What the iPad will and will not be

Last time I wrote about electronic readers, it was before the announcement of the Messiah Tablet iPad. Well, it’s Pi Day, and whether or not the circle has been squared, for the first time in my life I’ve given money to a Steve Jobs company for hardware. As I noted in January, I hate reading PDFs on my laptop, I can’t read them comfortably on my Sony Reader, and I really need to read PDFs for my job or kill a lot of trees in the process. The iPad costs about the same as other devices that would do the job, and it’ll be far more likely to just do its job. And that’s the end of the story, at least as far as my purchase is concerned.

But since there is an enormous amount of myth and hype about tablets/larger readers from both technophiles and technophobes, maybe a little realism is in order. After watching the January 27 unveiling video (and tremendously enjoying the Doritos Canada parody–it shows you how far Lorne Michaels has fallen that something like this didn’t appear on Saturday Night Live January 30), I’ve been thinking about what tablet-sized readers could do and what they cannot do.

First, some genres will do well with little additional effort or reworking of production systems. Comics are likely to be successful on at least one tablet/large reader, as is anything that is already produced for a large-ish page size. Some magazines will survive in this way, and I can easily imagine museums producing electronic catalogues. In general, image-intensive texts will benefit. All of this is easily encompassed within any ebook distribution system, but the more visually luscious books and magazines that will benefit from the iPad and other tablets are also resource-intensive to produce, either by artists or the publisher.

With some tinkering (and yelling and screaming), students will get what they repeatedly complain is lacking in ebooks: easy ways to highlight and annotate texts. The lack of annotation capacity in the EPUB ebook standard is a fixable problem, since EPUB uses xml. The ability to share annotations would be even better. I’ve written about my use of Diigo in teaching, but that’s a workaround, and it’s awkward every year that passes, with new versions of Diigo and new problems in sharing annotations.

Apart from annotations, it is not clear what interactive systems will work well on a large tablet that doesn’t exist already on websites. There are some good tools for interactive exhibits, such as the Omeka package for museums (see its use in the Inventing Europe exhibit) or the WordPress Digress.It plug-in, which allows reader annotation of any paragraph. Omeka is interactive in a navigational sense. Digress.It is interactive with the content, but the paucity of comments on the Digress.It port of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling suggests that it is largely theoretical. 

Craig Mod’s essay this month on the infinite canvas (a la Scott McCloud) is interesting, but I’m not sure how that might translate into reality. There’s an interesting alpha-level website called the infinite canvas that is infinite in the horizontal dimension. Its showcase includes a cute short comic by Neil Gaiman and Jouni Koponen, The Day the Saucers Came, but the interaction consists of clicking on forward/back buttons with simple PowerPoint-style slide transitions.

And then there will be plenty of resource-intensive development efforts that create one-off apps, many of which will be interesting pedagogically and culturally but will be one-time-only projects. If I were interested in managing the creation of an interactive project, I’d probably create it on a website using tools that I know the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad could read — that is, no Flash and no Java. I know there’s an App Gold Rush on, but the non-Flash, non-Java, smartly-designed website is going to be useful no matter what’s in people’s hands or on their laps or desks.

In other words, the iPad has one very obvious tool that’s more than an ebook reader (anything that is visually intense), and there will be an obvious extension for tablets and readers in general (annotations), but the rest is not yet clear.

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