First impressions of the iPad

4 May 2010

The hype that we heard before Christmas about Apple’s new ‘tablet’ being the game-changer – and saviour of publishers – has now died away. Nonetheless, despite being criticized for sounding like a sanitary towel, the iPad is selling fast (over one million units sold since its launch only a month ago) and its advent has forced Amazon to grant publishers some say in the pricing of their e-books. (The scuffling between Amazon and different publishers is one reason why certain books have their ‘buy’ button disabled on Amazon, causing huge frustration among readers looking to get their hands on, say, the latest cult e-fiction from Penguin.) In addition, the iPad’s success seems to have scuttled plans by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to launch their own rival tablet computers.

Given all the hoopla, it was interesting last Monday when passing through San Francisco to drop in on Apple’s main store and take a look. No, let’s be honest, I intended to buy an iPad – but that wasn’t to be. Stocks had run out the previous week but a truckload of new iPads were delivered that Monday morning. Quickly, the word went out, a huge queue appeared and soon snaked around the block, but by 1 p.m., two hours before we got to the store, stocks were again exhausted.

Oh well, at least we got to play with one of the many ‘try-me’ iPads in store. These were all constantly in use, while in the background an army of young helpers were quick to offer help and advice at the merest hint that this was welcome. And upstairs, round the clock, were seminars running on how to get the best out of your iPad. (Yes, Apple say they are not advertising the iPad, it’s all word of mouth, but the sheer marketing effort behind the scenes is staggering.)

The first thing I noticed was how heavy the iPad is – only 1.5 pounds (680 grams), says Apple, but still a significant weight to hold upright in a reading position if used as an e-book reader. (And of course that is my primary interest in the iPad, its potential as a new medium for disseminating scholarly research. For the same reason, we have been taking a closer look at Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony e-Reader.)

Ultimately, the weight needn’t be a problem (after all, the iPad isn’t much heavier than a chunky hardback book). But the dimensions of the iPad – slightly smaller than an A4- or US Letter-sized piece of paper – means it’s not something you are going to just slip into your pocket and carry round with you all the time.

That said, the size of the iPad and its stunning colour display makes it the first e-reader with the potential to transform how we present scholarly research into something utterly new. This isn’t something that is a static, monochrome and two-dimensional imitation of the book (like the Kindle) but a dynamic, interactive, vibrant, loud and boisterous ‘unbook’, an entirely new beast in our backyard.

For instance, I could imagine using the iPad to view Robert Cribb’s Digital Atlas of Indonesian History (shipping to our warehouses right now). It would be more than stunning; it would be awesome. But the key word in the above is ‘potential’. For the moment, it is not possible to connect an iPad to a printer, let alone download files (there’s not even a USB port). Viewing the Digital Atlas might be awesome but using its maps (not least downloading them) would be nigh on impossible – in other words a sad, crippled experience.

However, what is feasible would be an interactive, multi-media history of Indonesia based on the Digital Atlas, coded to run on the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and priced at about $5 to appeal to student budgets. (Maybe we should start looking at this now. And this is why I think the iPad will be a game-changer.)

It is not for nothing, then, that the ‘noise’ about the iPad is confused (you could even say the discussion sounds like the static once heard on old radio sets). Yes, the iPad is groundbreaking and yes it has its limitations but YES it opens the possibility of doing many things previously not possible in academic publishing.

Sounds like we are in for an interesting time.