The iPad as objet petit a

Tablet computing has always been a solution in search of a problem. Attempts to mainstream the idea have come out periodically, and before the iPad, they all failed. I would venture that this wasn’t simply because the technology wasn’t yet ready, but because of conceptual objections that also apply to the iPad: namely, there didn’t seem to be a felt gap in the current regime of computer options where the tablet would go. The tablet feels like an impoverished laptop; if you say you can add a keyboard to enhance its input capabilities, it then seems redundant, just another laptop. Adding smartphones to the mix didn’t necessarily solve this problem, I would say — in fact, it arguably made the need for the “less than laptop”-style computer even less acute.

What the iPad adds to this equation is Appleness. It’s an Apple product, so it’s cool and attractive and fun to interact with. People don’t ask why they need it. Instead — and I think we’ve all heard people talking like this — they ask how they can justify buying one. They want it initially because it’s a cool toy, and then they need to come up with “real” uses for it.

And it turns out that those “real” uses really are real! An iPad really is better than a conventional laptop for a lot of things. The touchscreen interface really does make certain types of applications more intuitive to use, and the preexisting, flexible architecture for making “apps” — when combined with the drive to find a reason to get an iPad — allows people to stumble on applications that previously wouldn’t have occurred to them.

Without the cachet of Apple, though, I don’t think a tablet computer would’ve ever taken off, because there was no real felt need for it. Apple supplied an elegantly designed, flexible device, but more importantly, they supplied the objet petit a that prompted people to think about what they might do with such a device.

35 thoughts on “The iPad as objet petit a

  1. Have you used a tablet? I don’t think for most people, those who, for example, don’t go through all the user tutorials for Excel, think of their tablet as an impoverished laptop. It certainly doesn’t feel like one, which I would think a netbook actually is.

  2. A netbook runs all the same software as a laptop and works in basically the same way, except with a smaller screen — mine also has an amazingly longer battery life than any laptop I’ve used. The screen is the only area where it feels “impoverished,” but that can have the side benefit of making distractions less easily available or appealling.

    In the first paragraph, I’m talking about pre-iPad tablets, all of which were flops. Many technology journalists and analysts expected the iPad to flop similarly.

  3. It seems to me that the netbook only arose because people were starting to use their laptops as their primary computer — and thus laptops have kept getting bigger. My primary laptop has a bigger monitor than any desktop I ever owned, and it barely fits into my school bag.

  4. If it didn’t feel impoverished you would get rid of your laptop. It’s clearly less useful in terms of storage and the ones I’ve used were incredibly sluggish to the point of rage. And I know you were referring to earlier tablets, but could their flopping have had more to do with poor design and very little thought going in to what they would be used for rather than simply that they didn’t have good marketing?

  5. I think that the problem is still that technology isn’t ready and the only function touchpads can fulfill is that already occupied by smartphones and netbooks, and can only sell as a fun toy, or an object of desire. Its like virtual reality and 3D, that were just novelty toys but will definitly resurface (3D has already but everything still looks like crap)…

  6. I think the benefit of the iPad is that they left its use undefined and had the infrastructure of the App Store to let others define it for them. The very fact that it switches orientations on the fly demonstrates this — it’s not just “for” reading PDFs, as it would be if locked into the vertical orientation. I’m assuming other tablets weren’t open-ended enough, though I don’t know the details.

    Another factor that occurs to me is that the rise of the internet and the fact that we use computers to read and watch video so much more made a largely passive device (i.e., a tablet without a keyboard) seem more appealling.

    I’m not sure what the discussion of the netbook is accomplishing. If you can prove that the netbook is a shitty device, does that automatically mean that iPads are necessary in some way? But since we’re talking about it, I’d like to point out a feature of the netbook that the iPad can’t compete with — mine was $300. For that price, I got a device that has an incredibly long battery life and is fast enough to listen to music, browse the internet, chat, and word-process at the same time. In addition, it has a much simpler interface to external displays than most laptops, meaning that it’s useful as a streaming video device.

