Several months back, I posted a comparison of the iPad, iPod and Kindle from the perspective of e-reader functionality. Now, I’d like to provide some input about the iPad relative to what I see as its true product category: the family room web device. Alas, I’ve already revealed the true nature of my feelings for this iconic tool now that I’ve assigned it to a floor plan and more specifically to a room where one generally relaxes and interacts with content in a more passive manner. Associating the iPad with content consumption as opposed to production is probably not a stretch as I’m guessing that even the most enthusiastic iPad user would concede the device falls short in terms of input. So, I’m hard pressed to imagine the iPad finding its way into the home office when it is obviously so comfortable in the family room.
If nothing else, the iPad has generated some interesting discussions around the state of mobile computing. Case in point: I’ve had discussions about the iPad with my barber, my children, colleagues, Luddites and complete strangers. My barber and several strangers have sworn to me in hushed tone that the iPad has ushered in a new wave of accessibility for elderly readers who use the pincher functionality to increase font size on the fly and relieve strained eyes that have suffered under “pinch-less” monitors for years. Forget increasing font size or display size, from their standpoint, “pinch-to-expand” is the new killer feature that will revolutionize modern mobile computing.
All of the OSU college students I’ve spoken to about the iPad believe the device is “OK,” but not worthy of the cost since most of them already have a mobile phone with Internet access. Hence, the reoccurring statement from many of the student types, “It’s basically a large iPhone.” Steve Job’s recent comment that the iPhone came out of development efforts on the iPad reinforces the connection between the two and form factor similarity. While the lineage of the iPad is established, its utility to the average user is still less clear in my mind.
My own view after seeing it for the first time in March was that it was the ultimate family room device—a tablet device that was more robust than a mobile phone and less obtrusive than a laptop, which could fulfill the typical family room computing tasks: web surfing, email, very light word processing and gaming. To test my hypothesis and provide more substance to my barber banter, I brought an iPad home last week and let my wife and two boys (10 and 5) try it out. The iPad was placed into “circulation” alongside of our laptop and my iPhone—the results?
My wife found the iPad virtual keyboard a challenge. Many of the educational games my boys play are Flash powered. With no Flash support on the iPad, their interest in the device dropped significantly. The virtual keyboard was also not extremely intuitive for them. These two constraints pushed them back to the laptop until we were able to load some iPad apps. Cogs HD, ACrawler, TM Zero were well designed, but the selection for iPad-formatted content is still somewhat limited and one would be hard pressed to describe the iPad as a true gaming device, especially for a younger audience.
Overall, my impression of the iPad changed after this testing period. It was obvious to me that my wife and children prefer using a laptop when at home or tethered to a wireless network. I also found the virtual keyboard a bit tedious and for some reason (even with two right thumbs), felt the iPhone keypad was more intuitive. On the positive side, I found the iPad’s speed impressive. Like the iPhone, the ergonomics in general are sublime and set the bar for other mobile devices. Magazines like Wired are seeing their iPad subscription base close in on their print-based numbers and this might be an indicator of a new growing demographic of well-heeled magazine mavens who will provide needed consumer viability around attempts to coalesce marketing, content and high-end digital manipulatives around a magazine’s brand and readership interests. In short, the iPad may become one of the crucial pieces needed to change one segment of the online reading experience. However, it’s premature to assume examples like Wired suggest a more broad scale adoption of more augmented reality or digitally enhanced subscription-based magazines is feasible or achievable in the near future. A recent post by Advertising Age unpacks some of the magazine specific enhancements found in these examples and the Atlantic also published a telling article entitled “Is the iPad Saving Magazines Yet?”
I’m certain that these examples showcase the potential of online magazines and demonstrate some of the pieces we’ll see in the years to come: more integrated video, 3-D models, the inclusion of social media, content formatted more specifically for mobile or tablet devices. In the meantime, our family is perfectly content passing the laptop around the family room and pulling the iPhone out of dad’s pocket when needed.
While it was enlightening to see Steve Jobs demonstrate what the iPad can do, I found it more interesting to see what the iPad cannot do. Tablet-like in size only, the iPad’s conformity to the iPhone OS, features and ergonomics suggest that we’re seeing Apple promote a renewed focus on empowering crowdsourced content creation over significant platform enhancements—perhaps in a way we have not seen before.
When looking at the evolution of smart phones over the last year, it’s fair to say that mobile content characteristics are progressively less defined by bandwidth and endpoint constraints and more influenced by app developer community innovation, user need, timeliness, and cost. Dev Patnaik at BusinessWeek recently discussed product innovation in this light and the relation to mobile content and e-reader growth is telling.
In this environment of greatly improved platform and decentralized content development, the $500+ iPad brings renewed attention to the e-book phenomenon and adds some serious sizzle to mobile video viewing and Web surfing. However, whatever benefits it might bring to the table, my gut tells me its raison raison d’être is to strengthen Apple’s content delivery position around their iTunes content delivery model. In an insightful post about how the iPad is shifting power to the publisher, the Scholarly Kitchen blog suggests Apple’s main revenue is tied to device sales; however, my own view is that Apple’s iTunes revenue stream is more raging river than trickling tributary. Case in point: Apple has been generating iTunes profit upwards of several hundred million dollars for some time now; all the while selling many of their devices at a price just marginally above the cost of production.
