is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
I’m bullish on the iPad. Some people have assumed the opposite, based in part on my frequent criticism of the way publishers have risen to the challenges and opportunities that it presents.
But I really do believe that the iPad is a truly transformative device, an innovation that’s going to re-make the way we work with and play with technology. Looking back at its introduction in January of last year, it’s fitting that it debuted at the start of what I believe we’ll look back on as ‘the tablet decade’ — if we don’t end up thinking of it as just ‘the iPad decade.’
On the other hand, I think it’s still too early to know exactly how these devices are going to shape the next ten years. We’re all still discovering and exploring how different a multitouch tablet is from laptops and desktops. As that collective understanding progresses, we’re sure to see some unexpected if not startling new uses for them. There’s one safe likelihood though, and that is that the things that are attracting so much attention on the iPad today will probably become less exciting to us tomorrow.
Reading Is Fundamental, But It Ain᾿t Everything
If you judged the iPad purely by what most journalists write about it, you’d think that its most interesting characteristic is its potential as a new delivery channel for electronic books, magazines and newspapers. Of course it’s true that the iPad is terrific in this regard. It’s my feeling though that the race to capitalize on this one opportunity — creating a great tablet reading experience — is oversubscribed. There’s a lot more that the iPad can do, and we’re only just starting to uncover these other strengths.
Traditional publishers are pouring millions into establishing a beachhead on tablets and e-readers, perhaps with good reason. But the intense competition and experimentation (much of it misguided) is almost assuredly unsustainable; almost all of the content apps that we see today will be gone within a few years, I predict, or they will be supplanted by browser-driven editions as their native iOS or Android apps prove too expensive and impractical to maintain.
What’s more, all of these efforts conform to a familiar pattern: at the start of nearly every technological shift, legacy brands manage to command a disproportionate amount of attention as they attempt to stake their holds in the new space, but almost always find themselves unable to sustain that attention through genuine innovation. Ultimately, it’s the pure play companies that realize the medium’s true potential.
And even among the pure play companies, there’s no shortage of competition to create novel ways of consuming written content. We have Flipboard, Pulse, Zite and at least a few others, all trying interesting things. But every few weeks seems to bring yet more similar contenders, like Editions by AOL, which offer some slight variant on combining traditional content, social aggregation and print-like presentations. I would say we have about as many as we really need already.
Content vs. Consumption
I have nothing against these products, except that by inadvertently furthering the belief that the iPad is mostly just good for reading, they distract from the device’s many other unique qualities. For example, we’re just beginning to understand how, in unexpected ways, the iPad is stoking a transformation of the living room experience — you could argue that it is the promise of interactive TV fulfilled. We’re also just starting to see how the iPad is going to turn gaming inside out, not just with its multitouch interface but also in the way its App Store economy is rewriting our expectations for virtual entertainment.
The area that’s most interesting to me is how the iPad has seemed to force a distinction between consumption and creation. It’s true that it’s very difficult to be productive on the iPad in the same way that it’s possible to be productive on a desktop or a laptop, but I also think most people have misunderstood this to mean that creation is impossible on this platform. I don’t believe that’s true.
In actuality, the iPad upends our understanding of productivity. It’ll probably always be easier to do ‘professional’ work on a laptop, but professional work is not the only kind of creation that’s possible. You can be highly productive on the iPad if you’re creating something different from spreadsheets and slide decks — the problem is, that something hasn’t been invented yet.
An App for the Creator Economy
Or, at the very least, this new something hasn’t been clearly defined yet. My belief is that this new kind of productivity is going to map closely to the ideas that futurist Paul Saffo describes when he talks about “The Creator Economy”:
“Now we are entering a third age in which the central economic actor is someone who both produces and consumes in the same act. I like the term ‘creator,’ as this new kind of actor is doing something more fundamental than the mere sum of their simultaneous production and consumption. Creators are ordinary people whose everyday actions create value.”
This is a broad concept, and in his writing on this subject, Saffo classifies many different kinds of activity — from creating and posting YouTube videos to the simple act of searching — as falling under this rubric.
When it comes to the iPad, though, I have a pretty specific idea of what at least one expression of simultaneously creating and consuming will look like. It’s something pretty novel but at the same time very familiar, and it has the potential to unlock creativity across a wide swath of the population. It also takes advantage of some of the heretofore under-appreciated aspects of the iPad — it’s not a reader app, to say the least.
I’m being vague about the specfics because this is the idea at the heart of the venture I started working on when I left The New York Times in July of last year. As I kept plugging away at it and effectively rearranged my career around it, I only came to believe in it more and more strongly. So earlier this year, I partnered with a co-founder to make it happen. We formed a company, took some office space, raised some capital — and now we’re looking to hire a team to help us turn it into reality.
All of which is to say that, like a lot of companies, we’re looking to hire some fantastic iOS talent. We have a terrific, overlooked opportunity here to do something new and something that no one else is really doing right now. We have a working beta that shows a real product in action, and what we’re looking for is someone fun and ambitious to help us realize its full vision. If you feel the way that I do, that the iPad is more than just a reading device and that it holds tons of untapped potential, then send me an email.+