    The thing that keeps me from ditching my big laptop is that its uniquely huge screen makes it ideal for working with two documents side-by-side. I’d be perfectly content to replace out my big laptop with a desktop and leave my netbook as my only laptop, but again, that might be unique to me given how huge and clunky my main laptop is.

  7. The reason I keep bringing up the netbook is because there is an underlying assumption amongst a lot of people that somehow the iPad is superfluous or “an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked” while the netbook is just a useful piece of kit. It plays into a general thing where you’re a spendthrift if you buy anything apple related, even potentially a bad person depending on how much that person is into austerity leftism, while if you get something like a netbook no one ever challenges you on it.

  8. I follow this sort of thing pretty closely, and I don’t even remember any pre-iPad tablets. Laptops that you could write on the screen yes, but nothing that was actually in the product category of the iPad.

    My personal opinion on why the iPad is so successful is that Apple’s software is years ahead of basically all competitors. Of course, I’m being dismissed as we speak as a fanboy for saying this, even though it is as close to objectively true as a statement like that could be. Devices like tablets are dead in the water without good software, and so far, everyone else’s software is either awful or not good. This extends back to trying to run a desktop operating system on a “tablet” laptop.

  9. I should add, however, that I am in substantial personal agreement with Adam’s sentiments, in that I’m as big an Apple guy as there is and still can’t justify buying an iPad. I expect that to change as I have more disposable income, and the “coolness” of the next iPad release my overwhelm me, but I’d mainly use it for web-browsing on the couch, something I currently do on my iPhone. If a travelled a lot, I think it would be great. When I travel, though, I typically need full laptop capabilities (beyond even what a netbook could satisfy), as I go beyond normal word processing in my line of work and most of my travel is for work or will require me to do work while I’m gone.

  10. What I’m saying in this post is basically that before the iPad, tablets had a hard time finding their place in the existing ecology of computing devices. It took a company with Apple’s cachet to break through that. Now that they have done so, it is clear that a device like the iPad really is useful for a lot of different things, including the kinds of things Anthony uses it for. It would probably also be useful to me, except that I’m insanely conservative when it comes to changing my work habits. I’m not criticizing the Apple “coolness” or saying people are self-indulgent idiots for being attracted to it — I’m saying that only a company that people trust as much as they trust Apple could break through and make a tablet computer seem desirable.

  11. Now the world has discovered that the iPad is useful — and it absolutely is — but they initially had to take Apple’s word for it that it would turn out to be. Had Dell come out with an identical product, it wouldn’t have worked.

  12. Hill captures the essence of the iPad for someone like me: a phone is too small and a laptop too big for comfortably using on the couch while watching an episode of “Boston Legal” and thinking “That guy looks familiar, where have I seen him before?” The size and lightweight of the iPad makes it an ideal device for using the IMDB app to find out who it was and then Twitter something like, “Wow! The bad cop from “The Walking Dead” was in an episode of “Boston Legal” and he was an asshole in that too!” I’m going to Best Buy this afternoon to spend a few hundred dollars on electronics; I won’t be coming home with an iPad, but I will have a new TV. If any topic was legitimately described as “let’s agree to disagree,” it is this one.

  13. Craig’s comment reminds me of an idea I once had — the Genius Phone. The idea is that it would listen to your conversation and look up the things you’re referring to, so that you could pull it out of your pocket and have the answer right in front of you, with no need to type anything, etc.

    The iPhone 4S is a step toward this, it seems to me. It would probably kill the battery life and it would have really bad privacy implications — but God would it ever be convenient.

  14. I am unconvinced by the iPad for the same reasons as Hill and Craig McFarlane, but I would buy and use the Genius Phone if the battery had to be mounted on a backpack frame and required an operator’s licence.

    Its the gap between what we can be enticed to imagine by popular science and technology writing and science fiction, which looks so tantalizingly close to what we have, and the fact that the appearences are only just that that bothers me. My flying car and jet pack will never get here, and, as the joke goes, AI is always just 50 years away. Objet petit a, indeed.

  15. I think you are onto something, generally, but I’d also want to support Anthony’s argument that the iPad provides a lot of the features that I’d want in a tablet-like device. I think it’s legitimate to point out that Apple could uniquely make tablets desirable.

