Joseph F. Turcotte, PhD

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The iPad revolution

Wow, it’s been awhile. But I thought that I should post this (thanks to Mike Brown with his help facilitating publication):

iPad advances the tech revolution

Joseph F. Turcotte
6 February 2010
This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury

Equal parts oracle and object of idolatry, Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs is proving to be one of the most important personalities of our time.

Last week, Jobs took his familiar place at the centre of public attention to deliver what he can only hope is his greatest product yet. Nearly 10 years removed from the October 2001 launch of the iPod and more than 30 years after the release of the Apple II, Jobs and company have once again released a device that could fundamentally alter the way individuals interact with media and the world at large.

In 1977, when Apple released one of the world’s first personal computers, few realized the impact these devices would have on society. Until then, computers were big, bulky and largely impersonal devices that provided relatively few uses for the general public. Yet, due in large part to Apple’s commitment to ease of use and design esthetic, the PC market has become one of the premier industries in the world today.

The release of the iPod, and later the iPhone, renewed Apple’s tradition of groundbreaking accomplishments and revolutionized the ways in which people listen to music, as well as use their phones. That both mp3 players and smartphones had existed well before Apple’s devices does not diminish the story; instead, it makes it increasingly compelling.

All of Apple’s “revolutionary” releases have one thing in common: they re-imagine the ways in which people relate to media and to the world around them. The Apple II did it by bringing the computer into the home; the iPod did it with a manageable interface and the ability to carry a library of music in a single device; and the iPhone did it by bringing the Internet into a person’s hand in a way that feels almost natural.

And now the iPad looks to follow in this revolutionary tradition by changing the way that we experience the Internet altogether. The most important aspect of the iPad is not that, as many online pundits remarked, it’s an “iPhone on steroids”; it’s that the device brings internet navigation to a whole new level.

Apple’s latest device combines internet surfing and personal computing with new levels of intuition. Gone are the clumsy – yet revolutionary in their own sense – interfaces of mice and point-and-click technologies. Instead, our contact with the internet and digital world is now only as far away as one’s fingertip. In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, media have once again extended the human sensory experience.

Not too surprisingly, Jobs summed it up best when he said the iPad is “more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a smartphone.”

Laptops have always been limited by the nature and design of their technology, which separate the user from the content through the tools used to access that content. Mice and external keyboards made surfing the net easier than before but they didn’t necessarily make it any more comfortable. They merely extended the technologies of the desktop computer and made them smaller. Portability was the main benefit.

With the iPad, this isn’t the case. The device has substantially changed the ways in which the user interacts with the medium in front of them. In one sense, it should feel (and in the interests of total disclosure, I will admit that I have yet to use the iPad and am basing my experience on its smaller cousin, the iPhone) much more comfortable. It looks almost as comfortable as holding a mid-sized book in one’s hand, except that this book is connected to the entire wealth of human knowledge via the Internet – and, of course, Apple’s various proprietary online stores.

In a sense, the iPad looks to have reconfigured the ways that we experience the most important communication medium of our time: the Internet. Access will be easier, navigation will be more intuitive and collaboration – the key to success in the 21st century – will therefore be enhanced. With the world literally at our fingertips and in our laps – and in a convenient size, no less – the emerging possibilities of and promises offered by the internet look to be closer at hand than ever.

In media and communication scholarship, it is often said that new media forms build on previous ones until they ultimately mature and replace them. That is what happened with radio (when people would read books and other printed materials over the air); that is what occurred with television (when radio programs were transitioned onto the home screen); and that is what has happened with the internet (where combinations of previous media forms have been “mashed-up” to create online content). But with the iPad, it looks like the internet’s maturation is turning the corner.

With a device that is now designed solely for the purpose of capitalizing upon the particularities of the internet, Apple has served notice to the world’s content designers and producers that it’s time to repackage information for the digital era. Simply putting newspapers or radio or television online will no longer be enough. The only way to capitalize on the internet is to play to its strengths, which lie in our collective interaction and imagination. Of course, the iPad does have its flaws and limitations – which, I suppose, should be expected when they are attempting to get the device into “as many hands as possible” – but its arrival and implications are profound. By heralding the call of the maturation of the internet browsing experience, the iPad shows the potential to be truly revolutionary.

Joseph F. Turcotte is an instructional assistant with the communication studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he attained his master’s degree.

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