Thursday, August 05, 2010

iPad and i, Part 2

Like it? 

Not long after I wrote part 1 of this series, I found myself at an Apple Store dodging helpful employees like flies at a barbecue. I was there to buy a case for the iPad, because I was waking up in the middle of the night worried that drunken drivers would crash through the front of the house and into the living room and pin the iPad to the far wall, or that one of the cats would breathe on it.

I knew which case I wanted: an Incase. I have perfect vision, so when I approached the Apple Store I could see the case I wanted was way in the back of the room. Between myself and it: 10 maybe 12 turquoise T-shirted fawning employees. I cracked my neck.

As a shopper I do not fuck around. I want what I want, I almost always know how to get it, and I don't want to speak to clerks. I use self-checkout at the grocery store even with big orders and even though I know it's slower. I'd rather not risk speaking to people: that's how people find themselves stuck in conversations. In technology stores, I know what object I'm looking for and exactly what it does--I'm just seeing if they have it in stock so I can satiate my desire for the object immediately rather than have it shipped. Now please move out of my way.

Thanks for helping. Now piss off.
Apple Store employees are a particular breed of helpful, the kind you'd enjoy drowning in a bathtub. They're always so happy to be there. Fuck off.

ASE 1: Hi there! Good morning to you! Can I--
ME: Nope.
ASE 2: What's going on, man? You need--
ME: No, I'm good.
ASE 3: Do you n--
ME: Rnnn.

After a little more of that, eventually I made it the 30 or so feet inside the store to where the iPad cases are. I saw the one I wanted. Several people were standing in front of it looking at other things, so I couldn't reach over and take it without elbowing someone in the face.

ASE 4: Can I get something for you?
ME: No. [defeated] I'm just trying to get an iPad case.
ASE 4: Aah, iPad case? Can I make a suggestion?
ME: Fine.
ASE 4: [takes the case I was looking for off the rack] This is the best case we have.
ME: I know, I was looking for that one.
ASE 4: I'll let you look around at some others too. When you're ready to buy one, just find one of us and we can ring you up, OK?
ME: Rnnn.

I looked at it stupidly while he walked away. I immediately wanted to buy it and now I was alone. That's another strange aspect of the Apple Store. Everyone wants to help you when you show up, but when you're ready to buy something they "disappear," meaning they walk in idle circles looking at the air with their hands folded behind their backs while you heave products and money in their direction trying to meet their dreamy and constantly shifting gaze. Finally the same guy decided to help.

ASE 4: How are you liking the iPad. 
ME: It's pretty nice, actually.
ASE 4: "Pretty nice...actually"? What do you mean, "actually"? Like, "You'd expect it wouldn't be great but it is"?
ME: Rnnn.

Let me use this opening to go off on (another) digression. Fucking pedants. I hate fucking pedants who have to comb through and criticize every goddam syllable you say. "Actually" is a verbal tic. Deal with it. I've had the same experience with arrogant shitbags who pick on me when I say "sort of" or "kind of" or "pretty" or "probably."  They hold out those words with disgust like they're dirty underwear and wave them in my face. I don't go into conversations hoping to be psychoanalyzed or schooled or shamed or told to sit up straight and tuck my shirt in. For the record: I'm not a very confident person and so I've noticed I pull my punches with passive-aggressive additives. I try to minimize that when I think of it. Happy now?

In this case, I ended up telling Apple Store employee that the iPad keyboard is lacking and that I think it's a pain in the ass that the iPad doesn't work with many sites I want to use. His answer: "That's something they'll probably fix in an upcoming update." Thanks for that. It's not the iPad's problem. It's an MP: My Problem. Reminds me of when my wife called Apple support to tell them her Apple-hosted website, built in iWeb on a Mac, wasn't viewable in Firefox -- and they told her people should use Safari anyway because it's better.



Oh, the case itself? Really nice. What more is there to know?

Suppose I should say something. It folds over the face of the iPad to protect the big glass screen from scratches (ideal) and has an elastic band that wraps around the front to hold the cover tight. Sort of like a giant Moleskine notebook -- which I can dig because I love Moleskine notebooks. The cover also flips back around and acts as a stand so you can use the iPad like a mini TV. It's perfect. If Incase wants to give me a free case for saying that, go ahead.

It does have the exact footprint of my
lunch cooler, though...
The strange thing about Apple products (and I say this as a fan of Apple products and a user of Apple products almost exclusively) is that they're beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing and thin and light and easily slip anywhere on your person, but they're so fucking fragile they pretty much require a case, which then negates any benefits of the object's design. Take the iPod -- any model except the Shuffle. Almost everyone I know who has one is awed by the beauty of the thing, how small and light and thin it is, how gorgeously designed. And then they bought a case for it, locking away that beauty forever. They bought the object at least partially with the pleasing industrial design in mind, but then decided to keep it locked behind a case. What's the point of having a beautiful object if you can't ever see it? Is it enough just knowing that it's there, sheathed forever under the layers of pleather?

The iPhone 4 is made almost entirely of aluminum and glass. If a phone can be pretty, it's a pretty phone. But when it's so goddam fragile you need to smother it in plastic and leather and fabric, there's almost no point in its being pretty.  Same deal with the iPad: honestly, what does it matter that the back is made of silky smooth flawless aluminum, if using it and not wanting to risk it getting scratched or cracked to shit almost requires you to jealously guard it in a case and never look at it again?

At left: the iPad in its case. At right: my MacBook Pro 15.

Besides just hiding the iPad, the case has another side effect: it makes the toast-thin device the width of a full-ass sandwich with meat, tomato, and pickle. Apple also loves to tout the slenderness of its devices, but once you add a case it often doubles the heft. I actually found the heft in this case satisfying. Which is OK. But then it makes the iPad's precious 0.5 inch thickness fairly meaningless.

