Why the iPad matters #1

Those of us old enough to remember Apple Technologies before the iPad, before the iPhone before the iPod and before even the iMac, recall how different it was once upon a time. We remember when Macs were a joke to most PC users. Expensive, weird and gimmicky. As late as 2001, Apple was hanging on to 2% of the personal computer market that was dominated by Microsoft, and it had nothing else on offer. Macs were used by a few cool cats to do cool stuff, and that’s it.

And yet just a few days ago, Apple became the world’s largest technology company. On paper anyway. With a market cap larger than Microsoft and flagship products that dominate popular global culture; products that have refashioned our approach to media and to computers. Arguably, Apple is not even a computer company anymore. Arguably Apple is the world’s leading user experience company. And it is not slowing down. In fact it is picking up steam.

Apple sold a million iPads the first month its new device was released. That’s in the USA alone. And around the world lineups have been huge. Want to bet against its success? Not me. Have you put your hands on one? Wow!

Still, why does the iPad matter? What exactly does it mean, if anything? Is it just another cool toy? Or is it maybe, as some say, the end of the newspaper, or of the book? Is it the school of the future? The phone of the future? What will we do with it? What should we do with it? How do we use it for fun and profit? How do we design and develop for it? What’s the smart way to play this?

The first thing to understand is that the iPad is a hybrid of print, broadcast and web distribution platforms. This makes it the first truly converged platform. Yes, for all that we have heard about ‘convergence’ for the past 10 or 15 years, this is actually it. No hype. No need to tout the future-to-be. It is here, in our hands, today. The iPad is as much newspaper as it is TV as it is computer. This has a lot of implications, most of which I’ll only get to in subsequent posts.

Secondly, and this one is easy, it is mobile. This is an extremely portable device. Imagine being able to take your TV, all your novels, every magazine and newspaper you have ever read, your music collection, your photo collection, all your email, the Internet and all your DVDs with you wherever you went. In your purse, or your glove compartment or your jacket or your backpack. Needless to say, now you can.

Thirdly, people will read the iPad. This is huge. This is massive. You can read a novel on your iPad comfortably. You can read a newspaper or magazine on your iPad comfortably. The recreational reading experience on an iPad is a vast improvement over a computer or a mobile device or even a Kindle. The iPad itself feels like a book in your hand. A very, very cool book. One that can display anything you like.

People are going to move from buying books to buying eBooks with the iPad the same way that they moved from buying CDs to downloading mp3s from iTunes when the iPod was introduced.

Here’s another key factor: from a content producer’s perspective, there is (essentially) unlimited display and storage space on an iPad. Compared to a magazine or a CD or even a website dependent on an internet connection, the depth and scope of the content that can be delivered on an iPad is massive. In theory, a magazine article about a band could include their entire back catalogue. An article about a photo exhibition could include the 1,000 best images from it. A newspaper could have a million active classified ads. Which means, among other things, that visionary and extremely usable Information Architecture and Navigation are more necessary than ever; on the iPad – as with iPhone apps – a great user experience will deliver great audiences.

It also means that iPad ‘print’ design need no longer be based on a scarcity of space, or on the hegemony of straight lines and column-based layouts. As text can be embedded and displayed in untold accessible ways, the information hierarchy of ‘the page’ will be transformed into something closer to an interactive poster, with very high design values that are less dependent on cramming lots of print into a small space, whether it be a webpage or a printed page.

These are a few of the reasons that the iPad matters, and a few tips on understanding the iPad. It is the first in a series about the iPad and is designed for people and especially organizations that are keen to exploit the iPad’s social and commercial potential. The next post in the series will focus on if and how different media businesses will coexist on the iPad platform, given that nearly every media industry is in play.

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