After having used an iPad shortly since its release I can safely say that the device — or another one like it — deserves to become an important part of the academic’s arsenal of gadgets. [snip]
At base the iPad is an anything box that replaces a seemingly endless plethora of other things you already own: It's a TV, a radio, an MP3 player, a compass, a flashlight, a level, a deck of cards, a calculator, a photo album, an alarm clock, a Bible, the Talmud (yes, the Talmud has been ported to the iPad)... the list goes on and on.
The crucial question for academics is: What in our current arsenal will the iPad replace? After using the device, the answer surprised me: the iPad makes a lousy computer replacement, but it does a great job of replacing paper.
Apple deserves credit for making the thing as usable as it is, but it is still not quite there. You can browse on it, but you can’t quickly and effectively search databases. You can read e-mail messages, but it takes a tad too long to write them. The screen is much more generously sized than a cell phone… but such a comparison simply damns the iPad with faint praise. Over time the iPad may get more usable as the software improves, but its size will not. And so until the human visual field shrinks and our fingers no longer require tactile feedback, we academics will be sticking to our keyboards and screens.
Where the iPad does shine is as a paper replacement. The iPad is the long, long awaited portable PDF reader that we have hoped for. Finally, we have a device that preserves formatting and displays images, charts, and diagrams. After decades of squinting at minuscule columns of photocopied type we can now zoom in on the articles we are reading and perfectly adjust the text to the width of the screen. You can even highlight and annotate documents and then send the annotations back as notes to your computer.
True, some people do not prefer a backlit screen, but it’s great for reading at night, and despite some early evidence to the contrary, LED screens don’t cause eyestrain any more than eInk. The device is slightly heavier than the Kindle and Nook, but it is still ultra, ultra portable and ultra usable. It makes you read more and saves paper — which is clearly a good thing. [snip]
The reason the iPad is such a great paper replacement is Apple’s app store. Devices like the Kindle sell you content from a single source and allow you to read it in a single way. The iPad, on the other hand, allows third-party developers to create (and sell) different "apps," or programs, that live on your iPad. [snip]
Now, it is currently early days for the iPad and the software is still developing: I have to get my PDFs onto my iPad with one program, and open and read them with another. But clearly things will improve. The makers of the überbibliography program Sente are already working on an iPad app, and soon they and others will make the device even more useful. [snip]
That said, the revolutionary thing about the iPad is not software for reading content, but for finding (and buying) it. The iPad represents the genuine retailization of academic content. Let me explain:
Currently folks like Elsevier act as content wholesalers, selling greats bucketfuls of the stuff to libraries, who then make it available to students and professors. [snip]. Individual articles are prohibitively expensive, and academics must fight through a tangled, messy mass of proxy sign-ins and authentication web pages while their IT guys make embarrassing, eye-averting administrative decisions to not think too much about the copyright of what is being posted on class Web sites.
[snip] ...What would happen if journals went straight to consumers and sold articles like they were mp3s? What if you could log on to your ScienceDirect or JSTOR app and get a complete browsable list of your favorite journal articles, available for purchase for, say, 25 cents each?
Academics are ready for this development. We’ve spent years suffering from Amazon’s fiendish "get drunk and use our one-click purchase feature" to buy books online, and we often download tons of PDFs to make us feel productive. Apps with alerting and micropayment systems could provide for massive distribution that would push new issues of journal to your digital reading device. As such they offer a world where everyone can read exactly the articles they want. Individuals, not institutions, could purchase content — exactly the content they’re like, regardless of whether their library subscribes to it or not. [snip]
There are plenty of outlandish scenarios to imagine: professors who create specialized current content lists or anthologies of classic or cutting-edge articles, essentially filtering wholesale content and retailing it to increase their academic prestige [snip]. Classrooms where student readers are easy to assemble and cheap — something textbook companies have tried unsuccessfully to do for some time. [snip]
A key feature of the retailization of scholarly content is that it be reasonably free of digital rights management -- and here academic publishing should learn from the music industry’s failed attempts to sell copy-protected music. [snip]
As an anything box, the iPad has the potential to replace a whole variety of devices that we use in our research, from voice recorders to GPS units to tuning forks. [snip]
I'm sure there are certain cases where an iPad might make a great mobile device: photographers who want to view, edit, and upload their photos on the fly, for instance. Overall, however, by splitting the difference between dedicated devices and genuine computers, the iPad doesn’t show a lot of promise as a mobile platform for research and teaching. [snip]
Finally, I’ve been talking about how the iPad helps academics do academe better — but does it offer the ability to do academics differently? Is this device truly "magical" in a way that will radically innovate academe?
While I can imagine some innovative pedagogic uses of the device, what academics do is still narrowly defined — and tied to institutional, political, and economic imperatives. Some imagined the Internet would cause us to rethink what it meant for a text to be coherent — and it has, to a certain extent.[snip]
At heart, an anything box like the iPad might not be such a dramatic agent for change anyway. The iPad is a chameleon, able to assume the form of other things but lacking (so far) its own unique identity. You can introduce Twitter into the classroom, but Twitter is the innovative factor here, not the iPad. It may be that someone will write the killer app for the iPad that will mutate our activities in unimaginable ways. But for now those ways remain…. unimaginable.
Indeed, it may be that the iPad is just the harbinger of some future tablet device that is yet to come. That future device might not be from Apple, but it will owe a lot to the iPad. Ultimately, academics need a world full of devices they can pour information in and out of. The more open and interoperable our new ecology of applications, devices, and content providers are, the more our learning will enrich human life — [snip].
Alex Golub is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.