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Creation Myths: What the Argument That the iPad's Not for Creating Content Really Tells Us

The popular critique of the five-day-old iPad is that the device is only for consuming content. That it's not possible to create on an iPad. It's an odd critique and says more about the people making it than the device itself.
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The iPad has been out for five days, and already a fair number of smart people have lined up to condemn it. Jeff Jarvis warns of "iPad danger," Corey Doctorow says that the device itself holds a "palpable contempt for the owner," and Dave Winer trots out the old Apple staple when he calls it "a toy."

All three critiques center around one central premise: that the device is only for consuming content. That it's not possible to create on an iPad. It's an odd critique, one that is so easily countered that it seems to say more about the people making it than the device itself. It's a critique that speaks volumes about the types of creation that people hold dear, and the types that they discount. And it's a critique that lays bare the many ways that creativity has changed as we accelerate down the path of a digital society -- and how hard they are to fit into traditional boxes.

I should point out at the onset that I'm writing this on an iPad right now and while I agree with Paul M Davis when he tweets that the device could really use a pack of smokes propping it up, typing is nowhere near as difficult as some would have you believe. The little popping sound your fingers make on the glass is actually quite pleasing, and the autocorrect really shines as you move at speed. The apostrophe key is strangely buried, a major annoyance.

So this post right here is an act of creation on the iPad, and it's not the only one. I've played around with Korg's iElectribe beat sequencer (at $10, a bit cheaper than its $500 hardware cousin), my four-year-old son is in love with Brushes (an app that, in its iPhone form, was used for multiple New Yorker covers), and I may actually be Tweeting even more on this than I do on a desktop. I've answered countless emails, planned an entire vacation, and scheduled stories on CellStories, my mobile storytelling site. Oh, and I've not sat back and watched a single movie, though I did download the Netflix app.

Creation is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps none of these measure up. But to say that it's simply not possible ignores the already-countless creative applications in the app store, from Wordpress to photo editors to musical instruments. Keep in mind that all of those were created without an actual device to test on and were available on day one. I can't wait to see what's been built by day 100.

But more importantly, these critiques seem to forget the fact that there's a full-featured web browser on the iPad that's capable of running pretty much anything you throw at it, other than Flash (a loss I weep for not at all). If anything, the iPad seems to be more functional on the web than the iPhones that came before it because you're no longer panning and zooming through too-large pages. Many of the content-based apps, so vital to the iPhone, may find themselves competing against their own websites, a fact that I embrace with open arms (I was never a fan of the "there's an app for that" mantra of the post-2007 iPhones). No longer hobbled by the tiny screen of mobile devices, the good old web may be the killer app of the iPad.

In his day-after critique, Jarvis says "it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn't create." The "their" in that sentence are big media companies, who are furiously building iPad apps in an attempt to rescue their broken business models. And he's right: the apps these companies have released are for consuming conglomerate content. But what do you expect from a pig but a grunt? It's not Apple's fault that big media companies don't know how to create new things. It's not Steve Jobs who told the Wall Street Journal to charge more for an iPad subscription than a print subscription or Time magazine to make the bizarre decision of releasing a separate app for every issue. Big media has done a great job of making bad decisions for a couple decades -- who'd expect them to stop now?

In the lead-up to the iPad's release, it was held out as the latest last, great hope for journalism -- finally a way to get people to pay for access after two decades of the free internet. That the iPad was going to save journalism was always false hope (also a false argument: the thing that wants saving is big journalism's business models, journalism itself is doing just fine). Five-dollar apps won't staunch the bleeding, and subscription-based ones will find themselves in competition with their own website, completely functional and full of awesome on the iPad -- a very different situation than on the diminutive iPhone. Success against your own free site is a dubious proposition and requires a hell of a value-add, a challenge I doubt many in big media are truly up for.

The thing about the iPad is that it didn't emerge from the ether, it's an evolution of the iPhone platform, so you can look at the success stories there and extrapolate. And those success stories are, by and large, not among familiar players. For all the problems with the App Store model (and there are plenty), rewarding incumbents is not one of them. Which means there's tons of potential for creating new things: things that will fill in the gaps that exist in the device now, things that will allow us to create in new ways, ways unimaginable before. The untapped potential of this device is palpable: finally, we can go back to working with our hands!

The thing about owning a device on day one is that you are buying potential. Keep in mind that the original iPhone had no way to install applications on it. It was a year and a half before that was possible, and yet people saw it and they understood the potential for doing new things. The tablet genre, of which the iPad is hopefully the first of many, is equally untapped.

Which brings us back to creativity. With new devices come new forms of expression. As Derek Powazek deftly points out, we've always created content both in spite of and in concert with the limitations of technology. Yet with the "iPad isn't for making content" crowd, you wonder what they define as content. Twitter, apparently isn't. Neither is writing, data-crunching, or presentations (the actions offered by the three apps Apple created itself for the iPad -- all, it's worth noting, content-creation apps). Music, out. Drawing, out. Blogging, the very format that these critiques have taken? Out. The iPad lacks a camera, yet there are photo editors for it, none of which apparently create content either. I would expect video editors to emerge shortly (probably from Apple to start), audio editing is already on the iPhone, so it's sure to make the move (and already runs, just tiny). Is that content? Probably not. I could continue, but at some point I'm just duplicating the App Store catalog.

So what is content for these folks? Jarvis answered this question in advance (very thoughtful of him). Yet the examples of content he gives -- emailing a link, commenting on a blog, updating Twitter, etc. -- are all possible on the iPad.

As I said at the top of this post, the "not for making content" meme is far too easy to knock down. Which means there's something else there.

A lot of the "there" there is about control: do we want a gatekeeper to devices we own? It's a valid argument, but one that applies equally to game consoles, mobile phones, most real-world content distribution, and many other corners of life both digital and physical (I can't walk into a Japanese restaurant and order latkes, in the same way I can't upload a Word file to Flickr). But for some, there is a line in in the sand and the iPad, apparently, is one grain too far.

But the only thing locked down on the iPad are the apps. The web is (wonderfully) wide open. Reading, Listening and Watching, also open -- I can drag in any epub-format books, mp3 audio, or mp4 video that I want. But you can't execute arbitrary code on the iPad. And if you know what that means, my guess is that you've already got a device that can.

So what's the problem? The problem must be that computing is evolving, the way people think about it changing, and what people do with it transforming. That the lock-in of the iPad or iPhone is, for most people, a non-issue (less than a non-issue, it's not even considered) is a sign of just how sophisticated we've become as a culture. These devices are appliances now, they're utilitarian. Creating a device that's difficult to use (see: the entire history of Microsoft operating systems) is a death sentence for a tech manufacturer today. Complexity is no longer rewarded, it is mocked (witness Apple's successful "I'm a PC" ad campaign).

And what this means is that a new class of user emerges, one who is unconcerned about meta discussions about content, about open systems or closed, or about how the digital sausage gets made. She just wants to make cool things. Things that communicate to her audience, not to yours. Jarvis is right that we're all creators, but that doesn't mean that we all create in the same way, that we all identify content similarly, and that what one person makes is going to be valued by another.

Is the iPad a perfect device? Of course not. But it's transformative in ways that we can't quite know yet. We see hints in these early days, certainly, but we won't know the larger picture for some time to come, as people push and pull it in unexpected directions, as its hidden strengths and its buried weaknesses come to light. In the meantime, we'll use this new tool in ways that we use so many tools: to create, to consume, to share our lives and to learn about others. It will contribute to the ever-more complicated understanding of creation and it will bring its users stories of an ever-more complex world. I fail to see a downside to any of that.

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