iPad Creationism
June 26th, 2012 by ravi

Every now and then someone makes a claim that the iPad is great and all but really not intended for “creation”. Within the hour a host of Apple aficionados respond with incredulity, pointing to various acts of creativity achieved on the iPad. Here is an example from John Gruber in response to Nick Bilton of the New York Times (edited for relevance):

Nick Bilton:

The iPad, for all its glory, suffers from one very distinct flaw: It’s very difficult to use for creation. The keyboard on the screen, although pretty to look at, is abysmal for typing anything over 140 characters. There isn’t a built-in pen for note-taking, either. Of course all of this is intentional by Apple. Although there are hundreds of third party products available, Apple doesn’t seem to want the iPad to be a creator, but more of a consumer.

Bilton is smarter than this. I really thought we’d retired the whole “iPad is only for consumption” thing.

The idea that a dedicated hardware keyboard or a stylus is necessary for creation is ludicrous. […] I’ve seen people who type faster on an iPad than I type on a hardware keyboard. Watch a teenager type on an iPad.

Arguing that the iPad is only for consumption today is like arguing that the Macintosh was a toy back in the ’80s.

In the above, Gruber links to a post by Dan Frommer titled “10 Ways People Are Using The iPad to Create Content, Not Just Consume it”. He then follows up with a post pointing to Patrick Rhone who has written an “entire draft manuscript” of a book using software on the iPad.

So, who is right?

That would depends on a few points of interpretation and proof:

For one thing, how do we define creation? Is it the rare results of gifted individuals who almost by definition are not going to be held back by the limitations of devices? Tolstoy churned out massive tomes with no more than (I would assume) paper and pen. Or do we mean by “creation” the ability of any (or at least most) individuals to do two broad kinds of things: create something like a picture, a story or a song, and second, extend the device as a computer (use it in more powerful ways, extend its functionality).

The “creation as the output of the gifted” idea is not of much interest to me, since it pertains only to how a tiny percentage of the population can use the device. Instead, I am choosing to focus on the second kind of creation. But before I do, there is the question of what constitutes a proof: here I think Gruber and Frommer are off on the wrong track. Pointing to this or that act of [rare] success proves only the sufficiency of the device, not the suitably of it. Often, when we hear of an entire movie shot on an iPhone or some such peculiarity, we quite correctly see in it the use of gimmick as a form of publicity. To really prove that iOS devices are suitable for creative use, its defenders have to outline capabilities inherent to it that aid the creator or, minimally, refute the claims of limitations inherent in the platform that handicap creative activity.

With these two ideas, one of creation and the other of proof, in hand, I can now reformulate the question: is the iPad suitable for day to day acts of creation and for extending the capability of the device?

To this, my own answer is mixed. With its more intuitive touch interface, gesture based actions, and simplified user experience, iOS devices seem well suited for getting on with using the platform rather than climbing a steep hill of learning in order to perform the simplest operations (as is the case with traditional computing platforms). That translates to greater ease when my kids want to draw a cartoon or I want to edit a photograph. That’s great as far as it goes, but the interface decisions that enable this form of use quickly start limiting usability in other use cases, and these limitations this have nothing to do with a keyboard (which one can easily purchase and link to an iPad).

Take the simple case of the pain imposed by a smaller screen and iOS’s full-screen apps, using the writing of this very blog post as an example. Admittedly it’s not much of an act of creation, but for the sake of this exercise, let us assume it is (since the point being made does not hinge on the content of the post). The post has quoted text and links to reference material; it could contain an image; it is written in Gruber’s Markdown formatting which I might wish to process through a preferred interpreter. To carry out these activities, the user needs to quickly move between apps and requires the apps to interact easily with each other. And that is a cumbersome affair on the iPad, requiring all sorts of app switching, but a trivial one on OS X (needing no more than copy/paste or drag/drop). The ability to swipe between apps is a poor substitute for the richness of a multi-window environment, and that is but scratching the surface of the differences.

There is also reason to agree with Bilton’s suggestion that Apple does not see an iOS device used for creating things.Until recently, Apple’s own iOS apps were crippled in functionality and many continue to be so. Apple has shown a possible change of heart, even introducing new features first on iOS (such as photo journals in iPhoto for iOS), but only time will tell whether this signals an embrace of iOS as a full use platform or whether this development is merely driven by the fact that iOS apps are more profitable than OS X ones.

Defenders of iOS should consider the advantages and limitations of the iOS platform and derive their arguments from these, rather than point to singular feats as counterfactuals. That would make this long-running discussion more appealing.

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