Or I could quit my bitching and carry the iPad around nude (it = nude, not me = nude). That's perfectly fine. Go ahead. I know people who do that. And the second I drop the iPad and crack the screen or slip it in a bag with my keys in there and scratch the back, I've beshitted an $500 to $830 object.


Thanks to @vkoser for this image of Flipboard in action.


Because I was using the iPad for news research purposes, all the apps I downloaded and tried have to do with newspapers or magazines. I didn't get to try any games or other utilities unless they were directly related to the news and publishing businesses. So I didn't get to try out this little "Flowers vs. Zombies" number I see people playing all the time. Poo.

But I still had a surprising amount of fun. I stupidly didn't save a full list of all the apps I tried, but among the ones I remember were apps for USA Today, New York Times Editors Picks, Financial Times, BBC, The Guardian, ABC News,, The Associated Press, Wired, Sports Illustrated, NPR -- a slew of others.

The newspaper apps are all pretty similar in concept: selected stories, printed in full, with some cute interactive bits in a nice, easy-to-read layout. Some have nice touches: the FT's app is on a salmon-colored background, of course, which made me crave a nice bit of smoked fish. USA Today's app home screen has multiple layers of interactivity and looks a bit like a newspaper front page, but the stories themselves are almost all big, unyielding blocks of gray text. The NYT is like that as well, but at least you expect grayness from the Times.  The AP's app was by far the cheesiest: it's got a dated (or maybe badly retro) design where a selection of very few  headlines sort of float randomly on the screen on little strips of paper, and full stories are presented on shuffled sheets of paper that look like Print Shop-level design from the early 2000s.

The stupid ABC News globe.
ABC News' app for some reason presents all the stories printed on the surface of a 3-D globe. You spin the globe with a finger and see all the headlines spin around. It's shit. What sense does that make on a device that's rectangular? It leaves the corners empty! It's also difficult to find anything, because a globe has no context, no top and no bottom -- and besides, because all the headlines are printed on a curved surface, all the photos and text look distorted. There's an option to present the stories in a more traditional 2-D format: pick that instead. After you do that, it's much better.

The BBC's app was one of my favorites. It was easy to use, had a slew of news sections and stories in each category, pictures, embedded video, live streaming radio -- the works. That's what I'm talking about.

I downloaded, but never got to try, another app called Flipboard. This is the one I was simultaneously the most excited about and wary of. Flipboard is a virtual magazine built from your Facebook and Twitter feeds. The service wasn't quite working by the time I had to give the iPad back, so I had to rely on demos to see how it works. You open the app, sign in to Facebook and Twitter. You know all those links everybody shares on those service? Flipboard culls material from those links (the photos, the stories, the blog posts, whatever someone tweets or shares) and instantly builds you a magazine. It I've seen demos of it, and it looks ingenious, fascinating, beautiful, and so fucking handy I can't believe it. I don't click on three-quarters of the links floating around in my twitterstream, especially when people post stuff like:

OMG I can't believe this lol you gotta see it!!!!

Flipboard takes all those links and gives them a visual context for me. Nice. But why am I wary of it? Because where does this leave magazine layout people in the future, if a bunch of code can approximate what a paginator does? Does this mean newspaper and magazine people are even more obsolete than they already were? Fuck.



I've spent some time in this blog post and its first part bitching about things I don't like about the iPad -- and there are some hurdles that kill the device for me. The fact it doesn't support some websites I use all the time is a big no-no, and I hate that it doesn't multitask, because I typically do all kinds of shit at the same time as other shit. Although I did find a way around that (see above). Still, I eventually fell in love with the thing.

I don't know exactly why. I went into this thinking I didn't need an iPad and I still think that way. If I traveled more, or used public transportation, I'd want one. Years ago I was living and working in Fall River and commuting two or three days a week to Boston to attend grad school. I wish I'd had an iPad then instead of my old heavy iBook -- the iPad would've been ideal, with games, word processing, the web, email, portability. Now, I just go to work and come back home. There's a computer waiting at either end for me. No room for an iPad in there. Except in bed, at the dinner table, and in the bathroom. The iPad's a perfect toilet device.

It's the interface, I think. It's incredibly intuitive, even with stubby sausage fingers. You point at what you want, and the computer gives it to you. It's so much more intimate than a mouse. It may be a crippled device in some respects, but what it does, it does perfectly well. So what if it doesn't do everything? That's what other computers are for. And while I love my MacBook Pro, it's got its downsides lately: the battery lasts for about 25 minutes when not plugged in, and when it's been working for a while the underside gets as hot as a pizza stone. Having a second, smaller device that holds such a long charge and doesn't burn my thighs was amazing. And then I took the iPad with me to jury duty one day and experienced what it's like to travel with an iPad in tow, connected to everything I needed online, and was hooked.

But I had to give the iPad back to my boss. It was either that or commit theft, the feasibility of which had crossed my mind a few times. Who's going to notice a missing $700 state-of-the-art computer? These things go missing all the time! No, no, wait: a roving band of gypsies snatched it from my hands as I was using the Google Maps app to help guide a blind lady across the street!

When I handed it back at work, the first thing my boss remarked on was my fingersmudges on the screen.

"Look at this thing," she said, trying to touch the screen only lightly as if to protect herself from my germs. "You didn't clean it?"

"Rnnn," I said.

She opened the web browser and was surprised it didn't open the page she was thinking of. "They say it's intuitive, but I don't know."

"You have to type it in," I said.

A co-worker (also an Apple product nut) asked if he could borrow it next, and she handed it over and told him to suit himself. "It's for everyone. Have fun."

He took it, grinning. I have not seen my iPad since.

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