First impression: IPad lacks its ‘killer app’

The Web is deluged by reports of iPad unboxings, first impressions, raves and complaints. Early users have commented on the screen, the keyboard, the Wi-fi, the headphone jack and — of course — even the apps. Users have dropped it, dissected it, and for some reason hit it with a baseball bat.

A Google search on “iPad” turns up 115 million results from just the past 24 hours, and there is plenty more to come. But the question of the day is from Mark Potts, who writes in his Recovering Journalist blog, “Quick quiz: When was the last time you saw coverage of the latest Thinkpad or Sony Vaio release? Never happens. Do you remember the coverage of Microsoft’s efforts at a tablet computer several years ago? I didn’t think so.” Potts wonders if the media hype is a result of great marketing by Apple, or wishful thinking by journalists that the iPad will “save journalism.”

I would propose a third option: Apple is really good at developing products that create new markets — and it is that potential, not the specifics of the first iPads off the assembly line — that sends people into overhype mode. The Apple II computer helped launch the desktop PC industry; the iPod created an audience for digital music; and the iPhone launched the mobile Web revolution that is still in its early days.

That doesn’t mean every new Apple product ends up dominating in the long run — they own less than 10 percent of the consumer PC market. But their track record as a leading indicator of consumer tastes is well worth respecting, especially if you make a living selling content to consumers, as media publishers do.

So here at Mobile Media we are focused on what the iPad, as the first mainstream digital tablet, means for media companies. The inquiry is really less about Apple and more about finding out if a touchscreen tablet really is a “new” way to create and consume content.

Poynter staffers got their hands on the device Saturday and have already written up many of their initial thoughts on the usability of the device, the reader experience of news apps, the implementation of video by Apple and various app developers, and comparisons with the Kindle for reading books and newspapers.

So, is it something “magical and revolutionary” as Steve Jobs announced? Digital media thinkers Jeff Jarvis and Howard Owens spent part of their Sunday morning 140 characters at a time debating the question. (Jarvis followed up the morning tweets with a post on his blog that digs a bit deeper into his unease with Apple’s approach to the iPad.)

@Jeff Jarvis
This whole consumption v. creation (& app v. site) thing worries me because it reverts power to companies v. us all.

@Howardowens
Think of the 90-9-1 rule. Most of the audience is just that, audience, not creators.

@Jeff Jarvis
Simply not true anymore. We are all creators to some level. Problem is, the iPad treats us again as an audience.

And that is the challenge. Media companies are still uncomfortable with the shifting balance of power brought on by the Web and the advent of free digital publishing tools. Now here comes a device that confuses the issue even more. At least the iPod “just” plays music and videos. Likewise the iPhone is still “just” a phone even though it can surf the Web. But what is the iPad? Is it an MP3 player, a Web browser, a television, an e-mail client, a game platform? Nobody knows. In fact it is so new, nobody even knows how to hold the thing yet.

I have been working with the iPad hands-on for about 24 hours now, and my impression is we are not going to find any quick answers. Within 10 minutes of unboxing my iPhone two years ago I knew it was the greatest thing since sliced bread — and I still think so. The iPad is not so easy to analyze, possibly because it is too new to have an ecosystem around it yet. Basically it is lacking a “killer app” in the general sense of the term. Right now it does a lot of things, but it doesn’t do anything perfectly.

Netflix was my first download to check out the streaming service. The movies work well, but the interface is very Web-ish and it takes more clicks than necessary to actually get a movie started. Similarly, restarting a stream after pausing to check your e-mail is not really intuitive.

In the CBS Radio.com app, clicking on some of the listed stations brings you to a page that requires Flash to play the music. More or less a fail for a device that famously does not support Flash.

In The New York Times Editors’ Choice app, the only social sharing option is to “e-mail this article,” another fail for an Internet connected device that should be all about social networking.

Those examples are simply the result of developers racing to complete apps on a tight deadline, and without the benefit of live audience testing. Apps will improve and standard conventions will be developed. But Apple also has some work to do itself.

For example, if the device is primarily a content platform, I want my home screens to be information dashboards with news feeds, weather icons, e-mail summaries, recent tweets and so on. Right now, I have wallpaper of planet Earth. Pretty, but not very informative. And at 9.7 inches it feel like a waste of real estate.

Multitasking would be nice so I can listen to NPR while reading The New York Times, or checking my e-mail.

On the other hand, if the iPad is going to be a creation platform, it needs a camera or two and a USB port or at least a built-in card reader for importing photos and audio. Apple may include all of those features and more on version 2.0 of the tablet. Technology has a way of finding its own level and that level is set by the consumer.

In the meantime we really can only return to the original question. Is the iPad something new — as different from the desktop PC as the PC is from television? The answer has to be: yes, it has the potential to be.

But that potential now depends as much on hardware and software developers as it does on Apple. Some may complain Steve Jobs is a control freak, but his recent successes have depended on third parties creating great solutions for Apple products. The iPod is not much without music and video. And the iPhone did not break out until the app store, and its 150,000 downloadable solutions came along.

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So if you are planning to publish content to the iPad, or any tablet, consider what the technology might mean to consumers next year, not just next month. Imagine a device that can be carried around that is a remote control for your room lights; a radio that pipes music to the speakers closest to you as you wander from room-to-room; an answering machine for your residential voice-mail; a social secretary who tracks the kids’ soccer games; a cable box that streams movies on-demand; a library containing hundreds of books; and a teacher that helps you interactively study a foreign language.

Now imagine what position you as a media creator will hold in people’s lives and wallets and hands in two years if you learn how to serve up engaging and valuable information for that device.

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