There was a hole in my soul

When I finally decided to make a switch from PC to Apple about two years ago I found myself wondering what took me so long. I had of course noticed those MacBooks that many of my friends were strutting around with, and I had always thought that Apple computers looked kind of cool, a stuff that designers, writers, journalists, academics and other gay people might use. I simply didn’t think that those computers could actually also be good, rather than simply good-looking.

Boy, was I wrong.

When Apple launched iPad earlier this year, I again found myself thinking “Hmmmm… this is all neat and slick, but basically we are talking about an oversized iPhone, or perhaps of a somewhat stripped MacBook sans keyboard — how useful can that be”?

Wrong again.

Last week I unpacked my own iPad and as of now, there is no going back for me. I am in fact typing this very post on it at the moment. It is not a replacement for a computer, but it shouldn’t be, any more than it should be seen as an über-iPhone. It really is sui generis, and this is not simply fanboï (which I certainly am) talking.

The reason why I decided to join the ride, despite my previous ironic remarks about the device and its owners, was actually a rather simple one — I just wanted an e-book reader. I have already long ago run out of shelf space and my e-book collection (consisting mostly of PDF files) has also been steadily growing. Plus that it can be a real pain to lug around books when traveling, as I had a very good chance to find out throughout the last year. For some reason, I really couldn’t get excited about the Kindle, but iPad did look promising — so I decided to give it a try.

My expectations were pretty high and I must say that thus far they have been met, if not exceeded. iPad is a wicked e-book reader, be it based on looks or function. But it is so much more than just that. Based on my few days of playing around with it, I honestly believe that this thing has a potential to transform the way we consume media — in a way similar to that how Nokia mobile phones transformed the way we used to communicate. iPad makes it possible to aggregate different news sources into seamless whole that looks and feels very much like a newspaper, or perhaps more like a cool magazine. By being hooked up into Facebook, Twitter and other tools, it also enables to rely on an intelligent cloud of your social networks rather than (mostly pretty dumb) algorithms that try to figure out what kind of a content you might be interested in. It let’s you to get the pieces that you find fascinating whole relieving you from being bothered by the stuff that you don’t care about.

I was also quite struck by the way how different the interaction with iPad is when compared to the computer. When personal computers emerged in 1980s, they were not visual at all. All the interaction with a PC was in fact verbal — you gave the computer commands by typing them in as words or primitive sentences. Graphic user interfaces such as Microsoft Windows were a big step forward in this sense, but they really were only skin deep, meant to economize rather than replace giving verbal orders. By contrast, when you read a newspaper or a book and want to turn a page, you don’t utter “next”, you simply turn the page. If you want to put the document you’ve been working with away, you don’t look for a red button somewhere along the upper limit of your vision, you just put the damn thing away. iPad works, at its best, very much the same way, and in a couple of minutes it feels completely natural. It eliminates the need to say what you want to do and just lets you simply do it.

I am afraid that this will also have quite profound impact in the publishing industry, be it books or newspapers and magazines. If all the content can be transmitted to readers the moment it is produced — and if it is consumed in an aggregated format in any case — adhering to the traditional publishing cycle (such as weekly or monthly), becomes pretty much pointless. But this is hardly any news to newspapers, who have been drifting towards the web format for a while now. Things might be a bit different with books publishers. Sharing a physical book was traditionally done by lending out the copy you had sitting on a shelf, rather than producing a new copy of the same work. This is what happened to the music with the emergence of mp3 revolution. Once a book is transferred to a reader not as an object but instead as a steam of data, it will be very difficult to keep a lid on it, as is abundantly illustrated by a flood of publisher-quality PDF books on the Internet.

I know for sure that I will remain reading my paper books, and I will continue buying them on paper — as I have always felt an appreciation towards books as objects rather than simply a text. But just as I now take all my photos and listed to most of my music digitally, I might migrate also in terms of books. I will have a short trip coming up next week, and instead of packing along thousand pages worth of Bolaño’s “2666” I will just take my iPad.


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