Obsessions: February 1st, 2010

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I swear this is my last iPad-related column.

Here we are in our first week post-iPad launch, and I can definitely tell you that I feel better now that it’s over.

When Apple releases a product, there’s something about working for the media that’s kind of awful. My first Apple launch (third generation iMac, maybe?) happened while I was with Gawker Media, and nearly every site in the network completely stopped while Jobsy handed out cups of Kool-Aid onstage. Now, a few launches down the road, it feels more like standing in front of the engine of a 747 while watching the pilot start that bad boy up and salute you from the cockpit. You know when everything’s over you’re gonna be in the Hudson, probably in a super bad mood, and the best way to deal with all this crap is to go limp and let it happen.

Let’s take a lookie-loo at the hype around the web surrounding this new miracle machine. In the cycle of Apple releases, there’s invariably a loudmouth who’s going to talk about how badly Apple has messed up this launch, how the device should have been designed, and lastly, how Apple should stop even trying, because they’re failing miserably. That person is usually John Dvorak (and it’s been gossiped that he pulls these stunts to drive Apple fanboy traffic to his column). Anyway, since he’s usually the first nay-sayer of record, let’s look into his corner to see how the dust bunnies are swirling. And here he goes (as usual and on script): The iPad is not interesting and is just a big iPod touch.

There’s something buried in that statement, and it is part truth, part complete misunderstanding. The surprising fact of Apple sales figures, as reported at the Apple Blog, is that the iPod Touch is actually selling much better than the iPhone. That makes sense to me, considering the expense and much-gnashed-about network unreliability, yet we haven’t heard much about the Touch. Why? Because the media’s in love with the iPhone and all the obvious paradigm-shifting glamor around it. The iPod? Meh. It’s cute, but it’s not freaking out AT&T, and guess which is more interesting to write about?

The iPod Touch, with wi-fi network availability, is a perfectly suitable alternative for almost everyone. That would mean that with the iPad’s larger form factor, it’s an iPod Touch—as Dvorak said—but one that can be used more comfortably, more casually, and more socially (with a friend sitting on the couch).

Another aspect of this launch I find interesting is that, if the last few launches have been any indication, Apple is becoming much more comfortable releasing something that isn’t wholly complete. The iPhone and iPod were released well before either one’s OS was complete. If you’ll remember the iPhone launch, we were shown a device with one home screen which couldn’t be rearranged, a handful of apps which couldn’t be added to, and missing basic commands (like copy and paste). If this launch is like the iPhone, this could be the beginning stage of a third OS, somewhere in between the desktop version of OS X and the slimmed-down mobile version of OS X shipping on the iPod Touch and iPhone.

The most fascinating part of an Apple launch to me is the reaction from the technology press. Reporters struggle to understand what the device is for while not understanding that they are not always the intended audience for that device. (Apple doesn’t make that any easier; they never specifically state who the intended audience is.) Tech reporters’ lack of understanding began to show itself years ago when Apple first removed the floppy drive from the iMac. The press howled: “How will we install anything?” That was over a decade ago, and we’re all still here to tell the tale, despite a conspicuous lack of access to 3.5-inch floppy drives. (Come to think of it, I don’t think any of my partner’s Windows-based machines have a floppy drive, either.)

The first time I noticed the technology writing community completely disconnecting from a successful product was with the launch of the MacBook Air. There is a distinct theme occurring throughout Apple’s product experiments: People want simpler technology that is more pleasant to use. But the tech press didn’t see things that way. They hated the lack of USB ports, the underpowered processor, and the low RAM the machine shipped with. They said the Air was destined for the scrap heap, Apple had lost touch, and so on. (They also complained about the lack of optical drive. Again, there were cries of “How will we install anything?”)

But the audience turned out to be people who didn’t care—people who simply wanted a slimmed-down object. The MacBook Air filled its niche well, showing people that the experience of pulling out a laptop doesn’t need to suck, and doesn’t need to be overburdened with capability. Sometimes, it’s okay to dispense with clutter at the expense of capability you might not need.

As for what I think about the iPad, I don’t know yet. I don’t think I’m the person Apple’s talking to on this one—Jobs is clearly looking beyond his user base and at folks nobody else has yet managed to reach.

I know my mother’s interested in it, because she doesn’t really need a desktop computer. She spends most of her time in the living room or kitchen, and if she wants to check for e-mail or Facebook messages from the kids, she has to go back to the study and deal with a big thing sitting on her desk that she doesn’t like using. An iPad would let her simply turn her head and pick up the little slate sitting next to her to do those things, and would remove the psychological barrier of “going to do work on the computer.”

Reading a book from a machine is certainly an appealing prospect if it means she can carry the equivalent of a pile of books in one object. A laptop is still too heavy for that, but this might do the trick. The iPad may be the middle layer of computing for folks who don’t need to use Photoshop on a daily basis, the people who just want to deal with the internet when it’s convenient. I dunno. We’ll just wait and see.