March 28, 2011

My First iPad

I recently passed a mile­stone in my life. I spent ten hours in a shop­ping mall wait­ing in line to get a shiny new iPad 2.

Hav­ing done so, I have a pretty good feel­ing that among your first thoughts was oh, you’re one of those.” Am I right?

I want to take a few moments to address this because I used to have a very nar­row view of people who like Apple products, and it’s only in the wake of a series of small rev­el­a­tions cul­min­at­ing in my little adven­ture in the Eaton Centre in down­town Toronto that my per­spect­ive has shif­ted to a more bal­anced—and, I think, fair—place. Bear with me.

In the spring of 2010, Apple was intro­du­cing their latest little hard­ware device. The fact that it would be a tab­let was fairly well estab­lished ahead of time. People were mak­ing guesses about the name: iSlate? iTab? The unveil­ing of the iPad was a merry day for me for sev­eral reas­ons. It wasn’t because of the (rather cheap) jabs at the name for its par­al­lels with fem­in­ine hygiene products, nor the You­Tube par­od­ies dis­cuss­ing the rel­at­ive mer­its of this over­sized iPod.

I was amused by the mar­ket­ing. Magical device”, eh? We’ll see about that, I thought. I felt a strange sense of glee, know­ing that I would get to wit­ness Apple finally reach­ing too far, try­ing to defend a stu­pid device that had no place in the market.

Hav­ing grown up as a pure-bred Win­dows boy, I had recently switched my stu­dio over to a Mac Pro and dis­covered the won­der­ful world of OSX. Any skep­tic will find it dif­fi­cult to spend time with the oper­at­ing sys­tem and not find it at the very least a com­pet­it­ive altern­at­ive. It taught me that it’s very easy to pick on Apple products without actu­ally both­er­ing to try them. I had been a very vocal anti-Apple advoc­ate before. No delete key? One mouse but­ton? It was almost too easy to make fun of those silly fan­boys pay­ing premium prices for half-functional, aesthetically-obsessed machinery.

Time passed. I became aware of a cer­tain amount of care­free joy I felt using my new sys­tem. The time I saved with the smal­lest things made me real­ize that it’s spe­cific­ally the atten­tion to detail that makes OSX the robust sys­tem that it is. I am reminded of a scath­ing and reveal­ing retort that I wit­nessed on a forum, launched against a Win­dows cru­sader by the Apple fan­boy he had been belittling. Thank you for your opin­ion,” he began, now go install some mouse drivers or something.”

It cer­tainly pro­voked a chuckle, but also an internal admis­sion on my part (and, I expect, on the part of the people involved) that it had been fight­ing fire with fire. Just as OSX does recog­nize and make use of right-clicking, so too does Win­dows now bundle many stand­ard drivers with its oper­at­ing sys­tem. What made the com­ment incis­ive was pre­cisely the fact that it made a point of show­ing the recip­rocal biases.

Yet when the iPad release came around, I had appar­ently learned noth­ing at all. I reasoned that, des­pite its obvi­ous advant­age as the first mass-produced consumer-friendly tab­let device, the iPad truly was noth­ing but an over­sized iPod Touch. I main­tained that view and refused to buy one. How could such a super­flu­ous device be worthy of atten­tion? It was clearly rid­ing off the suc­cess and mar­ket­ing clout of its cre­at­ors and not on its own mer­its. I had not yet seen, let alone inter­ac­ted with one.

Then it star­ted selling mil­lions. It broke records, it sold out every­where. A sci­ent­ist at heart, I felt my hypo­thesis erod­ing under the weight of mount­ing con­trary evid­ence. Clearly, I would have to test my claim by going to a store and actu­ally spend­ing some time with this magical” device—though I couldn’t ima­gine what effect that would pos­sibly have on my opin­ion. Some­where deep inside, a little voice was cry­ing hypo­crisy and deja-vu. I did not hear it.

It was a few weeks later that, on a whim, I dipped into an Apple Store to have a look at their new mar­vel. By some fluke, I had man­aged to walk in at a time when the store was rel­at­ively empty (most retail­ers would kill to have as much activ­ity as Apple stores con­sider rel­at­ively empty”). With a test unit all to myself and no pres­sure to relin­quish it to the next curi­ous per­son, I buckled down and began to use the iPad.

Half an hour passed before I knew it. There were no par­tic­u­larly fancy apps on it, just the stock ones and a few extras that the employ­ees had put on to show off some of the poten­tial. I looked at pic­tures, I scrolled through the mail cli­ent. I changed set­tings back and forth. I didn’t have any interest in what I was doing, I was simply fas­cin­ated by the interface’s respons­ive­ness and invis­ib­il­ity. It reminded me of my iPhone.

