The iPad caused a lot of hubbub, but I’ve already turned mine over to a colleague and returned to my Kindle. The iPad was too heavy, too fussy, and just didn’t have a compelling use-case for me. The Kindle does its job, and doesn’t distract me.
But, you might say, the Kindle is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
The iPad may also be evolutionary, I’d counter, at least as far as an information consumption device.
Yet it represents a trend we’ve become increasingly familiar with. As publishers and information specialists, we’ve not had to respond to this trend before.
And that trend is “human-integrated interface designs.”
Designs that recognize voice, gestures, and even body motions are coming out from labs and, in the case of the iPhone and iPad, are going mainstream. Automobiles have them, as well, and newer cars will allow themselves to be controlled by phones. Microsoft and others are pursuing dreams of this variety, and the Wii has already begun realizing it in gaming.
The fact that publishers are excited because the iPad creates a new way for humans to passively eyeball text and consume information in the same way as they did off paper shows how stilted our thinking is. As Andrew Savikas from O’Reilly wrote about the iPad:
. . . if a large number of people from incumbent companies (especially big ones) are excited about it, then it’s not actually interesting or innovative enough to matter much, because that means it’s too similar to the current way of doing things.
Twitter still baffles more people than the iPad ever will, and publishers are really just getting on top of blogs. And that’s just more about how the real revolutions at the heart of the iPad have yet to be fully realized by publishers.
Wired recently had an interesting article analyzing Apple’s multitouch displays and increasingly human-integrated interface designs, tying these into cloud computing as represented by Google’s Chome OS. In Wired’s article, you get the feeling that Apple and Google are battling for the heart of computing’s next age. Yet human-integrated interfaces and cloud computing are not mutually exclusive.
For Google, moving applications and an entire OS to the Web has the potential to shift the framework of personal software so profoundly that we’ll never install another application again. Add gestural or voice interfaces, and you might be able to summon up any file you have anywhere, even in your car or through your phone just by asking for it.
But while all these amazing shifts are occurring, incumbent publishers are clinging to the familiar elements the iPad offers in its user interface — namely, those found in iBooks, digital magazines, and the like.
Publishers are tied to the tyranny of words for information exchange.
In one of the first examples of how much incumbent publishers continue to miss the boat, a new company called Mag+ has offered an iPad version of Popular Science. And despite some traditionalists gushing over its features and capabilities, the fact remains that the app is lacking in basic linking functionality and other typical usability traits for networked information. As Rex Hammock puts it when talking about the limitations created by the Mag+ designers:
Unfortunately, in their re-imagination, they forgot to consider that readers have been using interactive tools for accessing news, information, features and advertising, for almost 20 years. Users have re-imagined magazines themselves, and the conventions, expectations and intuition they bring to any new type of media should not require a user manual to understand.
So, while the iPad hints at what’s possible and cloud computing hints at new information storage techniques, the hints are gentle, and publishers may need a kick in the shins under the table to catch on here.
This is a problem.
Will your app include voice command capabilities, linking to cloud-hosted resources, integration of vast public datasets, and ways to swipe data displays to peel back layers? Will your app provide ways to point to research institutions and see papers affiliated with them, or to with one gesture link two institutions and see what they have in common (again, using external data sets, cloud-hosted information, and your own proprietary information)?
Fundamental user interface and technology architecture changes are taking place, and publishers are fixated on slapping reading apps on iPads.
Those who cross the chasm from today to tomorrow will realize that cloud computing, gestural interfaces, and consumer expectations are coalescing elsewhere, and build accordingly. And these apps will be fundamentally different in design and capabilities.
Otherwise, the iPad will remain for publishers a fancy, heavy, bloated, colorful Kindle, and the exciting future of digital communication could remain tied to movable type and two-column layouts for yet another decade or two.