The iPad's significance: The first computer built for consumers, not producers, of digital content

I write about politics now for a living but for a decade, beginning slightly before the dot-com boom that started with Netscape's IPO, I was a technology reporter. Though tech reporters for most daily newspapers could not avoid the financial/stock market aspect of the business, my favourite stories were ones that looked at new ways human beings were interacting with technology. The bet of those kinds of reports were stories about "inflection points", where it seemed clear that this development or that one had clearly changed the way everyday people were able to computer and communicate. 

The history of Apple Inc., as you may know, is filled with these inflection points: The mouse as a pointing device; the graphical user interface built into early Apple operating systems; PostScript that allowed a user to print you-name-it in any font on just about any printer. (Apple commercialized and popularized all three of those developments, they were initially all developed and researched at the Xerox PARC facility in Silicon Valley)

I think Apple hit another inflection last week with the release of its iPad, that super-thin tablet that lets a user view, annotate and share content on a 20-cm hi-def digital display.

So what's the inflection point? I think this is the computing device that is aimed purely at digital consumers. The iPad is not the machine you will use or want to use if you are a musician, a journalist, an author, an architect, or a graphic designer. Creators need, first of all, input devices beyond a 'soft' keyboard. They need a mouse, a tablet, a keyboard, MIDI inputs and so on. Creators need computer horsepower and massive amounts of storage and memory attached to their CPU. The iPad is not built for those looking for terabytes of storage and gigabytes of RAM. And that's just ine.

Publishers and creators will — and should — continue to use desktops and laptops to create digital content.

But it seems to me — and I missed Steve Jobs' speech on this as I was in Davos, Switzerland covering the visit of the Canadian prime minister to that conference – that the iPad is for the millions upon millions of consumers who write e-mails, sometimes with an attached photo, and might want to be able to share a link about something they've seen or read on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader. The iPad is custom-designed for that digital consumer.

The iPad is not, however, a device for producing content. Professional content creators — and count me in among that group — will continue to rely on what is now old-fashioned technology as the most efficient way to created the content that we hope millions of iPad users will download. (It just dawned on me that the keyboard — as an input device using an inked ribbon on paper or using pixels on my screen must be as old as the cathode ray tube inside TVs, that is to say, coming on 50 years. And while the CRT appears to be giving way to cheaper an better LCD, plasma, and LED displays, the good, ol' keyboard seems a little more difficult to replace. Don't you think?)

That old-fashioned technology — old-fashioned being something that had its genesis in the 1960s or earlier — includes the keyboard, mouse, RAID storage, and so on. Until we get computers that with advanced haptic technology that can also understand your voice commands with ease (a la Star Trek), I think it's going to be tough to do better than the current laptop and desktop computers.

But Apple's iPad does take things in a new direction for those who have no interest or inclination in doing little more than posting the odd 30-second QuickTime clip or sharing a dozen or so pictures from a family vacation. In fact, if Apple is successful, its new gadget may encourage people to explore and consumer all sorts of new digital content — from newspapers to books from the iBookStore to  3-D sculpture. And if the iPad can help spur new demand for digital content, that can only be good news for those of use who create digital content.


iPhone app developer Ethan Nicholas makes a parallel point in this post, “Why My Mom's Next Computer is Going to Be an iPad”. Ethan's mom, if I read him correctly, is more interested in consuming digital content than creating it.

“The iPad is perfect for her. It does exactly what she needs. It will let her watch movies and listen to music and read books on long flights. It will make using a computer fun instead of an annoying chore.

But it also won’t allow her to install umpteen news and weather gadgets that start up on boot and slow her computer to a crawl. It won’t suddenly forget how to talk to a network, or get so confused by all of the software installs and uninstalls that you finally have to break down and reinstall the system from scratch. In other words, my mother’s next computer is going to be an iPad, and I dream of the day when I can finally throw off the oppressive chains of being the one guy in the family who knows how to actually keep a computer working.

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One thought on “The iPad's significance: The first computer built for consumers, not producers, of digital content”

  1. I think this is a useful distinction, except that I think that you make the dichotomy between content creators and consumers too stark.
    Most of us spend some time doing each. I'm a researcher and an educator; I do a lot of real work creating stuff. But I also consume a lot; even just for work I spend a lot of time reading journal articles in PDFs formatted for 8.5×11 ages and taking notes on them. The iPad is going to be the best tool I can see for doing that until we have colour e-ink.
    When I'm in `consuming mode', this pad is (I hope) going to be very useful. While it will never be my main digital media tool, for the subway and trains, there's every indication that for my needs, it'll rock.

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