Is the iPad a consumption only device?

Yesterday I finished reading Walt Crawford’s “Zeitgeist: hypePad” article in the newest Cites & Insights.

Walt did a fine job of summarizing a lot of blowhards and a few sane persons. But. The further along I got the stronger my apprehension got. Was Walt going to notice something I was noticing or was he buying into a certain rhetoric and, if so, why?

Here’s the thing. Many people, people on both ends of the iPad hype spectrum, are claiming that it is purely a content consumption device and not a content creation device. And that, my friends, is pure horseshit.

While there are some serious issues with how proprietary the device is, the limits of the iTunes/app store model for acquiring software you need/want, and the rampant DRM, and these certainly deserve some critical ink spent on them, this in no way makes the device a “consumption only” platform.

I am not sure what constitutes content creation for the technophiles and Wired editors and the likes but I believe that Walt knows better. Almost no one is producing fancy, professional-quality, full-color glossy Web magazines. We are writing blog posts, interacting in Facebook, conversing in friendfeed, posting pictures to Flickr and other image sites, writing documents and reports that end up on the Web, and so on.

The iPad will not only allow but enable one to do the vast majority of these things! Sure, you won’t be able to run Dreamweaver or QuarkExpress or … but these are NOT the only things that generate “content” [By the way, let me go on record here as to how much I dislike this usage of “content.”].

According to the iPad features page it includes Safari, Mail, Notes, Keynote, Pages and Numbers, along with, of course, access to the App Store. While most of us probably do more consuming with our web browsers we also do creative work. This critique may be minor and it may not be very creative but I am not consuming it and I am creating it in a browser. I could have written this on my Touch.

The other programs are even more heavily toward the creation side of this supposed dichotomy. There are also apps for painting and drawing and many other forms of creative activity. Famous artists have even used their iPhones to create and share art.

Walt does say that “the iPad will succeed or fail largely on its own merits. While those merits may not meet my needs—and while I do believe you’re better off thinking of the iPad as an appliance, not another kind of computer, and that the closed model is dangerous—there’s no doubt its merits are real” (p. 30). Yes, I think the appliance label is useful. I certainly do not think of my Touch as a computer except in a generic sense.  I certainly do not confuse it with my MacBook and what it can do.

I am intrigued by the iPad but I highly doubt I will be buying one any time soon. I do my best not to buy 1st generation hardware/software from anyone. And I have serious concerns with the many other issues around the iLine of products—closed systems, DRM, etc. I also do not know where the iPad would fit into my way of being.

Walt finds the closed model dangerous and so do I; especially if it proliferates and closed systems become our only choices. But I also find lots of room for the closed appliance model of computing. There are an awful lot of people who could benefit from a device like this who are simply overwhelmed with a standard computer and all that that entails. Of course, most of the people Walt cited—the pundits anyway—probably cannot begin to relate to that thought.

So while the kinds of content that can be created on an iPad are reduced from what one could do with a full general-purpose computing device and appropriate software and input/output devices, it is not non-existent. To call an iPad—in general, irrespective of any particular use cases—a content consumption only (or primarily) device does more to show us what the commentor thinks they value over the truth of the matter.

For instance, Walt cites Lauren Pressley’s thinking (p. 16) “that things on the web are shifting from mass creation to primarily consumption (that is, “regular folks” are mostly tweeting, not contributing long-form content) with organizations creating more of the content ….” But since about Day 2 of the Internet that has probably been the case with organizations creating most of the (long-form) content.

Also, since when is Twittering not content creation? There seems to be a real discrepancy between what people consider not only “content” but “creation.” Until those nuances are pulled apart it is nonsensical to make such statements and to apply such labels to our devices.

In the end, I do think that devices like the iPad are restrictive in the way of content creation. But then so is my $2000 laptop. My laptop cannot help me paint a picture in oils on a real canvas, nor can it help me build a fancy gingerbread house. Now just hold on! If you want to tell me that I can find all kinds of good info on the web on how to paint, where to buy supplies, etc. that is only consumption towards a creative goal (under the current model). If you tell me I can find designs for gingerbread houses on the web then same thing. And I could do all of those with an iPad.

One thing to notice here is the complex issue of just when and how does consumption lead to/change into creation. There are no acts of immaculate conception in art/creation. It all comes from some influence; an influence that was consumed at some point, whether one knows it or not.

There are also larger issues of just who is doing content creation to share on their computers anyway. And of what we are calling content creation. Sure, precede it with long-form content, if you like. But you cannot separate long-form content until other kinds until you have delineated what content is, period.

In summary, while there are many issues surrounding the closed appliance model of the iPad to call it a primarily content consumption device, all the while ignoring what is or is not consumption vs. creation, ignoring other use cases than ones own, ignoring who is creating vs. primarily consuming, is simply to show ones biases.

In the end, once/if all these ideas are teased apart we might still label the iPad and similar devices as primarily consumption devices. I am perfectly fine with that, because then we will know what we are actually claiming.

Do I expect any of this to happen? At least on a broad-scale? Nope. No hope whatsoever. Academics will pull some of it apart, if they aren’t already, but little will filter down into the mainstream any time soon.

Unfortunately, this is an area that is rife with hype and I do not see it changing any time soon. But I intend to stay alert for this kind of framing—if one can call something framing which lacks much structure—and rhetoric so I can better assess the tools my society makes available.

Disclaimer: I am not an Apple fanboy although I am an Apple user. I have a 30GB photo iPod, a Touch, and a MacBook. I also have a 12″ PowerBook collecting dust until I possibly get around to totally reinstalling the OS and software.

But ask me about my 1st computer purchase years ago only to have Apple kill the Apple II line once they decided everyone had to have a Mac. My next and 3rd and 4th and 5th and … computers were all DOS/Wintel-based, for years after.

I think that, for now, Apple computers offer a good bargain; quality hardware and software for a reasonable price. Is there a premium? Sure there is. But I do not mind paying for quality in my important purchases. But, although far less than when I had Windows machines, I still yet at my computing devices on occasion, just as I frequently curse Steve Jobs and his (peoples’) design decisions that baffle me.

4 thoughts on “Is the iPad a consumption only device?

  1. These are interesting thoughts, and I’ll probably weave them into a later essay. I do believe it’s fair to say that the iPad is more oriented to consumption and less to creation than, say, any netbook or laptop computer, given its closed model and the need to carry an external keyboard if you plan to write a lot. Is it entirely a consumption appliance? Certainly not.

  2. Ah, good. Glad to see I “knew” what your thoughts might be. And I fully agree; definitely oriented to the consumption end.

  3. Interesting post. For what it’s worth, I was attempting to make the case that the iPad is for those who aren’t primarily focused on content creation, and I specifically commented on the different types of content that exists in blogs and Twitter. I’ve been sitting on a blog post for some time about the divergent types of content that people are putting on the web. Maybe it’s time to go ahead and write it. Clearly you can create content on the iPad as you can with the iPhone, but it lacks the power, multitasking, and input options that enable larger scale content creation. If you’re interested in the full post from my blog, it’s here:

  4. Pingback: The new iPod touch could be a great learning tool – Making Meaning

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