BUSINESS CLASS: Should we believe the iHype?

Our travels this week take us to the fabulous world of Apple, where Steve Jobs' iPad is set to change the face of computing, networking, publishing and life as we know it.

What can you say about the hype surrounding last weekend's US launch of the Apple iPad that doesn't amount to a massive understatement?

"Seriously," says Monday Note's Jean-Louis Gasse, "I’ve never seen such excitement since I’ve been in the high-tech business (42 years). Not the Macintosh intro and its justifiably historic '1984' commercial, not the iPhone launch in January 2007.

Apple, says Gasse, "and I actually mean Steve Jobs, have been able to engineer launches as well as (sourpusses will say better than) its products." And the iPad launch "makes Red Army precision marching drills look like a drunken Spring Break outing."

And then there's the post-launch hype about the "game-changing" genius of the product which, says Wired's Steven Levy, "has moved past Hula Hoop and Lady Gaga levels, and is approaching zones previously occupied only by the Beatles and the birth-control pill."

If you believe what's being said and written out there at the moment, the iPad is going to completely reinvent the PC, change how we see the world, change how we behave in the world, reinvigorate journalism and save various publishing industries.

And if that's not enough for you, here's Megan McArdle from The Atlantic with yet another angle: "In some ways, this transformation is as big for the technology industry as it is for publishing. The iPad and the Kindle, like the iPod before them, represent something slightly remarkable: the return of the machine as market-maker. Amazon, one of the rare 'New Economy' firms to survive the dot-com bust, is now trying to turn itself into an old-school hardware manufacturer. Even more remarkably, it may succeed."

But can "a one-and-a-half-pound slab possibly live up to this?" asks Levy. Not likely. "As the French like to say," says Gasse, "the higher the monkey climbs the more we see his derrire."

One week on, it seems the post-iPad world is largely conforming to the assessment of New York Times' personal tech guru David Pogue, in that it can be roughly divided into two groups – the lovers and the haters. "The haters," he says, "tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people."

Writing on Gizmodo, BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow is one of the haters, and expands on Pogue's theory that, with the iPad, Jobs has aimed low. "It seems like Apple's model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother ... (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn't too complicated for their poor old mothers).

"The model of interaction with the iPad," he continues, "is to be a 'consumer,' what William Gibson memorably described as 'something the size of a baby hippo, the colour of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.'"

But one of the biggest forces driving the hype behind the iPad has come from the newspaper publishing industry – okay, well, mainly Rupert Murdoch. "It may well be the saving of the newspaper industry," the ever-optimistic Murdoch told the National Press Club in Washington this week. "There's going to be tens of millions of these things sold all over the world." (He's right about that part, at least.)

Not surprisingly, not everyone is buying this line. "The press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who'll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff," says Doctorow. "Rupert Murdoch can rattle his sabre all he likes about taking his content out of Google, but I say do it, Rupert. We'll miss your fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a per cent of the web so little that we'll hardly notice it, and we'll have no trouble finding material to fill the void."

But even if the iPad does turn out to be for journalism what the iPod was for the music industry, not everyone in media-land will successfully catch the wave. Already, various old-school print publications are being boxed around the ears for their lazy, backwards-looking approach to the new medium.

"The WSJ has tried to apply print concepts into a touch platform, using the wrong formats and adding no advantages," says Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz in one of the calmer moments of his Murdoch-iPad rant. "But don’t worry," he continues: "The New York Times and most publications out there are really bad too. Not as bad, but really bad."

Frdric Filloux at the Monday Note has a similar point of view, but puts it a little more eloquently. "The app market is likely to split into two different paths. 'Generation 1' iPad applications will be a direct translation of the print reading experience, slightly improved using the finger-as-a-pointing-device feature for browsing and zooming. That’s the Wall Street Journal way. No point in blaming their designers; like everybody else, they had to crash-code their apps...

"'Generation 2' apps will have to reinvent navigation, the invitation and handling of user input, the integration of videos or animated graphics, a key challenge.

Publishers will be well advised to stimulate out-of-the box thinking by drilling into new pools of designers, through public, crowd-sourced contests. Inevitably, great stuff will emerge; it will not be applicable before a year or two, but this innovative/disruptive stimulus approach is essential (not only for media, but also for books).

Ultimately, says Filloux, "To provide oxygen for the paid-for app system, publishers will inevitably have to off-load content and features from their free web – a lot of them."

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