What is the iPad for? [Guest Post]

by Guest Contributor on 16th April 2010

The iPad is out and the reviews are turning up, dreams are being fulfilled and I am thinking what’s it all for? Where is the line between being really mobile and actually getting stuff done?

I think that the iPad has shown that line up in glow in the dark paint.

The big division in smart mobile devices has often been between devices engineered around content consumption and those oriented around content creation for publishing privately or publicly on the cloud. Many device reviews on the Really Mobile Project and its earlier incarnations highlight this distinction.

The Really Mobile Project on an iPad

Yes. We're using this image again.

The problem is that for ordinary people, the truly revolutionary telephone smashed that publisher/reader model for distance communication a century ago. It is only the industry that is interested in getting it re-established. The telephone allows me to engage in conversation: I talk and then listen to the other person, who transforms my ideas and then I transform their ideas and so on. If things are going really well (or very badly) we may even talk at the same time. We collaborate. I continue what I was doing before but better.

The telephone is a peer device that allows natural, real time interaction for information, decisions, confirmations and clarifications. It assumes that each person’s participation is transformative and that the value lies in the conversation not just in each person’s own words. This is true for social and for work conversations to the point that it is almost impossible to have a telephone conversation that is purely one thing or the other. Email, which is a store and forward communication system is similarly a peered conversation. Personally directed emails are read, considered and responded to while published emails get the treatment they deserve – even those published by highly respected internal HR departments. Either way, conversation and email are collaborative and as responsive as they can be. The desire to answer email at all times of the day and night is not a property of the medium but a (generally irrational) desire to collaborate on the message.

“There is money is made in publishing and there always has been. Thus new mobile devices are not oriented around peer collaboration but publishable content…”

Alas it is hard to extend the business model of telephone conversations because all of the value lies in what the participants have to say to each other. Intermediaries cannot value add, the carrier is just the carrier. However there is money is made in publishing and there always has been: in editing, distribution, storage, aggregating, data mining, advertising etc. Thus models of our new mobile devices are not oriented around peer collaboration but publishable content, the stuff from which money can be made. I have no problem with this except that it is not how I get stuff done. I do stuff by collaboratively working with other people.

So when I see the iPad I don’t see a new paradigm, a better way of working or living or even a moderately balanced device. I don’t see it converting my half-formed thoughts into iPadish reality and transmitting them in an iPadish way to the people/systems with which I want to interact and for them to bounce better ideas back to me. I see it as a further balkanisation of publish and consume, with a very heavy bias towards consumption in an oh-so-mobile way. There is no “app” that will overcome this. In a true peering device, such as two tin cans joined by a tight piece of string, form follows function. In a true publish and devour device the form also follows function and the form of the iPad is now set.

I do not underestimate the value of social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter but I wouldn’t want to overestimate them either. Publishing holiday photos is a great way of getting them out to my friends and family. They can publish stuff back. Fun and useful without question, but is it productive?

I also don’t underestimate the value of on-the-go train service updates, newspapers online, maps, telly shows, live business summary reports from corporate CRM systems. All of these alleviate enormous amounts of time wasting. There is a reason why publishing is such a powerful business model. Yet somehow they don’t make me more productive. Rather they stop me being less productive.

“The iPad re-enforces the model of them and us, producer and consumer, server and client, the publisher and the damned.”

I do question whether the investment in 3G mobile data networks could be justified by social networking and live data update services without the productive, collaborative uses such as phone calls and email subsidising the whole shabang. The iPad will have 3G purely for data, the first international blockbuster device to abandon voice as its reason for attaching to the telephone network. It has millions of ways (most not yet invented) of managing published content. However, when you see a statistic on your downloaded report, you will still have to reach for the good ol’ phone or walk into the office next door to do something about it.

The one thing it doesn’t do at all is allow me to engage absolutely equally with my peers. Yes it has decent email (at its size and weight so it should) plus a million social networky cloud based apps. But it offers absolutely nothing new and clarifies what is wrong with the really mobile projects currently being developed. The iPad re-enforces the model of them and us, producer and consumer, server and client, the publisher and the damned.

The only way to get a mobile, real time, organic, human interaction out of the iPad is to turn it off, hold the reflective screen up to your face and use it as a mirror.

Julian Cooling is an Australian with a beard living in London, but we don’t hold that against him. He was last seen using a SonyEricsson P800 which – he claims – is still to be bettered and is certainly now fairly rare. By day he does clever things with large IT systems for large businesses and in his spare time he spreads his love between the the performing arts and Apple devices.

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