It is per­haps worth men­tion­ing that some­where in this time, I acquired an iPhone 3GS to replace my aging cell­phone from before. It was my first smart­phone and I decided on it because it seemed to me like a no-brainer: the only phone with a huge selec­tion of apps, nat­ive integ­ra­tion with my now-loved Mac sys­tem, and a sleek design. What cinched the deal was, yet again, going into the store and play­ing with sev­eral of my options. I found the Black­berry offer­ings (espe­cially at that time) to be obtuse and unpleas­ant to nav­ig­ate, des­pite my love of the phys­ical key­board. The iPhone felt respons­ive and intu­it­ive, and I found myself flu­ent in minutes. The decision fol­lowed swiftly thereafter.

Back in the Apple Store, I had another moment of rev­el­a­tion. There might be some­thing to this iPad thing after all. But it was some­thing strangely elu­sive. I didn’t like it. I didn’t trust it. Advant­ages should be eas­ily describ­able, quan­ti­fi­able, oth­er­wise aren’t they just the cult-like mar­ket­ing brain­wash at work? At the time, I did not under­stand it and the sour taste of con­fu­sion remained in my mind des­pite my change of heart: the iPad was, without a doubt, a truly impress­ive achieve­ment and a ful­crum of change for media con­sump­tion. That much I under­stood. What I didn’t yet under­stand yet was why I wanted one so badly. So I avoided the issue, hop­ing that by the second gen­er­a­tion I would have a bet­ter sense of things.

I will say this: it has been a very long year. As more and more unbe­liev­ably impress­ive apps have been developed, my patience has waned and crumbled to the point where I often con­tem­plated just going to the store and get­ting myself an iPad. I res­isted, and when the rumour mill began rum­bling about the sequel, I took some time to re-assess my pos­i­tion and fig­ure out what actu­ally made the iPad worth hav­ing, if any­thing. What I learned came from examin­ing my love for my iPhone.

The iPhone’s inter­face van­ished beneath my fin­gers. It high­lighted the con­tent rather than push­ing the device itself as the focal point of the inter­ac­tion. It flexed to be what I needed it to be and didn’t make me feel like I was the one adapt­ing. It was a flex­ible sys­tem, con­stantly grow­ing and evolving as developers learn to make use of the hardware’s full poten­tial—offi­cially and unof­fi­cially in the jail­break scene.

The iPad offered those same advant­ages, with the added argu­ment of extra screen real-estate and horsepower. Not infre­quently, I found myself wish­ing that my latest awe­some iPhone app would be a little more spa­cious. My pian­ist fin­gers are spindly tendrils of touch-typing, but even so I found some but­tons and inter­face ele­ments hard to accur­ately and reli­ably hit.

This is all highly sub­ject­ive, but I share my per­spect­ive to help illus­trate my shift from anti-Apple to my cur­rent stance, which I’m in the pro­cess of describ­ing. And now that the con­text for my adven­ture is clear, I will take you to Fri­day the 25 of March, 2011 at just about 7:00am, where yours truly was just set­tling into a lineup that I would spend the fol­low­ing ten hours inhabiting.

Sev­eral things hap­pen when you spend that long in a line-up. The first hour goes by swiftly as you take in your sur­round­ings. Com­fort is import­ant. I did not think to bring a fold­ing lawn chair with me, as so many of my line-mates had, so I was at an imme­di­ate dis­ad­vant­age. Stiff­ness sets in quickly and before long it makes any pos­i­tion feel awk­ward. There is a strange lack of appet­ite too. Every­one eats and con­tinu­ally gets up to fetch drinks and snacks, but it’s eat­ing out of bore­dom, not hunger.

The most import­ant thing that occurs is that you make friends. I arrived with Shan­non, my girl­friend, but she was not plan­ning on spend­ing the whole day cooped up in a line with me (and who can blame her), so it wasn’t long before I was left to my own devices. If you’ve never been in a line-up for some­thing, it’s very easy to ima­gine that every­one there is some man­ner of twitchy freak whose obses­sion with the Apple brand makes them little more than zom­bies of con­sumer­ism. At least I know that was my image of them going in.

My first sur­prise, then, was find­ing out that every­one around me in line was com­pletely down-to-earth, affable, and—dare I say—nor­mal. Where were the rav­ing lunatics?

I met doc­toral stu­dents, pho­to­graph­ers, and engin­eers. I met people my own age, younger, and sig­ni­fic­antly older. I met girls and boys in equal pro­por­tion, and I met people from all sorts of cul­tures and fin­an­cial denom­in­a­tions. I talked to sev­eral of them quite extens­ively and learned that their reas­ons for want­ing an iPad 2 were as var­ied and sober as one could hope for.

