"Why are we watching this?" I ask my daughter as I join her in the living room for an afternoon of... QVC?
I am not really seeing my 18-year-old in Control Knit Fly-front Jeggings nor the Joan Rivers Zip Front Hooded Velour Regular Lounger. I admit, she is a creature of consumer America. Even at this ripe age she has burned through seven or eight retail stages, from Limited Too to Abercrombie to Hot Topics. But she couldn't possibly have vaulted to QVC already.
"It's fun," she says, although I haven't a clue what she means by that. Ironic fun? Virtual shopping fun? QVC seems to be background to her feverish IM-ing and texting -- what has now become a kind of two-screen dance. Some weird media cocktail is being served in all of this, but it is beyond me.
I try to play along by firing up QVC's recent iPad app. I am not sure how well the shopping channel's demo maps against iPad owners, but the network has one of the more seamless second-screen experiences working across both iPad and iPhone. It is about the only cable brand to offer live on-air streams to the mobile devices, and it synchronizes the feed with the digital catalog. The current item featured on-air is available for ordering and research on the app. Items recently on-air cascade beneath it.
Curiously, the iPad app does not do much beyond that. The full run of QVC programming is not easily accessible here, in case you want to retrieve that electronics item you happened to see last weekend. There is a search box, of course, but the content organization does not match the way in which the network itself organizes the material. Like the Web site, the app is pretty much a catalog. Isn't shopping supposed to have a hint of hedonistic fun to it? Has shopping really become a job?
Similarly, Toys 'R' Us launched what it calls "The Great Big Christmas Book," which turns the holiday toy catalogue into an interactive list maker. This modestly revised repurposing of the coveted annual book lets your kid swipe through screen after screen of poorly organized items with barren descriptions and little attempt to merchandise.
Granted, kids lusting after toys bring their own magic to the experience of leafing through a Christmas catalogue. I remember when the holiday Sears book landed at our house every year. We dog-eared, circled, penned notes next to items. This iPad app recreates the functionality without thinking at all about the fun of it all. Really, with a connected catalog like this, imagine the possibilities for getting kids to play with their lists or see videos that bring some of the toys to life. When did Christmas get this bland and procedural?
Neiman Marcus' holiday catalogue is here. And there it is: the Neiman Marcus luxe print catalogue, neatly repurposed in an unadorned replica edition for the iPad. Rarely has extravagance seemed so uninteresting.
Better Homes and Gardens released its special issue app that celebrates holiday partying with a host of nicely presented ideas for entertaining. The app is well-meaning. It offers nearly 20 party notions, splits the screen between recipes and neat entertainment ideas, and even offers holiday music playlists. The app itself creaks under the weight of its own interface (too many clicks and special effect, not enough shortcuts and practicality). But at least it inspires one a bit with lush, rich images of idealized holidays.
Perhaps I am being grumpy, but even the Oceanhouse Media iPad version of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" has a portentous, leaden quality. The book itself is animated in the pleasant pan-and-scan method Oceanhouse always delivers well in these apps. But the British narrator brings a formality to the reading that just undercuts any of the Seussian whimsy. Boris Karloff, narrator of the TV version, had a lot more fun with it.
Do we really need Martha Stewart to show us how to make an iPad app that embodies some of the fun of the holiday? Yes, Martha Stewart. The new Martha Stewart Cookies app turns the cookie recipe book into a literal runway of delicious-looking treats. Martha is there to introduce the app functionality. Each recipe fills the screen with a cookie image that is to die for. There are clips from the show, loads of instructional material, even packaging ideas for gifting the cookies. It works both to inspire the holiday cookie-maker and to work practically in the kitchen. While it is not gushing with holiday trimmings, warmth and enthusiasm (hey, it's Martha) the app is both delicious and functional.
Still, overall there seems to be a dearth of imagination in this first iPad Christmas. Or is it just us? Has consumption itself become such an ongoing campaign of purchasing year-round that the holiday rush of rank materialism loses its luster?