04 April 2010

"I don’t think the convergence of television and computer is going to happen." -Steve Jobs, Apple Expo 2005

The first line of Tyler Cowen's iPad mini-review was: "Could this be the medium through which the fabled convergence finally occurs?"

That really stood out to me, because the convergence of which he speaks (of televisions and computers) has already happened. The result is the computer. There is no need for an in-between hybrid, because the computer won.

(For more on this, see Annalee Newitz's post at io9, "Why the iPad is Crap Futurism.")

This TV/computer distinction also gets at the bimodality of opinions about the iPad that David Pogue wrote about a few days ago. If you're the kind of person that wants to move away from computers and back towards televisions then you're going to like the iPad.  If you think a TV is just a secondary screen for video while you use a real computer, or if you already watch most of your video on a real computer, the iPad is going to look like a dumbed down, neither-fish-nor-fowl device.

I think it's interesting that "convergence" is the first thing Cowen thought to mention, since he had a post a few years back entitled "Why we will not see convergence." He quoted this Paul Boutin article in Slate:
McCracken says most homes are consolidating around a two-hub model. A PC (or Mac) with some multimedia features anchors the home office, while a TV with some computerized gear—think TiVo, not desktop computer—owns the living room. Tech marketers talk about the "2-foot interface" of the PC versus the "10-foot interface" of the TV. When you use a computer, you want to lean forward and engage with the thing, typing and clicking and multitasking. When you watch Lost, you want to sit back and put your feet up on the couch. My tech-savvy friends who can afford anything they want set up a huge HDTV with TiVo, cable, and DVD players—then sit in front of it with a laptop on their knees. They use Google and AIM while watching TV, but they keep their 2-foot and 10-foot gadgets separate. 
It makes sense that Apple pays lip service to convergence, but a dedicated product—even a gorgeous, one-button iTV—would fall flat. In theory, TVs and PCs were supposed to converge and spawn one hybrid media device. In practice, they touch on the couch without breeding. TiVo buffs up your TV with PC-style software that ends the pain of VCR programming. YouTube delivers a searchable trove of instant-play clips to your computer screen. But when you plunk down on the couch to relax, you probably don't want to search YouTube with a remote wand. 
Computer companies should ignore what people claim they want and watch what they actually do. We want the best of both worlds while still keeping them separate. I'm pretty stoked about that buffed-up new Mac. It'll be a great way to watch movies … at my desk.
Boutin's article is titled "The Myth of the Living Room PC."  I think the iPad is the "Myth of the Video-Watching Machine."  I just don't need a device which excels primarily at playing video.  That's not a niche I need filled.  The iPod was awesome because I got to ditch my bulky Discman.  The iPhone is awesome because it let's people carry just one unit and replace their phone, their iPod and their point-and-shoot camera.

What does the iPad replace for me?  I could see myself using this to read comic books if the pricing and licensing structure for them was more attractive, but I'm not prepared to spend several hundred dollars on a gadget for a minor hobby.  It would be neat to be able to check my feed reader 24-7, but Special Lady Friend thinks I'm already internet-addicted, and I'm not spending a bunch of money up front and more every month for a data plan when I'm rarely away from a computer as it is.  When we finally move to a post-broadcast TV world and new shows are available to stream when desired rather than on a set schedule I could really see the benefit of a portable TV/internet machine.  But until then... I just don't know what I need to spend the better part of $1000 for.

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PS Cowen also has this to say:
[The iPad] has the all-important quality of allowing you to bend your head and body as you wish (more or less), as you use it.
I'll preface this by saying I haven't used one yet so I might be wrong, but Cowen's point only seems to be true if you are only watching the iPad, and not giving it any input. (Or atleast not any alphanumeric input.) To put it in any orientation you wish then you have to hold it with one hand, which limits you to one hand for input, which I always find extremely annoying. (I get the same feeling when forced to use one hand for input as I get when I'm on crutches, and suddenly it becomes much more difficult to do easy things like carry a bag and walk at the same time. It can still be done, but at half the speed and twice the concentration.) If you want to type on this gadget it seems like you have to put it down on your lap or a tabletop of some sort, which means you need to crane your neck down over it. That strikes me as extremely uncomfortable.  What we're left with is the same lean forward / lean back issue that Cowen previously said was a big deal. I'd be interested in knowing why he thinks this gadget overcomes that problem.

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PPS None of this actually gets at Apple real problem though, which is that they're alienating geeks.  If you want to take the long-range view then don't ask yourself "do people want the iPad?"  Instead ask "do geeks want the iPad?"

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Edited to add (4 Apr '10): Just to make this perfectly clear, I think the iPad is pretty cool. It's just not a revolution. I can't stand overhype, especially of things that are pretty-neat-but-not-ground-shaking. I'd prefer people get all frothy about things that are just flat out horrible (*cough* Avatar *cough*) or just, you know, remain calm.

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