I agree with Doctorow on just about everything he said, except for his view that iPad apps are just the ‘CD-ROM revolution’ redux. There were plenty of great ideas that failed because the technology wasn’t up to it and I believe that touch technology will brings a whole new dimension to the ‘book 2.0’ thing. I even designed an ‘interactive book’ last year at my Master’s with something like the iPad in mind.
That said, the iPad strikes me as a bad precedent. The whole walled garden, app store business model is ultimately more than a business model — it’s a dangerous path to a future in which even books are just something you rent. And when you consider most people’s web browsing consists of a handful of websites, possibly packaged as neat-looking ‘apps’, it’s easy to imagine that five years from now some ‘minor firmware update’ will do away with web browsing, closing the walled garden for good: for I start to feel the iPad is some sort of anti-Internet device.
I’ve read somewhere that the iPad was Neal Stephenson’s Young Lady Illustrated Primer. Well, if you remember the novel in which it appears, the Primer was a super-ebook-like device, designed as a gift for a child of the Neo-Victorian elite, that ends up in the hands of a little girl in a Shangai slum, which the device teaches to become a great leader. The Diamond Age is quite a poignant story of how ‘good’ information technology can lead poor people to do great things, if only those technologies cross the digital divide. So yes, in a way the iPad is like the Primer — it’s an artifact of the Digital Divide — aimed at enlarging it, in fact.
Which brings me to the other disagreement I have with Doctorow’s post: for most people, buying an iPad is not an option that we shouldn’t take. People just can’t. Even in Portugal, which is a fairly decent country by the world’s standard, the iPad’s a luxury. Despite the ease many journalists write about getting one, it does cost more than a pack of cigarettes. And this is why I think the iPad, despite selling millions of units, will ultimately fail Apple’s objectives: it stretches the digital divide too much — it’s no use having a computer so easy to use you granny could have one, if your granny has a hard time paying her medicine. People will get their information somehow, even if in less ‘magical’ ways.