Millions of Americans were glued to their TV sets Wednesday night watching the State of the Union address, but let's face it, President Obama was overshadowed by the other big news of the day: the decidedly mixed reaction to Apple's announcement of the long-awaited tablet, with the unfortunate moniker of iPad. (As one of my Facebook buddies put it, "What's next, the Max-iPad?" And Mad TV's eerily prescient spoof is already making the rounds in the blogosphere.) I mean, even before the announcement, armchair pundits were looking into their crystal balls and declaring the product was doomed to failure. Bashing Apple is kind of a hobby for some folks, especially those with PCs who are understandably tired of certain Mac fanatics constantly trumpeting how much cooler they are. It's a vicious geek hierarchy: Macs look down on PCs, Linux users look down on Macs, and the really hard core types build their own computers from scratch and write their own damned operating system, thanks very much.
Once the iPad was unveiled, there were the usual sighs of "Ooh, pretty!" -- because, after all, Apple makes very attractive gadgets -- and a growing chorus of, "But... what about X feature?" Everyone has their pet peeve with the device. No built-in Webcam? You can't Skype? You can't multitask? Where's the USB port? (It doesn't have one.) Why doesn't it have a real keyboard? (You can buy an external keyboard as an accessory.) What good is a Web browser without Flash capability? (Personally I agree with Wired's Gadget Lab: it's time for Flash to die.) Really, all Hitler wants to do is watch LOLcats while reclining on his sofa -- and now he can't! Unless, you know, he uses his actual computer.
Gizmodo has a pretty balanced assessment of the device's pros and cons, based on a hands-on turn with the iPad. Chief among the Grumpy Guses is one of the bloggers at Lifehacker, who magically transforms a simple electronic device into a manifesto about the tyranny of DRM, urging consumers to fight "The Man" and boycott the iPad for the sake of creativity, freedom and individuality. (Can you say "lack of perspective"? Chill, dude. It's a souped-up e-reader.) Over at io9, Annalee is technically correct in her assessment that the iPad is "crap futurism" according to her narrow definition; it's an incremental improvement targeting a specific niche in the market, not a major paradigm shift. But for most of us, it doesn't have to revolutionize the future. Okay, maybe it is just a bigger version of the iPhone -- or more accurately, of the iTouch, since you can't make phone calls on your iPad. I never understood the point of the iTouch -- it always needed to be bigger to hold any kind of appeal for a user like me. And now it is bigger. Go, Apple!
Part of the confusion no doubt stems with Apple's unfocused marketing strategy: Is it a netbook? An e-reader? A replacement for your laptop? Annalee's "mythical convergence device"? Per Annalee: "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." She closes with this admonishment: "Do not be content with a television when you can have a computer."
Um, okay, but I already have a computer, and I'm very happy with it. I actually just want a media consumption device, specifically for when I'm on long flights, and a "tarted-up e-book reader" might be just the ticket. I hate having to lug several heavy books when I travel, and I hate having to settle for the limited "entertainment" offered by most airlines -- they pick the content, which is often edited from the original, and it might not be content I'm especially interested in seeing. So if the iPad is going to give me in-flight access to books, video, and the odd bit of Web browsing and simple email capabilities, all of my own choosing, my interest is automatically piqued. You want to dismiss me and others like me as mindless zombie followers of Steve Jobs, or mere "sheeple"? Go right ahead. But as the xkcd cartoon below demonstrates, the "cult of individualism" can be a bit delusional as well. (The mouse-over text is classic: “Hey, what are the odds — five Ayn Rand fans on a train! Must be going to a convention.”)
My job is to be a content provider, and it's damned hard work, sapping my creative juices. So when I relax, I like to indulge in good old-fashioned mindless consumption; it recharges my mental batteries. Frankly, I'm not remotely interested in reconfiguring anything, even on my MacBook Pro. I want the damn thing to work without bugs, and if that means using sanctioned Apple programs, okay then. I have better things to do with my time -- which is why, for all my love of science, I'm just not a hardcore GeekGrrl. If it meets my needs, I'm happy, and so far, the Apple products I own all meet that basic criteria.
