon’s Kindle app for iPad. It’s a pretty good experience. You’re holding something that feels like a glossy magazine in a way, so it’s less unfamiliar than reading a book on a laptop, which is a rather grotesque experience. Magazines do particularly well on the iPad and I enjoy The New Yorker and Times Higher Education on iPad more than the paper version.
However, four caveats. First, the choice of books is still lousy. Especially if you want to read academic books and not just bestsellers, you have very limited choice. iBooks is significantly more limited than the Kindle.
Second, the formatting of the books really suffers. I bought a book of poetry, which in the paper version has parallel English and French text on facing pages. The Kindle app was completely unable to deal with that and the book was basically scrambled. More minor, but still irritating, reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test on iBooks, where, in the paper version, a word is split across a line and hyphenated, the hyphen still exists in the digital version, wherever it is in the line. It trips you up to read a sen-tence where a word is pointlessly hyphenated.
Third, the format makes all books look the same. I don’t want to seem like a book fetishist, but there is something important about the different fonts, the page size, the paper quality; book designers think about this stuff and have done for 500 years. It’s a pity that may disappear. In fact, iBooks allows for a number of fonts and some degree of page design, but I hope this will continue to develop. I’m concerned because, famously, Steve Jobs thinks nobody reads any more and if it’s not his priority, it’s probably not Apple’s priority.
Fourth, when I finished Jon Ronson’s book, I thought Lilla might enjoy it. But I’m stuck. If I had a paper copy, I’d lend it to her. Short of lending her my iPad for a fortnight, I can’t let her read it. This is a major flaw. It’s part of the brilliance of books that they can be passed around, shared, circulate and help strengthen relationships, communities and so on. You can buy them second hand and so on. None of that is currently possible. Apple must introduce a function whereby you can lend your iBook to someone else. I wouldn’t mind it, like the paper version, it disappeared from my iBookshelf while they had it. It would be very good if you could also quickly and weightlessly borrow it back, if you needed to check something in it. You’d never lose a book to an unscrupulous friend, either. The thing is this has to happen and it has to happensoon: because if they don’t do this, people will crack the software and Limewire/Pirate Bay-type sites will start appearing for books and then, just as in the music industry, publishing and bookselling’s entire financial model will collapse. The music industry didn’t look forward and they suffered; let’s hope the books world thinks differently.