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The promise of the iPad

That the iPad arrives on the Christian calendar’s Easter weekend has got to be more than a coincidence — after all, its progenitor was called the Jesus phone.

Throughout the media industry, designers have been slaving away at prototype applications designed to serve their content in new ways in hopes of uncovering riches. Many of the prototypes (including a few concepts produced where I work) showcase innovative ways to interact with a touch-based computer the size of a magazine. It’s also spurred many Web developers to dive into HTML 5, thanks largely to the iPad’s lack of support for Flash-based video.

But for me, despite the foreboding excitement found in discovering the first new UI metaphors since the decades old WIMP paradigm, the iPad offers the promise of design worth appreciating.

For nearly a decade-and-a-half, designers have struggled to mesh centuries of design practices into a medium, that, by its very nature rejected them. On the Web, there’s no such thing as a predictable colour palette. Typesetters practicing 300 years ago often had more control over more typefaces than today’s Web designers do. In fact, the idea of a fixed page size became so unrealistic, those who tried to enforce it on the Web were openly mocked.

With the iPad, however, comes the promise of a fixed canvas, with finer typography controls, and ability to play with a brilliant range of colours. Those features, especially the fixed page, immediately return me to my days in the magazine industry, where I first learned to appreciate the potential offered by design restrictions.

So it’s no surprise that many of the anticipated new apps will come from the world of print media (Niemen Journalism Lab reviews a pre-release sampling), with magazines leading the way. The iPad is seen to not only offer the best promise for those publications to recoup operating expenses, but they also allow print designers to experiment in ways they’ve been unable to for nearly 20 years.

With all this promise, there is one thought that gnaws at me: Apple is offering designers a devil’s deal. We can work within this beautiful sandbox and produce castles that touch the sky, but those on the perimeter will never be able to see the scaffolding holding it all up. By agreeing to a closed system, we prevent the next generation from copying our work. View source will be dead, and with it innovation will soon slow into a comfortable status quo.

For all the chaos and frustration of a multi-browser Web, the ability to learn and build upon each other’s work has created an entire industry, and shaped the views of multiple generations.

As great as the iPad may be, it can never accomplish that.