Furthermore, for all the weeping and gnashing of teeth (and rending of the garments in extreme cases) about the "limitations" of the "App store," there are thousands of approved apps on there, far more than I could ever hope to even browse, never mind download. There's plenty of choices available to me within those confines; I'm already overwhelmed by the options.
"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," Annalee concludes in her own over-heated call to arms. "We need to jailbreak these media boxes so we can install the apps we want, not the ones provided by the Apple shopping mall." To which I say: Great! Hack away! Vive la revolution! I'd never deny the hackers their fun. They cracked the iPhone and I have no doubt they'll crack the iPad and congratulate themselves afterward on their own iconoclastic ingenuity and superiority. And then they can design and add their own apps with wild abandon. (If Apple just gave that to them, they wouldn't have the fun of hacking in the first place.) But let the rest of us consume our media in peace.
Now that we've got that out of the way, here are the things I am concerned about with the iPad:
Capacity. Only 64 GB capacity, tops? WTF, Apple? Your standard classic iPod contains 160 GB of data! Maybe you can fit a good number of e-books onto the iPad, but once you start adding in video -- especially for folks who want to watch HD format movies -- that's a serious limitation. Is it really that hard to add more memory for those of us who really want to load up for a long trip? I predict this will be one of the first things Apple upgrades in subsequent models. Because, honestly, that's a laughably small capacity.
The Battery. Apple is claiming 10 hours of battery life, which isn't bad compared to a laptop but pales in comparison to the long battery life of the Kindle. But that's in ideal lab conditions. I think it's safe to assume we're more likely to get 8 hours of battery life between charges, realistically. Which is probably fine for my stated use: to read books and watch video on long trips (especially since more airplanes are incorporating recharging outlets into their seats these days). Also, what happens when the battery finally dies? It used to be a simple matter to switch out the battery on my old MacBook Pro; the new version requires me to bring it into the Genius Bar. Before I buy an iPad, I'll want to know how they plan to handle battery replacement issues.
The LED Screen. There are pros and cons to this choice. The pro is that you get full color and can read Websites, newspapers, and watch video as they were meant to be viewed. The cons are that LEDs are an energy hog, limiting battery life, and honestly, it's hard on the eyes, especially for those of us who already stare at a computer screen much of the day. The Kindle is black and white, and uses electronic ink. The biggest advantage to using electronic ink for the Kindle is that it saves energy and thus extends battery life, giving our beleaguered eyes a bit of break. Then again, you can't watch full-color video on the Kindle. Nor can you read full-color magazines with pretty pictures. And forget about full-color graphic novels. Everything has to be specially formatted for the Kindle and let's face it, that format can be pretty limiting.
Now, publishers can get surprisingly creative to make the Kindle's limitations work for them. Take Archaia, which released the first graphic novel last summer specifically designed for the Kindle: Tumor, by writer Joshua Fialkov and artist Noel Tuazon. The gamble paid off: for the first few weeks after its debut, Tumor was the #1 download on Kindle, and enjoyed Top 20 status among all purchased graphic novels on Amazon. Not bad for a small independent title, going head-to-head with the likes of Spiderman and The X-Men.
It was a natural fit for hardcore comic book fans who know their history. As Fialkov pointed out on a guest blog post at The X-Change Files, graphic novels have never been just about color: "There is an entire world of gorgeous black-and-white comics, with rich traditions in the old newspaper strips of Windsor McCay, through the sub-culture work of R. Crumb, and on to the violent dark world of Frank Miller's Sin City."
Tumor embraces Chandler-esque "LA noir" with a vengeance to tell the story of Frank Armstrong, a down-in-the-dumps, out-of-work private investigator who finally gets a big job on the day that he's diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. He resolves to solve the case and save the dame, while fighting off all the symptoms of a brain tumor (seizures, hallucinations, not to mention really bad headaches). The whole tale unfolds in black-and-white, which enhances rather than detracts from the experience. That, according to Fialkov, was a deliberate artistic choice for the Kindle:
With my book, we made a conscious decision in the creative process to help address the limitations of the device, and turn them into positives. At its heart, Tumor is a pulp detective story. To have it readable on the pulpy screen of the Kindle evokes, perhaps subconsciously, the look and feel of Black Mask or Weird Tales – books that were printed on newsprint during war time.
