iPad the Spork

After two days of showing the iPad to the community at USC, I got an interesting questions from a student in class: “It isn’t really a computer, it really isn’t a mobile device, so what is it?”

The best explanation I came up with: a spork.

It’s a digital spork.


Now I mean that in the most affectionate way. Rather than doing neither thing well, it does two things quite competently in one tight package.

It’s a browsing device with a large bright screen, powerful processing for multimedia and enough storage/connectivity to mimic a laptop. On the mobile side, its 10-12 hour battery means you constantly use it without rationing your time (this could be a bad thing), you can toss it in your bag without thinking twice, and you can lean back in bed or lounge at the beach to use it.

Now, the “lean back” aspect makes things interesting.

This is what makes the device so exciting for publishers and TV folks.

See, this whole laptop-based “lean forward” crouching over your keyboard phenomenon is foreign to them. It’s too participatory. You’re at your keyboard, ready to comment, to chat, to pan, to praise. You’re multitasking,  your attention is scattered, and you’re almost always one tiny step away from being bored and doing something else.

Traditional media companies aren’t used to that, and haven’t understood what to do with it.

Instead, the iPad brings back the passive, single-tasking, lean-back experience. Lean back is what they understand — couch potatoes, lounge chair magazine leafers and bathroom readers. You’re doing one, and one thing only.

So the iPad gives them hope the pendulum can swing back away from the wild chaotic bazaar of the mouse-based desktop, and back towards what they understand. And to help monetize this, they now have the elusive micropayment system they’ve been missing for a while — the iTunes Store. Years of Apple iPod and iPhone consumers buying songs at $0.99 and apps at $0.99 have conditioned the populace to pay these micro-amounts, driven by an ephemeral impulse buy for content.

Or so the industry hopes.

It’s a very real possibility it will be successful, even if I don’t particularly care for the trend.

Paid apps already available from Time and ESPN replicate the web content on those sites, but with more interactivity and a rich multimedia display. Folks who think this is folly, that the same content can be had for free on the web, and will kill the iPad paid-content market, need to consider consumer behavior more carefully.

By that logic, bottled water companies should not exist because of course we have free water everywhere, from taps and bubblers.

We know otherwise. That Evian, Perrier, SmartWater (and even Aquafina selling what is practically the same as tap water back to us) make money, and lots of it, is no secret. There is upselling of what is commodity. And if there’s ever a perfect partner for making that work (reselling what is common at high markups) it’s Apple.

And that’s what we’ll see — a bustling marketplace for captive content. That’s not my concern per se. What does give pause is a whole new generation of content that is not linkable, commentable or recordable. The iPad is a closed box, and for that reason, the rich discourse (and ugly trolling) goes away. But along with that goes the chaotic mashed-up marketplace that has spawned a creative content community.

For that reason, I hope the iPad will be good like a spork is good on a camping trip –something that will do the trick in adverse conditions, but not something you’d want for your main dining experience. Because that lean-back experience takes away the culture of the read-write web, and that would be a step backwards.

Update: my friend Cory Doctorow has an even stronger warning when it comes to the iPad: “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)“.

24 thoughts on “iPad the Spork

  1. Can somebody please explain to me what it is about the iPad that is so “lean-back”? I’ve seen it echoed around the web, but I’ve never seen any justification for the comment.

  2. Pfctdayelise, the lean-forward vs lean-back paradigm is something talked about much in the interactive television space. Perhaps I thought it was more widespread than it is, because I thought I was restating a well known model! :)


    I think until now everyone thought of it as old media (lean back) vs new media (lean forward), but the iPad is new media AND lean back, which throws folks for a loop.

  3. Werdna: I consider it lean back in terms of ergonomics and OS function. It doesn’t have a keyboard to hunch over, so you’re certainly not leaning forward, because you’re not at the ready at the keys or mousepad. It’s also not multitasking and the entire experience is controlled by the content creator, so you have nothing to do but completely focus on exactly what’s in front of you. For those reasons, I do wind up using it much more in “lean back” mode.

  4. I’m curious why people suddenly will become passive, cultural dupes – is reading, watching, appreciating, suddenly a passive activity? Why is close and concentrated engagement with a product suddenly considered culturally inferior to pseudo-active “social” media use? I’d like to think that the “passive” or, as I would have it, engaged or attentive mode of consuming is the prerequisite for actual participation – i.e. you have to consume knowledge before being able to change, challenge, reproduce, or participate in knowledge creation.

    That, and we can see the iPad as a possible platform for DIY publishing – ie. when the hardware on which you consume Penguin books is no different from the one on which you consume a self-published text book, I think people will be inclined to produce high-quality stuff too.

    All in all, I see it as a brilliant form factor for consumption and as a supplement to tools for making – also, will it not bring the long tail of fringe productions closer to a general public rather than the twittering Linux, CC obsessed social media crowd (of course, that would challenge our right to complain about the passive “crowds”…)

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