I'm not going to bother explaining what the iPad is. If you've been anywhere near a computer today, you've seen it and formed an opinion on it. My opinion, predictably, is of the OHMIGODITSTHECOOLESTTHINGEVERIHAVETOHAVEIT variety. That said, I understand that some people aren't as enthusiastic. They ask why it's preferable to a laptop. They say it's essentially an oversized iPhone or iPod Touch. They question its purpose, and the purpose of tablets in general. In short, they don't "get it." That's understandable, and honestly there's nothing wrong with that. And while I'm not an expert in theories of media consumption, I have been thinking about the issues raised by the iPad and by other recent technological advances in some depth, and would like to offer my perspective.
The iPad is revolutionary in its functionality. More importantly, however, it is revolutionary in the conceptual theory behind it. Simply put, the iPad challenges existing paradigms of media consumption in ways that no device has since the advent of the Internet itself. A bold statement, to be sure, but if you'll allow me to explain, I'll do my best to convince you that it is also a well-founded one.
Consider your personal concept of home computing. You're most likely reading this piece on your laptop or desktop computer. Over the years, the various devices that you've used to connect to the Internet have changed in appearance, OS, and power, but the way you use them has remained essentially the same. To use a computer, you sit down somewhere, place it either on a hard surface or (if you're brave) on your lap, hunch over slightly so that you can see your screen properly, manipulate the small pointer icon on screen either by a track pad or by a peripheral sitting on another hard surface, and point and click your way through your computing experience. Now, there isn't anything objectively wrong with this process. However, because it is the only process that the vast majority of computer users have ever experienced, there is a very strong sense that not only is it the "proper" way, but also that there is no need to improve upon it.
In short, the paradigm through which we view our computers and the ways we use them has become rigid. Even programs that do new and innovative things still conform to the basic rules of this old paradigm.
Again, there's nothing wrong with this system, insofar as it is functional. But the question Apple is asking with the iPad is, "Is there actually a way to do this better? Is there a mechanism through which individuals can interact with their personal computers that would be superior to this traditional point-and-click interface, that would open up not just new programing possibilities, but entirely new functionalities?" It's the same question Nintendo asked when it developed the Wii, casting aside twenty years of video-gaming tradition and embracing a new model of functionality. It's the question that Apple itself asked more than a quarter-century ago, when it abandoned the dominant DOS format of computer interaction and replaced it with the point-and-click interface that we've all used since. These weren't just leaps in functionality; they were conceptual leaps, leaps that depended upon the genius of particular individuals who were willing to challenge the dominant paradigm of technological interaction.
This is what Apple is doing with the iPad. It is challenging the dominant paradigm of computer use. It is stating boldly that there is another way of interacting with our computers that may be functionally better than the old way of doing things. This is a radical notion, especially when one considers how ingrained point-and-click is in our computing culture. Apple is essentially asking people to abandon the lens through which they have viewed computers their entire lives, and to accept that there is another, potentially better way of doing things. For many people, this is asking too much. But just as DOS was cast aside by point-and-click, and just as motion-control in video games is rapidly becoming widely accepted, so too might the iPad philosophy of personal computing use come to be embraced by the world at large. It won't happen overnight, but it may happen.
But there's another aspect to what's happening here that I think bears mentioning. As a senior at Middlebury I took a class with Professor Jason Mittell (that's him in the sidebar) about television in American culture. One of the projects I worked on in the class was presentation on how new technologies are changing the way that we view television, not only practically, but also conceptually. For every media user - and we're talking about computers, television, music, everything - there is one question that above all else determines how we interact with the various devices that we use in our everyday lives. That question is: what is media - the content and functionality or the delivery mechanism? It's an important question, and not as easy to answer as you might think.
Consider television. Do you have to be watching a physical television set to be watching television? A lot of you probably say yes. But if you are watching the same programming that is being broadcast to your television on your computer through Hulu, or on your iPod through a video file, why don't you consider that watching television? Its the same content, the same functionality, just on a different screen. So why isn't it all television?
Think about music, a media that has thrived in the digital space. In the old days, an "album" was a physical record that you could touch. You played it on a device that require physical contact. Then we made the move to CDs, and an "album" became a disc that slid into a laser-based device. And now we're in the age of digital content, where a physical unit isn't even required. Now we download "albums" from various sources. Three different delivery mechanisms - and yet they're all "albums," because the content is essentially the same. (To put it simply: no matter how you hear it, Frampton Comes Alive will always be Frampton Comes Alive.) And yet despite the fact that we've accepted that notion when it comes to music - and I say that as someone who LOVES vinyl records, mind you - we are reluctant to accept it with television. For most people, television is still what you watch on your television set. There's nothing objectively wrong with that view, but there are alternatives, and I believe that within my lifetime, we will reach a stage where television becomes a multi-platform media in the same way that music has.
So now we have to ask the same question of our personal computers. What is our personal computer, conceptually speaking? Is it the traditional physical unit, or is it the content? The old paradigm says that the personal computer is the device, and that the device must conform to a rigid set of principles - i.e., television must always be only a TV. The experimental paradigm - the paradigm upon which the iPad relies - says that content and functionality is what defines a media, and that the notion that a personal computer must always be in the traditional form of a personal computer is foolish. A personal computer can be on any screen, in any setting, using any method of interaction. It's not tied down to an old-style unit. That's the same principle that created a pocket computer in the form of an iPhone, and it is the principle at work in the iPad.
So the iPad, then, is the intersection of two radical notions: that there may be new and better ways of interacting with our computers than we are using now, and that the computer conceptually is defined not by our traditional notions of its physical form, but rather by its content and functionality. And that is hard to accept. The iPad demands a fundamental change in the way that individuals view their computers. A lot of people will not make that change. Even among those whose habits wouldn't even push the iPad's technological boundaries - which is to say, a majority of people - accepting the idea that they could interact with their computers in a way that doesn't require a keyboard and a mouse is a huge leap. And for those of us who demand quite a bit of our computers; who engage in heavy photo and sound editing and play videos games that require heavy processing power, accepting a less powerful machine as our primary computing tool is inconceivable. But to lean on the computing structure that has been conceptually unchallenged for a quarter century and write-off any possible alternative is just plain narrow-minded.The iPad as it exists today is far from perfect. I'd have loved to see multitasking, but I'm confident it will be included in this June's iPhone OS update. More critically, I'd have liked to see a webcam of some sort, and a firewire port would have been very nice. But to nitpick at tiny features that I'd have liked to see in the theoretical tablet is pointless.
You see, the iPad isn't the end of Apple's tablet experiment. It's the beginning. It is the first major step forward in tablet computing in forever, and the first tablet that has the potential to truly go mainstream. What that ultimately means is that it is the first major challenge to the widely-held notion of what personal computer use actually is that we've seen in the Internet age. And while it may not ultimately supplant the traditional computer system of keyboards and mice, it will almost surely change the way we look at our computers. Regardless of how successful the iPad proves to be, the fact that Apple is even trying to push those boundaries is cause for celebration.