Sunday, January 31, 2010

The iPad and a dwindling offline escape

Last week, I, like everyone else, was anxious to see what the Apple iPad was going to be like. I monitored the "live-blogging" on the day Steve Jobs took the stage to see the features and form factor it would have and how much it was going to cost. I suspect sooner or later I'll buy one.

Most criticism I saw after the announcement came from developers about the continued closed nature of the platform. The iPad, like the iPhone is (legally) immune from hacking and customization. You can write applications for it, but Apple has to approve them which sucks for many people who are used to being able to iterate at will on their web apps. Others complained that the iPad was just an oversized iPhone and didn't offer anything revolutionary except a bigger screen.

I appreciate both these arguments, but admittedly, I just like things to work, and if they do what I want them to do and provide me value in some way, I perhaps selfishly tend to not have the capacity to get amped up as an active soldier in the religious wars.

But as I pondered what the impact of the iPad and other devices would be beyond the developer community, I was surprised to feel a sense of sadness. Not because of what will surely be the continued bloodletting of "old world" industries -- a lack of adaptation in business always means that bleeding will be fatal -- but instead for what the iPad will mean for my own lifestyle: the continued march of being online and accessible even more, which is not a good thing.

A new year's resolution I've had for several years is what's called in corporate HR circles a better "work/life balance." For me, trying to meet this resolution usually means spending more time reading for pleasure. For example, I've been on a mission lately to read all the classics that should have been included in my High School English curriculum, but weren't. (I just finished Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, for example - a great book.) I also spend a lot of time in cafes, not only just to work, but to also occasionally pick up a New York Times and a tea or read my book for an hour as a break.

With these different forms of pleasure reading, the transition from online to offline for an hour or two is an easy one because my laptop today still feels like a productivity tool. I shut it and immediately I'm fully immersed in the physical world around me. The people in the cafe, the book I brought, the music we're all enjoying at the same time. Sure I do a lot of casual reading on my laptop, but if I want to escape a glowing screen in front of me, I can.

But with the iPad, which is specifically designed as a leisure device to consume what I now mostly read in physical form, my ability to truly be offline and only connected with the physical environment around me will slowly continue to deteriorate.

Offline pleasures and voluntary isolation are conflicting with convenience, efficiency, and scale.

I think this same clash is why I've felt trepidation about the proliferation of wi-fi access on airplanes. I'm sure it will feel novel to be instant messaging at 35,000 feet, but it's oh so nice for just a few hours to be disconnected. I can read, think, work, or sleep and know even if I wanted to, I cannot be accessible. Everyone else accepts it as a valid excuse as well. There are no expectations of me for those precious few hours.

In contrast, I picture my world in a year or two where my reading escape of newspapers and magazines is now on my iPad, conveniently equipped with wi-fi and a 3G data plan. Indeed the iPad is a form factor that can closely match the venerable book or magazine, but one that still has silent vibrations and little red counters slowly adding up just a couple fingerprints away, vying for my attention.

Forget work/life balance, I just want a little segregation.

I've never been a luddite about technology's progress and may change my mind about the pending evolution to our world of physically available newspapers, magazines, and books. For now though, I'll be appreciating just a little more my time on the couch with a closed laptop upstairs and a blissfully offline New Yorker in my hands downstairs.

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