Is iPad a game-changer?

This article is running on, but the server is flaky, people are having trouble getting through. So I’m running it here too on :-)

A picture named chaplin.jpgIf you’re old enough to remember the vice-presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, you’re also old enough to remember the PC jr.

Quayle, a fit young man, probably chosen as a running mate because of his fitness, was likely told by his handlers to compare himself to the fit young John F. Kennedy. When he did, Bentsen, who was many years his senior, and was probably briefed to expect this, said: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Entrepreneuers make the same mistake Quayle made, they always compare themselves to the winners, never considering that losers outnumber winners by a huge margin. Most of the teams in the NCAA championship are not Duke. Most of the major league baseball teams did not win the World Series, and most football teams did not win the SuperBowl. And most new tech products, no matter how daring, well-executed, fun to play with and just plain sexy they are, don’t turn out to be game-changers. Those are few and far-between.

And when companies set out to create a game-changer, they’re even less likely to create one. IBM didn’t try to turn the world upside-down with the PC in 1981, however, in 1984, they did, with the PC jr, and failed. And in 1987 with a new architecture, and failed. In this industry, expectations usually kill the game-changing quality of products. Actual game-changers are not often hailed by victory parades on Day One.

David Bowie plays inventor Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006) which I watched yesterday on a flight from NY to SF. Of course I watched it on the iPad, and the experience was very nice. I was not the only person on the plane with an iPad, there was at least one other person who had one, a man sitting in the last row of business class (I was in the first row). He had his iPad on a stand, sitting on his tray. I watched mine reclined, holding it up with my left arm. When it fell asleep, I switched to my right arm.

Back to Bowie, who has a great line in The Prestige about innovations. “The first time I changed the world,” he says, “I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire.” That’s why he was creating his new products for magicians. Funny that Steve Jobs calls the iPad magic. “;->”

On the airplane there were lots of people who were curious about the iPad. Most asked the same question — when did it come out? (Saturday.) Is it like the iPod Touch? (I don’t know.)

Like everyone else who got one, I am trying to figure out how to make it my own. I keep hitting frustrating limits. I want to use it to write. Impossible, I’ve discovered. None of my writing tools are there. Not just the ones I use to enter keystrokes into the computer, and edit and revise them, but also the tools I use for finding information I want to reference in my stories. For example, when I wrote this piece, I paraphrased the quote from Bowie, expecting that later, when I’m revising it, I’ll be able to get the exact words either by looking it up on the web, or by playing the movie on my computer and transcribing the words. Both are of course possible on the iPad, assuming the movie is already on board, but the looking-things-up part can be really awkward, at least for me, now. Maybe I’ll learn the elegant way to do it.

But learning how the iPad works is in itself trouble. When I got off the plane in SFO, I wanted to find out if I had time to eat a late lunch before the one hour train trip to Berkeley. For that I had to use my Droid. The iPad was already stowed in my luggage, and the Droid can communicate on its own. But it has different user interface conventions. This is no accident of course. Software-makers always make it difficult to use their product with a competitor’s product. It’s simpler to make a choice, either be all-Apple or all-Google.

It’s definitely not a writing tool. Out of the question. This concerns Jeff Jarvis, rightly so. This is something my mother observed when I demoed it to her on Saturday. Howard Weaver writes that not everyone is a writer. True enough, and not everyone is a voter, but we have an interest in making it easy for people to vote. And not everyone does jury duty, but easy or not, we require it. Writing is important, you never know where creative lightning will strike. And pragmatically, experience has shown that the winning computer platforms are the ones you can develop for on the computer itself, and the ones that require other, more expensive hardware and software, don’t become platforms. There are exceptions but it’s remarkable how often it works this way. (And to Weaver, there’s a reason why no one evaluates Amazon products this way, the concern that the Mac, an open platform we depend on, will receive the same treatment.)

Most of this is negative, and it reflects my feeling about the iPad, which is generally negative, even though I have a lot of fun discovering the problems with the device. It feels so nice to use. It’s so pretty and the touches are so incredibly thoughtful and theatric. I feel like it’s a great Hollywood movie that I control. That’s coool. I like using it the way I like driving my BMW.

And the battery performance is astounding. Apple, who seemed never to understand how important batteries are to the untethered creative person, has apparently attained that understanding. My iPad still has 44% of its battery left after flying across the country, in use the whole time, and on train trips to and from airports, and reading the news this morning at breakfast. That’s remarkable, not just for Apple, but in comparison to the netbook that I admire for its battery life.

Further, in the iPad’s favor — the screen is uncluttered with the 30-year history of personal computer development, and my netbook screen is. As a result, even though the netbook has a slightly larger screen, the iPad actually feels larger, and effectively is larger. That’s why the map application feels so much bigger and more useful, because it has more screen real estate to play with. But this comes at a substantial cost. There is lots of missing important functionality. And even where the functionality is present, it’s hard to find, and because it works differently makes it hard to use both the netbook and the iPad. And I believe that, for me, the open platform will win, for a variety of reasons.

But some of the clutter on the netbook is necessary. The biggest missing piece for the iPad is Xmarks, the bookmark synchronizer I use. I have two computers in NY and several in Berkeley. I have a netbook and a MacBook that travel, and now the iPad. And a Droid. It would be nice if the Droid supported Xmarks (feature suggestion) and I believe it’s possible. But it’s necessary that the iPad support it, or long-term I just can’t use it.

In an earlier piece, I said it was terrible that all data had to flow onto the iPad through iTunes. Later that day I discovered that this is totally not true, if you use Dropbox, as a I do. I installed it on the iPad and within a minute was watching a movie that I had in a sub-folder of my dropbox folder on my Mac. I have to dig into this some more, because it needs the ability to only share a subset of my Dropbox. I don’t want all my data on the iPad. It has limited storage, and I worry more about losing it than I do my other computers.

As I continue to struggle to find an iPad workflow that makes sense, I wonder if I should be doing more stuff using its web browser, or in the apps. It’s confusing because there are two almost identical desktops on the iPad. There’s the array of icons that is the actual desktop, and there’s the array of browser windows. And some apps forget where you were between invocations. But the dual competing desktops is a real head-scratcher.

Finally, to the question of whether the iPad is a game-changer, consider what Shea Bennett wrote on Twittercism. No matter how great a new computer is, as long as you’re still you, the experience doesn’t change. It’s fun to play with new toys, I do lots of that and it’s important to me. No sarcasm. But reading a book that changes my perspective, or meeting someone who opens a door for me, that really does change the game — much more than using a new device. If you’re looking for game-changers look into yourself, that’s where change comes from.

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