Mobile Devices

Meditations on the iPad

I've been using the iPad for about a week now and I've gotta say, it's been a pretty good week. Apple, as always, delivered a product that is both easy and fun to use, and while the critics are correct that it's not a device anybody needs, I'll go ahead and say it's a device you probably want.  Sleek and light, it is, more or less, an overgrown iPod Touch, but size matters, and the iPad has quickly become one of my favorite ways to consume media and interact with visual content.

The big knock on the iPad was that it didn't really do anything all that different from a laptop or a smartphone, and that its in-between size and functionality wasn't really better for anything. But this criticism is based on the idea that we're moving toward a world in which we all have a single, do-everything device-- and I think that's a fallacy.  Rather, I think we're moving into a world of many, interconnected devices, that all seamlessly access the same information and content. To have a robust market, the tablet computer doesn't have to be "better" than a smartphone or a netbook or a laptop, it just has to do certain things well.  And as it turns out, the iPad does a lot of things well.

Me & My iPadThe display is gorgeous, and it shows off video content and photos beautifully. I've had a lot of fun scrolling through the Guardian Eyewitness photo-of-the-day app, and YouTube videos have never seen a better platform. The built-in speakers are loud enough and of high-enough quality to be satisfying as you watch a TV show or movie, and video apps like the ABC's Player stream video seamlessly.  I should also add that the Twitterific iPad app is the single best way to interact with Twitter that I have yet discovered. Can you do all these things on a laptop or a smartphone? Yes.  But the iPad's size, weight, and sleek functionality make it the right device for certain circumstances.

I've only dabbled with it's e-reader functionality, but text displays nicely, and I think it will replace my Kindle. While I've always been a fan of the Kindle's e-ink, the device felt like it was missing a touchscreen.  Maybe it's because the iPad is sitting in my lap, rather than on my desk, but I don't mind reading on its backlit screen, even after a day in front of my monitor at work.  I've played around a bit with the Que, a touchscreen e-ink device due out later this year, and while e-ink may still have a place for those with sore eyes, I'm unconvinced.

Lest you think I'm on Apple's payroll, I will point out a few flaws, which are mostly well-documented.  The absence of Flash is annoying, as it means that most video platforms aside from YouTube don't work at all. You can't print from the iPad, and you can't really add content except via cable or by e-mailing it to yourself-- no Bluetooth or WiFi data transfer. The lack of a camera seems like an egregious oversight-- the iPad would have been great for videochatting. And ChatRoulette. But none of these are dealbreakers for me.

In my mind, the greatest potential of the iPad is as a platform for innovation. Just as the iPhone's major contribution was not in the hardware but in the app revolution that followed, the iPad has already seen a flood of innovative apps developed, with many more in the pipeline.  It's not very hard to imagine the iPad (or iPad-like devices) replacing texbooks for students, medical charts for doctors, playbooks for coaches, blueprints for developers, and yellow legal pads for people like me. It's a networked world we're increasingly living in, and anything that you previously used to use to interact with information, media, data, or content is soon to be replaced with devices like this one.

More On Iran and the Global Politics of the Mobile Age

In 2007, Alec Ross and I wrote a paper called A Laptop in Every Backpack, which called for a new national committment in America to give every child a laptop computer.   In that paper he and I write:

A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and
satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world’s people together as never before. The core
premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events
of the early 21st century.  Increasingly, the world’s commerce, finance, communications,
media and information are flowing through this network.  Half of the world’s 6 billion
people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive
mobile phones.  Each year more of the world’s people become connected to the network,
its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do. 
Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an
essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and
fulfillment for the people of the world. 
We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s
people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life
success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of
commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring.  Bringing
this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be
one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.  

Been thinking a lot about these words these past few days.  Recall that among the first thing the Iranian Government did after the election ended was turn off text messaging, shut down Facebook and radically interrupt internet access.   Today they are attempting to shut down all global reporting from Tehran, and have been blocking Twitter and other sites not already shut off. I know Alec has been thinking about all this too as he is now senior advisor to Secretary Clinton on innovation and all things digital.

What should be the proper reaction of the UN, leading nations, NGOs to the turning off of basic communication services in a nation?  Isn't the ability to use these tools something approaching but not quite a human right of the 21st century, one that should not be denied to any person, anywhere?  Can one any longer imagine the concept of political freedom in a civil society without one's mobile device? Should the UN Secretary be calling on Iran to let reporters report, turn back on the internet, text messages and other web sites and social media?

Whatever one believes about what has and will happen in Iran, it seems like we should all agree that intefering with every day people's use of the modern global communications network should be more roundly condemned by the world's leaders, and the future price for such action should be high.

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