Stand back and watch the iPad war play out

Photo illustration by Brook R. Corwin. Original photo licensed by Creative Commons for commercial use with modification

The iPad hits stores today, and in making the choice to buy one, you’re not just picking out a product.

You’re picking a side.

The $500-$800 tablet computer is perhaps the most polarizing device to hit the communications industry in the past decade. It has spawned both adoration and disgust among veteran tech writers. Journalists are having a field day speculating on how it might redefine the industry, with views highly mixed. Web content developers have either cried fair or foul with the iPad’s inability to run Flash, depending on what they think of the software program that runs the vast majority of animated and multimedia content on the Internet.

(Full disclosure: most of the websites I design, including my portfolio site, have heavy Flash components. So it’s hard for me to get too excited about a product that, if successful, would force me to redesign my work or pay money to another company to convert for an iPad audience)

But these are debates for tech heads and newsies. How will mainstream consumers pick their side? It won’t come down to whether it helps the journalism industry. It certainly won’t come down to love/hate of Flash.

Design and functionality will play a huge role. If society is ready to abandon the click culture that has conditioned our computer use for decades, then the iPad’s slick use of touchscreen will forever change how we access and share information. The iPad will never replace a mobile phone (it’s simply too big to take everywhere) but it could replace a laptop.

That gets us to the big question, a cultural query that ultimately decides whether the iPad redefines all media or fails miserably. How exactly do people want to use the web? Are they looking for an open-ended, creative experience without expectations? Or do they want a simplified, controlled environment streamlined to their established tastes?

Those falling in the first category will be frustrated by the iPad’s limitations. It runs only one application at a time, can’t handle complex software and doesn’t even have a U.S.B port. Applications must be purchased from the Apple app store to make the device useful. In short, it’s pretty lousy for those who want to build their own content, ironic since the initial appeal of Mac computers was all the built-in software that let you start creating right out of the box.

An iPad dominated world also severely restricts the audience for amateur content. Applications must be approved by Apple. The company’s rejection of Flash, one of the world’s most popular software tools, shows just how far it can flex its muscle to restrict what gets seen on its devices. Is this the next generation of the AOL model, which relies on herding consumers to partner websites rather than the web’s wild frontiers?

Then again, maybe this is just what the general public is looking for after a decade of exhaustion trying to navigate the web’s limitless choices. If all you want out of your computer is the ability to send email, share photos and get information online, then the iPad makes life easier. Its company-approved apps will tailor web content to meet your daily needs. Information will be personalized to the extent that you’ll never feel the need to wander. And how many people really need to use a built-in webcam anyway?

I can’t predict which camp attracts the majority of consumers. But the iPad will do a wonderful job of sorting, and from there we can start tailoring our communications strategies to fit the revamped model of Internet consumption. Hedge your bets and stay neutral for now. We’ll know soon enough which side wins out, and how they’ll rule the new era.

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