With my daughter shipped off to Florida for a spring break vacation with her mother, it was safe to bring the iPad home Saturday morning for a weekend of uninterrupted play. Despite her previous dismissal of the new device, even she admits she will be all over the thing when she gets a chance. As it was, she was texting me from the beach asking how the test-run was going.
My guess is that like me, she will be initially dazzled by the sheer technological brilliance of a responsive, touch-screen multimedia playback device. And then the reality sets in -- that this is mainly a responsive, touch-screen multimedia playback machine. I am not sure why so many morning-after commentators are only now wising up to what was obvious about the iPad from the get-go. We discussed it here months ago.
It is a brilliant lean-back device coming after a decade of lean-in technologies. No wonder legacy media love this thing. It speaks their language and recalls an age when we consumers ate what was served.
To be sure, some of what is being served on the iPad is sumptuous. The WSJ app, while pricey, has a very cool example of embedded video on its front page, a la Harry Potter. Combining the look of print with the action of TV in one's lap is an exceptional new-media experience.
I am also encouraged by some of the things I am seeing among the magazine companies. Bonnier's re-thinking of the print platform in its PopSci apps may be too clever for itself, but it lets users paw through print material across two axes of movement in cool ways. Rodale's Men's Health is layering atop a print facsimile multimedia add-ons like workout technique video and social media hooks. These are all early-stage nods in the right direction for reimagining old media, and they are all just first steps.
Paying through the nose for them is another matter. In fact, the chorus of complaints about pricing for legacy media like iPad magazines is already in full din in the App Store. I don't blame complainers. The old media are pricing this stuff often higher than subscriptions to the print media, and they are doing so long before any of them is offering any real added value.
On the other hand, the ads in some of the print brand apps are encouraging. The Time magazine app is featuring embedded video in a Fidelity ad and slideshows in some auto advertisers that actually add a story arc and turn print pages into TV-like "spots." Again, it is all rudimentary, but you can see an interesting marriage here of print-world immersion in an ad page with the richer storytelling of multimedia.
Looking it the iPad as a text-reading device, I am encouraged by the ease with which I could consume lengthier articles in ways that ordinarily are uncomfortable on a laptop. This bodes well for newspapers and magazines, I think. This may be the kind of screen that is readable, not just watchable.
As for branded apps, I am only seeing one so far. The Gap has its "1969" jeans line represented in a way that actually fits the device. It is a wonder wall (or stream) of videos, catalog items, and interactive widgets and links to Web material. The content itself is not compelling or very interesting, but at least the brand "gets" the basic gestalt of the iPad -- content consumption. It fills the screen with stuff to click.
If brands are aiming to add utility to the iPad experience rather than just advertising, however, they may have to wait until the device's actual utility becomes clearer. IPhone app developers can count on out-of-home mobility. I am not sure the iPad's actual context is clear yet.
Its chief use out of the box is as an evening living room Web browser, and at this it is just fine. As expected, a number of Flash-reliant Web sites just get busted on the browser. I should mention that I am among those complaining that there is a major Wi-Fi issue with some of the units. My Wi-Fi progress circle doesn't only lurch, it actually flickers, in a way I have never seen on an Apple device. Even with 802.11n on board, it fails to pick up networks every other Wi-Fi device I own can see, and speeds can be disappointing at best. There is some kind of problem here.
All those reservations aside, the iPad absolutely shines at anything highly visual. Forget magazines, as a comic book and graphic novel reader, this is sublime. The Marvel Comics and Comixology apps render comic books brilliantly and with a color and vibrancy that the LED display enhances more than it does standard magazines. For advertisers, this strength translates into a real opportunity to impress the user visually. I am not so sure that repurposed print ads are the way to go unless they mimic some of the broad-brushed visual characteristics of comics. The most effective print ads I have experienced so far on the iPad are lighter on copy and stronger on pure visual impact. I could imagine an image-only iPad ad with a pop-up text window of copy, for instance.
But so far as I can tell right now, video is the closest thing to a killer iPad experience. Having a truly immersive TV screen in your lap or anywhere is amazing. Hulu is broken on this thing, but CBS.com in the Web browser and the ABC Player app perform very well (when the damned WiFi is working).
But laptop video in such rich resolution is not the real jaw-dropper here. It is ubiquity. If you want to see the next stage in a seamless media everywhere lifestyle, get a Netflix subscription. The Netflix app gives members access to an amazing library of film to watch instantly and in perfect synch across platforms. I started watching e "The September Issue" documentary via my Xbox Live's Netflix connection, and when I logged onto the Netflix app in the iPad later, it picked up precisely where I left off in my living room on the other device. It all happened in the cloud and without any need to synch a damned thing.
If CBS and ABC can let me do with TV what Neflix lets me do with film, then we are onto something important. Having one's media live in an ever-present cloud, essentially in the ether, gives your devices the ability to dip in and out of experiences at will, seamlessly and wherever and whenever you want. Media is no longer tied to specific devices or places or times.
At least at this early stage, the iPad doesn't fully convince me that it has a real place in my everyday media consumption. Theoretically it fills a gap (if I want to finish a movie or TV show in bed instead of in the living room). In sheer portability and connectivity, the iPhone is still much more important. But the iPad does feels like another piece in a much larger and ongoing project. It helps us conceive of a different media environment where content consumption is fluid, seamless, ubiquitous.