February 5, 2010
The Appeal to Consumer Audiences: Apple's iPad as Shift Toward Entertainment

In yesterday's blog post, Why Apple Hasn't Revolutionized TV (Yet), Sheila wrote:

We've come to expect an exciting kind of innovation from Apple. Apple doesn't give us the newest technology--there were MP3 players before the iPod and smart phones before the iPhone. Apple's true revolutions come in the form of innovative digital business models. The iTunes store changed the way we think about buying music and the App Store made cell phones into anything a third party developer could imagine and create.

I want to talk briefly today about the iPad, but the real content of this article will be how Apple's campaigns are not changing the industry but instead consumer culture. Leading up to Apple's announcement, a lot of expectations seemed to be that the company would present a product that fulfilled a computer user's wildest dreams. The reality, of course, ended up being a touchscreen tablet based on the iPhone's operating system, which promotes the operation of applications ("apps"), small constructed platforms to run specific tasks or services.

The app environment presents the consumer with a much different interface which evades the "general purpose, do-it-all" nature of ordinary computers. The do-anything practice of what Steven Frank calls "Old World" computer practices, which contrast with the new world of "task-centric" practices, from checking email to browsing YouTube videos.

Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain has argued against the closed model of the iPhone and has recently expanded his argument to match the case of the iPad, but it seems unlikely that the audience toward whom the iPhone and iPad are targeted will be concerned. These two pieces of technology are consumer-oriented products, and they embody a shift toward entertainment technology overtaking the market of general computing.

Over the past decade, we have seen the movement toward interacting with media -- music, television, film, games -- on the personal computer. The audiences of these media decreasingly need to manipulate files and settings, instead hoping that their gadgets simply work. Although some critics have interpreted these trends as a generation shift (of old people and young; and while it partially is, we are seeing the divergence of the computing device and actual computing.

The iPad is an interesting next step beyond the iPhone when it comes to consumer audiences and entertainment, because it caters to those looking for a more traditional entertainment experience (eg., larger screen than the iPhone) while retaining just a bit of computer-esque appeal (eg., the revamped iWork suite). I feel that most of the criticism toward the iPad has focused on the device as a computer rather than as technology that actually accommodates the on-demand practices of the contemporary entertainment consumer. The docking station and carrying case (which turns the iPad into an upright screen) match what a former computer user and now entertainment device seeker would find most convenient: a computer when docked and a portable interface when removed. A large-scale video player and e-book reader. And all with an operating system that is one-click for easy accessibility. io9 nails the fact of the matter: "Apple is marketing the iPad as a computer, when really it's nothing more than a media-consumption device."

Perhaps the iPad isn't revolutionary in terms of computing history, but if we examine the cultural implications of the device on audiences, it may influence the next trends in computing's future (if we will necessarily call the next wave of entertainment devices "computers"). Back in the boom of netbooks, we saw the emergence of entertainment-targeted devices as well: take for example the Litl, which markets as "as Internet computer for the home."

And Apple's business models, as Sheila points out, are also helping the general movement toward a more consumer-centric product. From the iTunes music/video store to the iPhone/iPad app store, buying items under Apple's guise has become another form of entertainment. The success lies in the creation of applications to meet consumer's need to access services in the simplest way possible, which appears to be more important to the majority of consumers than universal access to a computing platform.



The Wonderful Wizard of Woz has introduced a means (to several ends). One of these fulfills a relatively ancient promise; computing for the-rest-of-us.
Just how significant/influential this new device will actually be remains to be seen, but even this initial iteration of the iPad has already tempted IT professionals and anti-adopters (of newfangled tech), alike, and everyone in betwen, to rethink the purposes and the means we've got, to re-evaluate our needs.
Access to content/information is not necessarily related to access to control of the channel on which the information's delivered.
The iPad is a controversial example of more fruit of the the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If content is king and Steve is Eve, then finding stuff at the iTunes store should be more like a stroll through a garden than abandonment in a labyrinth.


Great post, Alex. I agree that the iPad's more suited to be an entertainment device than a workhorse, but I think Apple's really shot itself in the foot by not creating a device that supports Flash. Watching TV on a computer is way more about Hulu than it is about iTunes downloads these days. Granted, it would probably be difficult to stream a whole lot of hi-def video over 3G, but the iPad is wifi enabled. How great would it be to hop on airport/airplane/coffee shop wifi and watch the latest episode of 30 Rock? I'd pay for a Hulu app in a heartbeat if I had an iPad. I bet a lot of other people would too. Too bad Apple is still trying to make TV in the iTunes store happen. Maybe Apple's not supporting Hulu because they want to push their supposed subscription TV package, but still. I think the last few years have taught us that there's more than one way to watch TV.