Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple's tablet introduction: the skinny on the iPad for new media professionals, and where we go from here

This post was written in great haste following the conclusion of the Apple's iPad introduction this afternoon at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Rather than calmly writing and editing the post, I've decided to just let fly and post this immediately -- along with a few updates as the day progresses.

In 2007 Steve Jobs delivered the keynote address at MacWorld and introduced the iPhone to the world. Now three years later Apple is at it again, introducing iPad, and while its impact is hard to judge so close to the actual introduction, I believe that if it is to have the same impact on the media industry as the iPhone had on the smart phone industry, it will not be felt immediately but will grow as developers begin to roll out their new apps and publishers start to experiment with the new medium.

The iPad as a gadget: yes, it is a pretty damn cool. Those media folk that were blogging the event almost universally admitted that the iPad lived up to the hype (though admittedly, all the hype was just wild speculation to begin with).
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The iPad is a giant iPhone, minus the phone. The ten inch screen is gorgeous for the same reason things look good on the iPhone -- and its larger. You can check out all the tech specs on the computer sites, or the Apple site itself, but the key is that the iPad will be the best looking, fastest, thinnest and sexist slate out there.

The iPad should kill off the whole netbook category. Steve Jobs himself started the presentation by indriectly stating that netbooks aren't better at anything, they are just cheap laptops -- and he's right. But the iPad is not really a laptop computer, it is a mobile device that displays media and does simple computing -- and it promises to do these tasks better and more simply than either a netbook or a smart phone. That, in essence, is the niche the iPad is attempting to create.

As a media reader there is no doubt in my mind that the iPad is probably the best reader on the market: color, speed, graphics, video, all the things the Kindle lacks.

The iPad will be more expensive than the Kindle, but frankly Apple has priced this very competitively: $499 for the entry level model with 16 GB of storage, and no 3G (but with Bluetooth and WiFi), up to $829 for 64 GB and 3G. At these prices the iPad is not a toy. But if you were considering a netbook or low end laptop the iPad should be the preferred buy.

As is usual, the presentation was about the wow factor, the specs, the "this is really amazing" stuff, and not a lot about media. Sure, Jobs showed the New York Times on the iPad's Safari browser, but that's just web surfing.

When the time came to show off how apps work on the iPad, Martin Nisenholtz from the Times took the stage to show off the New York Times app for the iPad.  The Times was one of the first to launch a media app for the iPhone, and clearly Apple wanted the Times to be ready for the introduction.

“Steve showed you the New York Times site on the iPad, it’s unbelievably beautiful," Nisenholtz said as she began. Nisenholtz then said they had three weeks to develop the app and "we think that we’ve captured the essence of reading a newspaper."

The Times app was very nice, clearly a better reading experience that reading on a smart phone. But it didn't blow me away, and I was about to feel depressed when I realized "three weeks, do can't reinvent the world in three weeks".

Gizmodo, which was liveblogging the introduction said "It’s like the New York Times reader, basically," less than impressed. "AND, you can play a movie, like on the website."

But that is not so bad for only three weeks development time.

And so I immediately went back to my iPhone memories. Jobs' introduction of the iPhone was all about scrolling, and having cool stuff on a phone. The true revolutionary aspects of the phone really did not become apparent until a year later when Apple brought out the second version of the iPhone operating system. OS 2.0 introduced the world to the app store, and now there are over 140,000 iPhone applications available, according to Jobs.

This is just the beginning for media development for the iPad. The first thing that has to happen is that the SDK has to be downloaded by creative developers and they have to get going.

Apple has brought us the tablet; developers will be the ones creating the media revolution. Apple has provided the appliance and the raw ingredients; media companies, vendors, and software developers will deliver the final dish.

I'll add more details to this review of the introduction throughout the afternoon, but wanted to get this up online for those interested in the media industry perspective -- or at least, my perspective.

Update 1: for consumers looking at the iPad introduction, book reading may be even more important to them than periodicals. Long term I think consumers who buy the iPad will learn what iPhone owners have learned: there are a whole slew of apps that become a regular part of your life. For me the radio apps have become essential -- I downloaded the CBC radio app last night and can already see that it will become a late night favorite.

There were a couple items in the iPad introduction that would have caught the attention of the book publishing industry. First, the iPad book app, iBook, is based on the ePub standard. This open source format puts the iPad in the Sony Reader side of the e-reader battle.

Steve Jobs tried to be nice when he said "“Amazon’s done a great job of pioneering this functionality with the Kindle. We’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a little further," according to gdgt's liveblogging. Then he stuck it to the Kindle by announcing that the iPad would be using the ePub standard. Gizmodo liveblogged their reaction "Kindle looks like the odd-man out with their proprietary format now".

Update 2:  While those that were at the Yerba Buena Center event and liveblogged it were universally impressed, and those who were able to get a hands-on look at the iPad liked it (with some reservations), the online reaction has been pretty negative. Some of this can be chalked up to the usual negativity of web users in general (check out any comments section on any web site), some of it is disappointment in the specs: no USB, no Flash, a large bezel, no camera, etc.

There is also, I think, some hype exhaustion going on. I, for one, am glad this intro has come and gone. Now I can wait three months until I can get my hands on one of these before wasting too many more posts about the product.

Print media: it's alive!

But one argument against the iPad I don't agree with: why not just get a netbook. Netbooks are horrible: underpowered for games, slow in general, and forced to run Windows when a leaner OS would be more appropriate. I this regard I think the iPad will be a netbook killer (though there is no way the whole category will go away -- not even Apple can do that).  If the critics are right, though, this would be bad news for media folk. There are a lot of media executives hoping that something will jolt life into the print media industry.

Update 3: The Guardian, whose work I seem to like more and more, has a few reactions from third parties as part of their iPad coverage.  If you're too lazy to click over there (shame on you) then here are a couple lines I thought were important:

"This device won't be easily banned, won't be "moulded" to fit education, and will be hugely effective as a web browser, bookshelf, video player, game console and communication device," said Stephen Heppell, professor of new media environments, Bournemouth University. "This time, instead of technology being bent to fit schools (as with the Interactive Whiteboards for example), schools must move themselves to meet the new technology. That makes this a significant moment."

"Is that it then? A bloody great iPhone?" said Matt Kelly, digital content director, Mirror Group.  "If any newspaper publishers out hoped the iWhatsit would be the missing link between digital investment and reward, the sight of Steve Jobs lazily stroking his big touchscreen while muttering "awesome" and "incredible" and "wonderful" will have come as a blow."

Kelly may be right, but I'm not sure I'd want that guy leading my digital efforts.