The iPad and the Future of the App

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: I’d like to talk to you about the iPad. I found your latest post on the if:book blog (“The Future of the App”) pretty interesting. In it, you wrote about always searching for what could replace the book, or being asked —

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: — the post on if:book was focused on the word “book”; i.e. what word might replace it as forms of expression evolve.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Do you think that the book as a kind of metaphor provides a useful constraint on how we imagine future modes of learning, or is it just a conceptual stumbling block that we’re going to move past?

Permalink for this paragraph 1 BS: One important aspect of a book that I realized early on is that before the digital era, or before the electronic era, books were the one medium where a user was in control of the sequence and pace at which they absorbed the contents. Back in 1981, I started describing books as a user-driven medium, in contrast to twentieth century media — radio, television, movies — which at that point were producer-driven, because you just sat in a chair and you had absolutely no control over the experience.

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The “aha” moment I had was that adding a microprocessor to the mix meant that producer-driven media, like movies and television, were going to be transformed into user-driven media. For me, the crucial thing — and this happened in the process of writing the paper for Britannica — was when I wrestled with the question of “what’s a book?” and “what happens when we make it electronic?” I realized that everything was going to become book-like in the sense of being user-driven and that the ways in which a user interacts with content becomes an important part of her experience. I didn’t know much about McLuhan at that point, although the more I understand of his work, the more I realize his importance and that I was, in some respects, following in his path.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Going back to your blog post, you described the “app” as being maybe not the candidate, but at least one of the best ones you’ve seen, for something that could replace the book.

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BS: I think you’re taking my post a little bit differently . . . . I was purely talking about the word “app.” Frankly, I just wanted to go on record being the first person to say that we’re going to stop talking about “books” some day and start talking about “apps”. And that was really an attempt at flag planting, as much as anything else. [laughs].

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Let’s turn a little bit towards the iPad, because you spoke about how important it has become to you. I have one, and I’ve been using it more and more, as well. But, especially when it first came out, there was a line of argument against the iPad which was that it is basically a device of consumption and not production. I don’t know if you know Jonathan Zittrain’s work, but he describes what he calls generative devices and generative systems. He thinks that app systems, which are designed to be centrally controlled and which allow application makers to roll out upgrades and updates easily, sometimes without the approval of users — don’t provide the kind of generativity that, say, the computer might. So, I’m wondering: do you use your iPad mostly for the consumption of media? And if so, is that a problem to you?

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BS: I made a huge mistake in assuming that when the tablet arrived, it would be a version of the all-purpose Dynabook Alan Kay had predicted back in 1967. [Steve] Jobs surprised us with a tablet that was exquisitely designed for consumption. The core assumption of the iPad is that for most people, computing will now be equated with consuming rather than producing. Do I think that’s a good thing? No. But I think it’s happened. Whether or not we’re going to get out from under that? My guess is not for a while. I think this is fundamentally a social and political question and not a technical question. It’s not that Apple couldn’t have delivered something akin to the Dynabook; they just chose a different path with long-term consequences we don’t yet understand.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Will Nick Negroponte be able to build the Dynabook? Maybe, but my instinct is that the forces of capital are such that it won’t be able to get the same kind of traction that the iPad has. Conceptual drawing of the DynabookMy guess is that the tablets running Android, Nokia and other operating systems are likely to follow the iPad lead. They may be more open in terms of what you can have in the App Store, but I don’t see them optimizing their tablets for productivity. They may. I mean, if we look ahead twenty years, Google Docs may be a fully-realized multimedia authoring environment. But for the next few years I think we’re stuck with a weirdly deformed computing environment where we’re carrying around multiple devices — tablets, phones and notebook computers — which duplicate a lot, but not all, of each other’s functions.

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My computer was stolen the other day and I’m thinking about seeing how far I can get with just a tablet and a phone. I’m definitely going to move to the cloud [ie., cloud-based computing], but it’s complicated for me. I have a tremendous love for the media objects in my life. I grew up with books, I grew up with vinyl, I used to lie down on the couch and read the album cover while listening to music, so those things are important to me. On the other hand, the idea of everything from now on being in the cloud? I’m sort of okay with that. It doesn’t frighten me the way it seems to frighten a lot of people, especially in my age group. They seem to think it’s horrible – the idea that you’d have to log onto the web just to read a book.

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