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A Resolutionary Development: What the iPad Launch Tells Us About Ourselves

March 8, 2012

Yesterday, Apple launched “the new iPad.”  As always, as Apple unveiled its new model, technology websites sang and danced with activity. Some websites live-blogged the event. Others wanted to be the first to react to the product. The Apple launch was a true event. Anonymous could have hacked the Mossad and the story still would have come second to Apple.

There’s no skirting the impact that the iPad has had on the PC market. As Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out yesterday, Apple’s iPad sales outpaced the PC sales of their nearest competitor. As one pundit put it: “Where two years ago…businesses had to deal with trying to support services for managers who toted in their iPads from home, now, IT departments are increasingly telling employees issued tablets to use their own laptops if they absolutely need them. It’s quite a reversal.” The tablet has actually begun replacing the laptop as the portable computing device of choice. This is why Tim Cook speaks of a “post-PC world.” It’s a world where the average user wants a computing device to be beautiful, functional, and highly portable. They don’t care whether they can code on their tablet; they want to play on Facebook, take pictures, and check their e-mail.

That's what we're calling it. You don't like it? What are you gonna do, not buy it?

This ought to tell us everything about what we expect from technology. There was a time when we expected our computers to become faster and more powerful with each new model. We wanted computing power. To do what exactly was never clear, since the vast majority of us do not program on our computers. Nevertheless, those changes represented some kind of progress – a comforting reminder that we were headed to a brighter, smarter future where computers would help us unravel all the mysteries of the universe. Today, what do we marvel over but sharper displays and better access to the Internet? We don’t want to be comforted by technology’s progress but by the sleekness and beauty of the technology itself. Here’s Wired: “Very little during our hands-on demo provoked a moment of jaw-dropping awe.” Why should it?

Apple finds itself on an unsustainable path. The public expects every new iteration of its product line to wow them. One tech writer put it this way: “But Apple’s ethos is about so much more than hardware and technology: It’s supposed to be, as this outsider sees it, about aspiration, dreams, desires, the future, even Utopia.” She sees Apple sliding into a morass of clunky products and bad branding. They have designed what is perhaps the most functional and most portable personal computing device ever, and instead all the media can focus on is how underwhelming it all is.

Nothing typifies this attitude more than the fuss over the name of the product. It will simply be known as the iPad. Apple referred to it as “the new iPad” yesterday. What does it matter whether it’s called the iPad 3 or the iPadHD, or just the iPad? A lot, if the comments in the media are to be taken seriously. What does it say about us when we care more about the name of the product than we do about the technological and cultural impact of that same product? We have transformed from the critically conscious into the wildly consumptive. What matters isn’t the product but what we’re going to call the product. The sharpest and most poignant comment on the name came from an article on GIGAom: “In a way, not going for names like iPad 3 or iPad HD shows that the iPad has grown up: it’s a device that’s here to stay and shape the post-PC world for years to come.”

This raises the quesion: if the iPad is “here to stay” then what does that actually mean? It is a question that few commentators seemed able or willing to answer. Here’s a typical comment: “Apple could potentially sell 80 million iPads this year, about twice as many as it did last year, and more than the number of iPad 1s and iPad 2s combined. At an average price around $550, that’s about $45 billion in sales – about the same amount as all of Apple generated in 2009, the year before the iPad launched.” We learn that Apple will make a lot of money in the coming year. But what does this really mean? What does it say about our consumer culture and consumption habits that there will be 80 million iPads sold in the coming year? Or that not one but two tech websites ran articles on how you can get rid of your iPad 2!

The media let you down with their coverage of the iPad launch. Sure, you got to see videos and pretty pictures of the new device. You learned all the specs. Maybe you even formed a strong opinion about the name or the presentation. But you still don’t know what it means that you even care enough about this product to form that opinion in the first place. That’s a troubling development.

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