iPad: A Question of Aesthetics

Seven short days ago I was getting up at about this time in order to get in line at the Apple Store. So with a full week under my belt I'll go ahead and give you my thoughts on the iPad.

I don't think you need one.

Wait, what?

Look, I just think it's easier if I get that thought out of the way up front, so we can focus on what this device is about. I'm not trying to convince anyone to get an iPad. The fact of the matter is that, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, you just don't "need" one. There is nothing you can "do" with an iPad that you can't "do" with something you already own. That's the truth.

But iPad isn't about what you do, it's about how you do it. It's really about aesthetics. As a music teacher aesthetics that is wired into my life on a daily basis. The "how" and "why" of things matter to me. Since my generation (those of us who had TRS-80s in high school) grew up around the advent of computers, we sometimes struggle with the concept of computing being a pleasant experience. Many feel it should continue to be a proving ground for those who can "get under the hood" and tinker, troubleshoot, etc. In my opinion, the biggest reason Apple products have become so popular with younger (and older) generations is because those people don't bring that history with them to the computing experience. They want things that "just work" to the point that the device itself sort of disappears. The content is the focus, and the device should serve it. I certainly identify with that mindset.

So, for example, if I am at my desk, I prefer to work on a laptop. At work I am primarily creating content, and for that I want a large screen, printing, a physical keyboard, and feature-rich software. The iPad doesn't give me those things. Can you type on the iPad? Yes of course, and it's fine. But typing on the iPad, like the iPhone, is utilitarian. Though there will probably be some who can type just as fast on the iPad as a laptop, I prefer the typing experience on a mechanical keyboard, particularly Apple's latest "chicklet" style keyboards. And yes, Apple has released the iWork apps so you can create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the iPad. Still, content creation, for me, will continue to primarily happen on a laptop because it is the richer experience.

That being said, when I want to consume content, whether in my leather chair or laying on the couch, the iPad excels. The ability to hold the display close and navigate quickly with your fingers is a far more pleasing way to surf, read, and view images and movies. The design is exquisite, the battery life is astounding (I'm regularly getting 11 hours or more) and it doesn't heat up (if you have spent any time with a laptop on your lap you are quite familiar with the heat issues). The iPad is the best consumption device I have ever used, and it is changing the way I experience media. And when I say "best"  I'm not talking about a side-by-side list of features, I'm talking about an overall aesthetic.

Book reading is much more pleasing on the iPad than on a laptop or an iPhone. The "pages" are about the size of a physical book. This of course brings up the point of whether physical books are better. Well, there is a tactile aspect that cannot be denied. If you prefer that experience, then the iPad will probably leave you wanting. But the iPad has some aspects to it that are either impractical or impossible with "real" books. For example, you cannot read a book in the dark, but you can do so on the iPad. You can also "carry" hundreds of books and magazines with you and have any of them at your disposal instantly. And of course the search, dictionary, and font capabilities are fantastic. For me it is the best way to read. I can't imagine we won't see student textbook migrate to this device. Chiropractor bills alone could justify the cost of an iPad for many students.

The web surfing experience on the iPad is great. Even though the Facebook iPhone app is excellent, I much prefer to interact with the actual site. If you have ever tried to do that on an iPhone you should try it on an iPad so you can understand what a difference the screen size makes. The "pinch" technology is very smooth and accurate, and touching links is very intuitive and quick, even more so than on the iPhone because you don't have to be quite as careful since everything is larger. I would much rather surf the web on my iPad than on a laptop or my iPhone. To those of you wondering about Flash, I won't go into the full discussion now, but just notice how fewer and fewer sites are using it. Whether you agree with Apple's position or not, there are about 85 million of their mobile devices out there now, and web developers are not going to ignore the fact that Apple prefers HTML 5 standards over Flash. Sorry Adobe but that's how it's going to be. But I digress.

Photos are gorgeous on the iPad. Sitting it in the dock and pressing an icon turns it into a digital photo frame with typical Apple elegance. In the hand it is a much nicer photo viewing experience than either the iPhone or a laptop.

Movies are perfect for the iPad. Yes it is doable on an iPod Touch, iPhone, or laptop, but they just don't compare to having a decent size screen in your hands. Pair a set of Bluetooth headphones and you are in for a treat. ABC and Netflix have jumped on the iPad band wagon and I suspect we will see many more content providers release apps in the coming months.

And speaking of apps.... even after one week it is easy to see how the app experience is going to be qualitatively different on the iPad. There is so much more information that can be included on the screen, and developers are taking advantage of that. I think we're going to see some excellent educational apps that will will make the classroom more interactive, productive, and provide the teacher with much more individual input about student learning. Clickers are nice, but just wait and see what iPad developers bring us, I think it's going to be exciting and if done right, far more immersive and engaging for students than cumbersome laptops when reading and interacting are called for.

So there you have it, my thoughts on the iPad. Clearly there are those who feel it is "just a big iPod Touch." For those who do not value the "how" as much as the "what" that will probably hold true. But for me, the iPad is my device of choice for content consumption. The aesthetic experience it provides is unlike anything else, and for me that is significant.