    I think that an iPad is a lot more useful than a netbook, but I remain reluctant to pick one up because of the price. My laptop is a nice size for transporting, which takes away a lot of the force behind picking up another machine. I find it interesting that the price you mention for your netbook is 300 dollars. At that price, I’d buy an iPad. I’ve been comfortable spending more money for an Apple product than a similar non-Apple product for various reasons, but I suppose that changes when I don’t have as much of a need for the product in general.

  16. I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone so I don’t know the answer to this: can they be used in the classroom to show slide presentations or play youtube videos? Are they capable of connecting to projectors? I ask this because my netbook (sorry, Anthony) has been great for me as a student at Villanova and as an adjunct at two other schools. It is compatabile with the technologies at all three schools, its battery lasts either hours if it’s continually in use, and within seven seconds I can have my netbook turn on and be connected to the web, which makes it quite efficient if I need to use a computer spontaneously. And, honestly, I like it becuase it actually fits inside my bag. I also don’t pay a monthly fee to use it and my cell phone, which is the cheapest I could find, has the cheapest plan available to me. None of this is to discredit the Apple technologies. Actually, I think Apple has done a great job of pushing against the anti-democratic nature of IBM/Microsoft. As things stand now, I’m not sure why I would “need” to trade in my netbook and cheap phone for an iPhone or iPad.

  17. Mark,

    Yes they are capable of playing youtube videos and slide presentations. Yes they can be hooked up to a projector. The battery tends to last forever, so for example last quarter on Tuesdays it would last from when I leave the house in the morning at 8am to when I would return around 10pm. And I didn’t get the 3G version, I just connect it to wifi. I use my phone, which was a free HTC Desire, to hotspot it if I need something quick. It’s also tiny and fits in my bag like a folder.

  18. Adam, I think you are undervaluing the quality of Apple’s software. Other companies have yet to create a product that is identical to the iPad, even though they are trying to the point of illegality in some cases to copy it. The reason is because making good software is hard! Apple has had a huge head start on the field. That’s why the iPad succeeded. Many people also said the iPhone was pointless when it came out.

    Also Craig, yes, you nailed it. That is exactly what I want an iPad for. The constant supplementary internet searching I do while watching TV and dinking around.

  19. Just to clarify, what Apple did with the iPad is identical to what it has done with mp3 players and smart phones, and in neither case was it leveraging cachet to achieve those results. The reason it sells is because once you use one for a relatively short period of time, you realize that it was your own limited imagination that resulted in thinking you couldn’t really use one, not an issue with the product.

  20. What sort of evidence could one possibly offer for that claim? It reduces to: I don’t think I need an iPad, so there must be some voodoo at work in its popularity. This claim is by and large made only by people with little experience with the device. Not that everyone needs an iPad.

  21. Coolness qua piece of technology. That has nothing to do with Apple’s “cachet.” It has to do with the fact that I have used the device and I find it cool. I’m interpreting “Appleness” as something other than that. If your point is that people buy a high end, luxury computing device in part because it is a viscerally appealing neat gadget then… ok?

    My point is that Apple’s cachet seems to function as a cipher for people who for various reasons don’t share the general public’s enthusiasm for the iPad, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons. Apple has cachet because it has systematically revolutionized multiple device categories, not the other way around. They were essentially a failed company when this started.

  22. I will cede that point. It’s relatively easy to adapt to, but it does become clunky in some cases. It provides a cleaner interface, but there are times when I have the wrong window highlighted and things don’t go as planned.

  23. However, most Mac software now has a graphical toolbar native to the window (e.g. MS Office), which, when combined with keyboard shortcuts, really cuts down on the number of times per day I ever click on the toolbar at the top of the screen. It’s there if you need it, but I don’t use it much.

  24. It seems that even Apple cannot escape being connected with child labor. Earlier today, Apple announced that it found, through its own audit, that some of its suppliers have used child labor, have had breaches of pay and benefits, and have also committed poor environmental practices. =(

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