I won’t lie to you—it took two weeks with my iPad before I knew whether I loved it (or, to be more accurate, why I would inevitably love it). There was this uncomfortableness after the purchase. I’d known for weeks that it was to be a miraculous addition to my life. I’d enumerated why, publicly and obnoxiously. But part of the process of becoming an iPad user is that awkward period where you stare at it, and it stares back at you, you notice its relative heft and your indelible greaseprints across its giant touchscreen and you wonder to yourself just why the hell you’re in each other’s lives. So you put it on your nightstand and sleep on it.
And then it hits. The iPad is for the nightstand. And for the sofa, and for the places between where you stand in line and where you sit at your desk. That’s why every iPad poster and billboard features it on a lap or a knee. They’ve stopped short of showing it on a chest in bed, but that’s where mine gets its most use.
A new thing
My chest is where I first noticed that the iPad would make the most impact on me as a Video device. You see, despite Apple clearly signalling, by orienting its logo in portrait mode, that the iPad is for holding like a book or a piece of paper, it’s meant the most to me turned to landscape mode, where its dimensions replicate the video screen I’ve known my whole life. Turned to landscape, the iPad offers me the most comfort, the most passive participation, the feeling of Home.
The following may be a bit hyperbolic, but follow me: The iPad is the world’s first truly convergent TV/computer. It’s the device that’s been promised us for years, and its time has come, in 2010, within reach of a couple generations raised on TV and one raised on the computer. Yet it is neither a TV that computes nor a computer that shows TV. It is a new thing. The new thing, in fact.
Do you remember the point in consumer electronics history where the hottest, most advanced feature you could buy in a TV was Picture-in-picture? You’d see it in commercials, they’d demo it in stores, and it seemed to represent a sort of shift where the TV image was no longer strictly confined to the solid frame of the box it came in. By scaling down and moving video around within the box, we were calling the video image that made up our TV programming something else, something new and in a sense, portable.
Now let’s come back to video on the iPad. Go specifically, to an embedded video within a web page in MobileSafari (try this one, for instance). There is nothing new here, right? We’ve seen this on our computer and even in our iPhone. But on the computer, for the most part, we’ve been accustomed to restricting that small embedded window of video to its frame. Full-screening it, for the most part, has always felt a bit futile with the degradation in quality relative to the size of the screen and its proximity, let alone performance issues. Now consider the iPhone, where an embedded video will display a nice Play button in its overlay, the tapping of which will grow the video to fill the tiny screen. This was a tiny revolution at the time, yet still restricts the video content to not-quite-comfortable display size of a mobile phone.
Let’s now come back to the iPad’s browser. Do you not feel a little pang of joy every time you’re in a web page, you tap Play on an embedded video and it just starts playing, right there in the page? You can scroll up and down if you want, and the video just keeps playing. It’s one of my favorite ways to demo the iPad to people because it instantly conveys the simultaneous mobility and power of the thing. This is “portable” video, just like in Picture-in-picture of the early 90s. Yet, it adds another level to Picture-in-picture, in that the iPad screen is, itself, portable. This is Picture-in-picture-in-picture. But it gets better. Now, because the iPad’s screen is of the perfect resolution and scale and proximity to use as a full-screen viewer, a simple unpinch gesture on that little video will turn your device into a wonderful, comfortable, mobile personal video screen, so satisfying to hold and possess, its screen so sensually satisfying to tap. Gimme a minute.
Touch the Q
This magic is all made possible by the ingenuity of the software Apple’s been perfecting for decades: QuickTime. (I like to think of QuickTime as the brand of TV inside my iPad. It’s weird, I know, but I came close once to getting the QuickTime logo tattooed on my calf.) If you look at QuickTime’s UI elements across the iPad and iPhone OS and compare them with QuickTime X’s UI on the Mac, it’s not hard to conclude that Apple is making efforts at a shared UI language which spans both platforms, for the sake of unity and singularity of purpose. When QuickTime X was released, its player controls now locked within the bounds of the video frame, disappearing and reappearing on mouse hover, Apple was preparing us, ever so subtly, to begin to touch our video.
That’s right—Apple has been preparing us on our Macs to learn to touch our video, because touching our video is how we will interact with our video from now on. And this is good, because it is the most natural way to interact with our video. Because we love our video. And touch is love. Sorry it got weird there for a second.
Hot screen/Cool screen
When we hold something, we touch it. Our iPads are our personal video screens, for us to hold and touch. “But the screen is so small,” you argue. “A bigger screen is a better screen,” you claim, just as you’ve been taught. It’s not your fault, though. We’re trained to correlate screen size with engagement from an early age. There is a shift afoot, however, in how we’re starting to relate different media to different screens to different environments and different contexts in our lives.