All this to say that there is some reason to be cautious about aligning oneself too exclusively with iTunes or any other proprietary content repository where gatekeeping is controlled offsite.
Here at Oregon State University, as we’ve contemplated porting our text- and image-based publications into an e-book format, the complicating factors have not generally revolved around issues of user preference or medium maturity (we know our users would enjoy more video- and image-based content and that the majority of our users have adequate bandwidth and hardware), but rather gatekeeping and format. The former speaks to the fact that like many content distributors, we need to ensure we have ample control over posting, maintaining and disseminating content from our repository; the latter refers to the challenge we have in approximating the robust feature set found in the PDF format. We’re exciting with some of the emerging technologies that might allow us to address both of these obstacles in the months to come.
Based on the iPad’s content delivery model, it is clear that Apple and other mobile device manufacturers are seeking to expand their role as content gatekeepers. Consequently, it is more important than ever to understand how a company like Apple prioritizes, monetizes, and categorizes content types and what this tells us about whether or not the role of the gatekeepers will be to secure the kingdom or assess excessive tariffs to participate in it. One of the more interesting windows into Apple’s recent iPad activity comes from Flurry, a mobile device analytics company. In late January, they posted the following on their blog:
“Using Flurry Analytics, the company identified approximately 50 devices that match the characteristics of Apple’s rumored tablet device. Because Flurry could reliably “place” these devices geographically on Apple’s Cupertino campus, we have a fair level of confidence that we are observing a group of pre-release tablets in testing.
What did their “stealth” analysis uncover?
Essentially, prior to the release of the iPad, Flurry analytics showed that the tablet device would support mainly games, entertainment, news and books, music, and other lifestyle content. Strong on content consumption capability (browsing), short on content creation (computing). I’m also betting that Apple recognized the trend towards cloud based computing and “thin client” functionality implemented via HTML5 and web services and designed the iPad accordingly. See also Horizon’s 2010 report, which points to these trends. As an e-learning developer, I also see the continued movement towards edutainment as deconstructing and redefining traditional e-learning containers and approaches for both professional workforce development and lifelong and informal learning contexts. Is it a game, an e-learning course, a marketing tool? In many instances, especially when conveyed via phone apps or mobile devices, the content simultaneously matches all three descriptors. Personally, I see this convergence of content form and device function opening up vast new domains of content creation potential; especially since phone apps are more increasingly used as free e-readers or content organizers that allow pushing and pulling of remote content in a pay to play (or read) model (see Amazon’s iPhone Kindle application). Augmented Reality and touch-sensitive science games are two of the best examples of educational game-like format—oftentimes incorporating integrated marketing.
While there are some who feel e-reading on mobile devices is not ready for mass adoption, Kindle’s popularity has laid that discussion to rest. Timothy Egan, a writer for the NY Times blog, iCountry, sees the acceleration of e-book reader adoption as a step towards preserving “book culture” and believes that a key part of ensuring this movement is equitable is to hold the gatekeepers accountable.
In relation to accountability, access becomes paramount—can those who lack financial means still find opportunities to read without having to pay? This is even more important as our traditional print-based gatekeepers such as local bookstores and libraries continue to close their doors or reduce their holdings. A nod to the oft-quoted phrase, “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” is appropriate as mobile devices will always require significant equipment and subscription costs—not to mention the ancillary costs of content downloads.
As a publically-funded organization whose mission is framed by a directive to seek public good over private gain, gatekeeping is very relevant to our group as it relates to how we monetize our publications and ensure equitable access to content. If we were to push more of our content to the Kindle platform, we would be forced to port our book or article content to HTML, import the content into Amazon’s store and then handle e-commerce using Amazon’s proprietary billing system. We have neither the toolset to efficiently format our longer books into a CSS/HTML format, nor do we have the stomach to fulfill the logistical steps required to run a departmental revenue stream through Amazon. What’s more, this virtual space would only be suitable for publications with ISBN numbers, which represent a fraction of our publications.
iPhone and Android offer interesting opportunities since more and more of our users are using mobile device applications as a means to find information. We are currently working on an app for the iPhone and feel this will provide us with an opportunity to understand how we can best use this format to help promote larger print-based projects and also bring interactivity to those publications that are place-based, procedural and fit the metaphor of a field guide. However, this option requires fluency with object-oriented programming and the iPhone SDK and is the more time intensive option when it comes to development.
In terms of format, we are particularly interested in the possibilities that seem to be emerging with the Epub format. Several different e-book readers and the iPad support the Epub format, which CS4 AdobeInDesign allows as an export type. InDesign allows more out-of-the-box formatting of graphical objects and is part of our group’s existing toolset. Add Adobe Air and CS5’s export to iPhone/iPad and you have some interesting options. What remains to be seen is whether the iPad will allow users to import Epub documents directly into their device from a non-iTunes repository, which would provide a much needed nod to more equitable access.