If I’m being hon­est, the most unpleas­ant aspect of the entire day was deal­ing with every­one else in the mall. The folks I was wary of were not those beside me, but every­where else. It’s more than a little off-putting to wit­ness the arrog­ance, enti­tle­ment, and hos­til­ity with which passers-by treated us in line. I say arrog­ance with a sense of irony, since that was one of the many things we were accused of: feel­ing like we were mak­ing ourselves super­ior by get­ting the latest toy before every­one else. In ten hours, not a single per­son in line with me made any com­ments to that effect, nor did they imply it by their man­ner, nor—admir­ably—did they respond to the attacks with any­thing but good-natured diplomacy.

Respect­able busi­ness­men, kind old women, mem­bers of the press, all of them sud­denly for­got their sense of polite­ness and unleashed against us a tor­rent of sar­castic bel­li­ger­ence. From them, I learned that I am crazy, that I have no life, that I am narrow-minded, stu­pid, obsess­ive, a freak. You may want to stop read­ing because I may very well cause can­cer too if we take these oth­er­wise per­fectly nor­mal people at their word.

What is it that pro­vokes such vit­riol, lever­aged against a crowd that, in my best estim­ate, is guilty of noth­ing worse than being enthu­si­astic about tech­no­logy? My guess is that it is, at heart, a mis­un­der­stand­ing of intent. The reas­ons that those people thought we were stand­ing in line were not the actual reas­ons. Since I can­not speak for every­one in line, I will speak for myself and men­tion that these points were at least true of all those that I spoke to at any length.

I was not there to blindly sup­port Apple, I was there to will­fully give them my busi­ness for a device which I judged to be worth hav­ing. I was not ignor­ant of my role as a liv­ing bill­board for the com­pany—I was fully aware of the mar­ket­ing assist­ance I was offer­ing Apple by stand­ing in line, and I enjoyed sub­vert­ing it with my line-mates by answer­ing the fre­quent what are you in line for?” ques­tions with quips of Justin Bieber!” and the like. I was not in line ignor­antly tout­ing Apple’s products over all oth­ers and ignor­ing their flaws; not only did most of my line-mates also carry Black­berry phones and Win­dows laptops, there were plenty for whom the iPad 2 would be the first Apple product they’ve ever owned. And every­one was fully will­ing and able to call Apple out on its mis­steps and dis­cuss its idiosyncrasies.

The iOS noti­fic­a­tion sys­tem, for instance? Could def­in­itely use an over­haul. No cus­tom SMS ring­tones? I could do that in the 90s! The Smart” case being too dumb to pro­tect the back of the device as well? What a joke.

Why, then, was I both­er­ing to actu­ally wait in line to be among the first to get the iPad 2, rather than order­ing online or wait­ing a couple of weeks like a civil per­son? The answer is simple: I had waited a year already, I love and am excited about tech­no­logy, there was no longer a ques­tion of if” I’d get the device or not, and I was will­ing to spend my day wait­ing—a day I would have spent wait­ing any­way, lest we for­get, just doing other things. I felt that one day of ded­ic­ated wait­ing rather than two more weeks of indir­ect wait­ing was a worthy exchange.

And that is how, at 5pm on Fri­day the 25 of March, I walked home with an iPad 2 and a new­found per­spect­ive of those who lined up for it. Let me be clear and say that I do not claim that the crazed fan­boy does not exist—the ste­reo­type did not spring from nowhere, after all—but I have seen with my own rational eyes that it is a ste­reo­type that applies rarely. It is the excep­tion, not the rule, and in any event does not excuse the rep­re­hens­ible behaviour that so much of the pub­lic per­mit­ted them­selves against those of us who waited in line that day.

Would I do it again? If I felt the product was worth it and I was in a pos­i­tion to do so, sure. Would it have to be an Apple product? Of course not.

After only a few days, I am thrilled by the poten­tial that the iPad rep­res­ents for the media industry. The way it could revive magazines, gently replace aspects of the print world that are waste­ful of our earth’s resources, and con­sol­id­ate much of the inform­a­tion we are all increas­ingly forced to digest on a daily basis. Per­haps you will dis­agree with me, and I respect that entirely. All I ask is that you learn from my mis­take: before you sit down to bash a device and insult its users, make an hon­est effort to inter­act with it your­self. Base your opin­ion on tan­gible effort, not hearsay and the pre­vail­ing atti­tudes of peers. And don’t be afraid to defend the result.

So am I an irra­tional, narrow-minded, obsess­ive idiot who can’t see over his own high brow?

You be the judge.

This entry was typed the fol­low­ing Monday morn­ing. On my iPad 2.

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