What we probably won't be seeing any time soon is a Kindle version of my friend Rick Loverd's Norse myth inspired, uber-violent graphic novel series, Berserker. I mean, I've seen the pre-colored pencils of various issues while they were in production, and they have a certain skeletal spare beauty in their black-and-white incarnation, but I can't imagine being able to fully appreciate Rick's loving depiction of exposed viscera (brought to vivid life by artist Jeremy Haun) in your standard Kindle format. But it would look fantastic on the iPad.
Title Selection and "Ownership" Issues. Okay, back to bitching. This is probably the single biggest concern I have, not just with the iPad but with the Kindle or any other e-reader -- it's not exclusively an Apple problem. In fact, it's why I've resisted buying an e-book reader so far: I like to actually own books, and I gravitate towards quirkier hard-to-find titles, or the kinds of books (science nonfiction!) that have only recently started appearing in e-book format. But the selection has gotten to the point where, for the kinds of books I read while traveling, most probably have Kindle versions available to me.
Then there's the ownership issue: Lifehacker has a valid point about DRM, even if he grossly exaggerates the issue. And once again, it's not exclusive to Apple. Amazon can yank a title whenever it wants, and suddenly I won't have access to a product I paid for. At least when I order a physical book from Amazon, it arrives on my doorstep and it is mine, to do with as I please. There have been unsettling instances where Amazon has arbitrarily yanked titles, like last year when copies of George Orwel's 1984 and Animal Farm mysteriously disappeared from the Kindles of people who had legally purchased them. Also last year, Amazon removed a bunch of gay and lesbian themed books from their sales rankings. As co-blogger Lee observed on her personal blog when the latter "glitch" occurred last year:
Among the books being stripped of their sales ranks and obscured in the search function are notable classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, E.M. Forester's Maurice, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, all of which I've read in English classes at some point. Oddly enough, both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have retained their sales ranks (Lolita is up around 2,000). Also stripped of their rankings are Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity has had its ranking stripped.
The message is clear: underage girls and marital infidelity are okay, but anything to do with homosexual relations (other than Christian screeds against it, which are fine) and those perverted animals who indulge in same-sex behavior have got to go. As Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce, told the New York Times: “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”
Amazon still occasionally backslides into its naughty Big Brother ways. Sci-fi author John Scalzi just discovered yesterday that all his books under the Tor imprint mysteriously became unavailable on Amazon because of some dispute they're having with parent publisher MacMillan. While the corporations are playing Negotiator Chicken, Scalzi and other authors under MacMillan are, frankly, losing potential royalties because we, their readers, can't find the books on Amazon. (Fortunately there are always other options. Scalzi helpfully directs his Whatever readers to other book-buying sites that haven't blocked his titles... yet. And hey, why not use this as an opportunity to visit an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore before the species becomes extinct?)
So now we're back to Lifehacker's burning question of whether we want to support this kind of top-down "control" or fight back against The Man Tryin' to Keep Us Down. Frankly, there has always been some measure of control in the publishing industry. Publishers decide which books to publish. Bookstores decide which books they wish to stock, and can "censor" certain titles at any time (cf. Walmart). Amazon can arbitrarily decide to flex its marketplace muscles and not stock a specific title or, in the case of MacMillan, withhold an entire line of titles from a single publisher. It's disturbing, I grant you, but Apple is not the only offender when it comes to embracing this business model, nor is it the worst. In principle, Apple can adopt similar practices, or possibly implement even more draconian controls -- but it's not in its best interests to do too much of that. All they'll accomplish is discouraging on-the-fence potential buyers like me from entering the e-reader market.
There are always tradeoffs. No one device will please everybody 100%, no matter how hard it tries. The only question is whether the benefits to any given user outweigh the inevitable tradeoffs that must be made. For my part, I'm reserving final judgment until I check out the actual iPad in the store. It'll come down to that, the larger version of the Kindle -- or continuing to abstain from the e-book market altogether.