Time was, there were two types of moving picture media: Hot and Cool. These were Marshall McLuhan’s designations for the relative qualities of the experiences that came through our TV sets, and through film projectors at the movie theater. TV was a Cool medium, according to McLuhan, because it did not dictate the participant actively engage in order to participate. Contrast this with the movies, a Hot medium, which demanded the viewer’s attention for the duration of its presentation. There was Hot and Cool, and Hot happened on a big screen at the theater, and Cool on a small screen in your living room.
Things have changed in the years since Hot and Cool, to accomodate a wider variety of consumer screen sizes, and of distribution methods through which we receive our content. For instance, is a YouTube video Hot or Cool? In terms of not only image size, but content, most would argue that a YouTube video is closer in lineage to TV than it is to a movie. But would we typically hit play on a YouTube video and let it play as we step away to make dinner? Or would you say once we hit play, we are more actively engaged for that brief period of time than we are, even in a movie theater? Is engagement dictated by length of time demanded? Or density of information? You might say that a YouTube video is information-dense because it packs all of its information into a short amount of time. I would call this Microwaved media, if I had to stick with the temperature thing.
I do know that once I full-screen a video on my iPad, as I hold it there atop my chest in bed, I am thoroughly engaged until the video is over. But then again, it is mere inches from my face.
Big screen/little screen
Futurists and sci-fi visionaries have always forecasted big screens everywhere. The logic goes: in the future, the materials to make screens will be so cheap that literally every surface will be a screen, and because big screens have heretofore been sought after as premium items, their affordability will result in their ubiquity. Think about this version of the future now: your world, your environment, filled with jumbotrons of information vying for your attention. Has this ever worked with billboards? Or do we learn to ignore them, despite their prevalence as visual pollutants?
A big screen is not a more engaging screen, we’re coming to find out. A big screen is sometimes simply a less efficient screen. With the possible exception of the moviegoing experience. The purpose of a big screen in a movie is to share the immersive communal experience with as large an audience as possible, adding to the grandiosity of the spectacle, which is the entire point for many moviegoers.
In my house, when the iPad came, everything shifted over one. Continuing a trend I’d been noticing for a year at least, I’ve been seeing fewer movies in the theater. The communal experience just doesn’t hold the same appeal to me any longer. But I do love movies. So I watch more movies at home, on my TV screen. An exception to the rule is an event movie like Avatar, where I can’t possibly reproduce the spectacle of the experience in my home. For that, I cherish the movie theater, and I feel that the industry isn’t off-base with its push for 3D.
However, when the iPad came, I found myself watching TV shows more often on it than on my TV. My preferred experience is to obtain TV content on my Mac, use software like the brilliant Air Video to convert it on-the-fly and stream it to my iPad, and watch in bed with my headphones while my girlfriend sleeps or watches her stories. If this isn’t the most thoroughly engaging way to take in video, I don’t know what is. And funny enough, when it’s time for a communal viewing experience, we’ll put it on the good ol’ TV.
What I started to notice about those newly rare occasions when the TV came back on, aside from their quaintness, was how much TV viewing actually promotes passivity in viewership. I feel my body become inert, my eyes, focused on a plane at a middle distance, I feel a tangible blankness to the experience, as though I’m close enough to partake, but far enough not to have to engage. I exit my body and look at myself from the outside, a 30-yard expressionless stare, and it’s a wonder we’ve let this thing dictate such vast portions of our lives for so long. Not to get all heavy.
Contrast that with the physical positioning of a personal video screen like the iPad, where our focus is forced to converge at a plane we’re more accustomed to for active participation, like reading or email or work or cat videos. I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing there are some psychological implications to the distance at which our eyes spend their time focusing as we engage with the world. And to my mind, holding a 10” screen a foot from my face in a dark room is more immersive than staring blankly at a 40” screen twelve feet away.
My point is, different-sized screens will always play roles in our media diets. But we should expect those roles to shift as technology does.
So why Videos, Apple? What’s going on there? On the iPhone, we access and play our videos through the iPod app. Videos are considered part of our media library, just as they are in iTunes on the Mac. The iPod Touch handles this differently, giving access to video content through a separate app, called Videos, and the iPad took the same path. But here’s what makes no sense to me: the iPod app is just beautiful. It is an exceptionally elegant way to interact with your non-video media. Why, then, is the Videos app so unpolished and remedial? Where the iPod app offers gorgeous and effective control over vast quantities of audio, Videos app is barren, lame, jealous of even its cousin the YouTube app, who can at least be bothered to split the screen lengthwise in portrait mode for horizontally-oriented video. Videos app is just a real dud. But why?
Could it be that Apple has chosen to separate our video content and store it temporarily in this ghetto because there is something new and awesome on the horizon? Here’s what I think: Soon enough, that placeholder app called Videos will go away, to be replaced by a new app called Apple TV.
Hobbies are for hobbyists
I’ve owned and used an Apple TV box for two years. When I found out it could be “opened up” to allow for additional media, it started to overtake my usage of my DVD player and my cable box. So if Apple TV has been, up to now, a hobby, I have been right there with it, a tinkering geek.
But would Steve keep a hobby around for so long without any real plans for it? I haven’t asked him, but someone else did a couple of days ago at D8, and he said that the only barrier was a go-to-market strategy. People get their cable boxes, for the most part, for free or heavily subsidized by their regional content providers. So it is the toughest sell imaginable to offer a value proposition that would warrant spending additional cash just to get the same stuff in a different way. Now I’m not one to get all drooley over rumors (yes I am) but when Engadget broke news last week about the next version of the Apple TV box being 1) cheap ($99), 2) run on iPhone OS and 3) streaming-only, without internal storage, I got excited. There are pieces of this hobby that are starting to fit together, and once they do, the hobby will have matured into something important.
For one, what of the massive $1 billion data center Apple’s building in North Carolina? I’ll just echo what others have speculated: this will be where our video originates when we pluck it out of the sky and siphon it through all our devices (including the cheap, tiny new box that sits by the TV).
For two, if you know the Apple TV interface at all, you can see it easily translating to the iPad’s screen and made to be touched. Gruber remarked after the Apple TV rumor broke that the iPad is far too expensive a remote control for a $99 home theater component. I say he’s right, but as he also says, it won’t be a requirement. The Apple TV will still be controllable by the minimal Apple remote, just as it always has been. But think of the enticement the iPad will present to Apple TV owners once they see it work from an iPad. I’m guessing a 1:1 correlation between the Apple TV iPad app and the Apple TV box, where an interaction on one is reflected on the other, to the point that selecting a movie or TV show from the iPad will make it stream to the TV. From the cloud. Like we’ve always dreamed. This is an inelegant way of saying all the pieces are in place and it will be beautiful. It will be the most beautiful symbiotic halo ever to halo things. The trend shows that in time, iPad-like devices will become commonplace. A $99 extension of a commonplace device will be a no-brainer for a large set of media consumers. When there is clearly a halo effect in place, and it’s not even clear which direction it’s coming from, I think you’ve got a winner on your hands. It could even be that the Apple TV is the lynchpin of the whole operation, the way that iTunes started as a “hobby” that organized our music collection, and revealed itself to be a hub upon which more than one industry was redefined.
So, one more sidetrack: If video is moved off of iTunes, the App Store is a marketplace for apps, and our books are bought in iBooks, could this mean that iTunes could return, gracefully, to serve its original purpose? Could iTunes just be for music? I just blew my mind.
Google TV. It’s like Google, on your TV!
Okay, so the last thing to deal with in the TV space is the big Google TV announcement at the I/O conference two weeks ago. And I’ll deal with this succinctly: I was kind of impressed by the demo. Sure, finding what you’re looking for on your TV has always been an enormous pain point, and Google knows search, that’s for sure. But what I found notable about the demo was that I never saw Rishi Chandra actually interacting with anything directly. I saw his search queries appear on the big screen, but I don’t know what he was typing on, nor how he was navigating through lists of results. And this is not insignificant. People aren’t going to put a keyboard and mouse in their living room, as history has shown over and over. If there is no good interaction method already established when that thing hits living rooms (and I have no doubt that it will hit living rooms), people simply won’t want to use it. Google, fairly new to the touchscreen device market, without even a tablet of their own, is at a huge disadvantage in this space.
I suppose you could argue that when Android drops in tablet form, it’s going to be huge. And that’s all consumers will need to do their searching on their TVs and in their cars and everything else. Well, I’ve seen Android. I’ll believe it’s hit mass adoption when I see that happen. But if it’s so great, how come I don’t want to use it? Ooh low blow.
To circle back around
We’ve already bought iPads in huge numbers. As Steve put it coyly, on stage at D8, “people seem to like it”. And Apple has done a tremendous amount of work putting it in our hands (and on our knees, chests and laps), and showing us how it fits in our lives, in all the right places. As I said before, all the right places, all those places between on-the-go and at-your-desk, they turn out to be a lot of places. We spend a great deal of time in places other than our offices and in transit. So I think of all those places Apple has, with its advertising, shown us comfortably using the iPad, and I can’t help but note that they’re pretty consistently places where I’d want to mellow out and turn on some TV.
iPad. It’s TV for your chest™.