Essays on Technology and Culture

Doom, Gloom, and iPad Sales

Did you hear? iPad sales have dropped again. Clearly this means that the iPad—if not the entire tablet industry as a whole—is doomed. As Jason Snell, an iPad fan, put it, “[P]erhaps I’m kidding myself, and in the end the iPad will be small niche product, an outsized iPhone accessory.” Sure, Apple’s probably not going to sunset the darn thing, but five years in, and clearly the iPad style tablet is not the future.

Or, you know, maybe the doomsayers are overreacting. Here’s an interesting measure. In 2014, the iPad accounted for 70% of all tablet web traffic, at least in North America. I can’t find statistics for 2015, but I see no reason to assume that number has changed much. People have iPads, and they use their iPads. It might not translate to upgrade sales, at least not yet, but any product with that much of a share in its market can’t be a complete failure, let alone doomed.

Back in November, I suggest that the iPad of 2015 was the Mac of 1990. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but let me expand on it a bit. The original Macintosh was a brand new idea of what a computer could be [1], and formed the foundation of modern computing. It was revolutionary, it had passionate users who stuck with the platform during Apple’s mid–90s doldrums, but PC users until the mid–2000s considered it a toy that couldn’t be used for real work. (I should know. I was one of ’em.)

In the same way, the iPad is a brand new idea of what a computer could be. It has its passionate users who are sticking with the platform during the sales doldrums, but hardcore traditional computers users often think of it as a toy for writing iPad reviews. Episode 154 of the Accidental Tech Podcast lays out the counter case against the iPad as a device for real work. Sure, people like Marco, Casey, and John can’t do their programming jobs on an iPad. That doesn’t mean you never will be able to. I’m certain in the next couple years, we’ll see some sort of iOS development environment on iOS, if only because I suspect Apple’s on iOS app developers would love to write iOS apps on iOS.

But as long as Apple continues to develop it, the iPad should become a powerful enough computing platform to replace the Mac for most people.

Ask yourself if you can do all your work on a Macintosh II, or even a Mac 512k. The answer is probably going to be no, but that’s fine—they don’t make those anymore. Now ask yourself if you think you’ll be able to do all your work on the iPad of 2025. The answer to that is almost certainly yes. We just have to wait until then.

To go back to the Mac for some historical parallels—Apple sold the Apple II along the Macintosh for almost a decade. It took until the early 1990s for Macintoshes to outsell Apple IIs, and the product line was finally discontinued in 1993. I don’t think we can expect to see the Mac discontinued that soon, but history does serve as a guide here.

I’d love to have some Macintosh sales numbers to use for illustrative purposes here, but I can’t find them. Either way, maybe we should look past the numbers for now. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to just ask people for a little patience as the iPad develops into a fuller-featured platform. And when it does, maybe the sales will finally start going up again. Was there this much doom and gloom about the Macintosh in the late 80s?

  1. Okay, not new. The idea goes back to The Mother of All Demos, and the MacOS was based off of research from XEROX Parc. Either way, the Mac was the first real computer like this to make it to market.  ↩

In Defense of Physical Media

Right now, nobody seems to remember any of those upshots. In fact, people don’t seem to be just tired of the CD; it feels as if they’re actively calling for its demise. When vinyl began dying off in the early Nineties, many people, me included, mourned its passing on many levels. But we didn’t dance in the streets that it was in its death throes, the way so many seem to be doing these days with the CD. A friend recently called to ask what he should do with his shelves of discs, since many of his friends were strongly urging him to chuck them. That’s right: People were actually saying he should throw his CDs in the garbage. (You can recycle them, you know.)

David Browne – “In Defense of the CD”

The CD itself is a pretty crappy format—“Perfect Sound Forever” my foot. A worn out vinyl record still sounds like music. A scratched up CD sounds like glitchy noise, which might be good if you’re into that sort of thing. I still buy CDs, though, along with vinyl, and the rare cassette tape. Vinyl can often be dear, and the penchant of vinyl producers to go with fancy colored vinyl and other various gee-gaws doesn’t help.

There’s value in a physical format for media, even if the CDs I buy often just end up collecting dust on a shelf next to my desk while I listen to the MP3 rips. The practical advantage of this, however, is that I never have to want for getting my music to play. A poor Internet connection will never keep a local MP3 file from playing back perfectly. You can’t stream music on the subway.

What They Did, Not Who They Are

I don’t want a mealy-mouthed, fangless discourse where nothing worth critiquing – person or otherwise – can be discussed without fear of the chilling effect of “offense.” Rather, what I want is for people to take into account the messiness of real life. I want people to have what Jay Smooth called the “what they did” conversation rather than the “what they are” conversation.

Instead of hearing about how someone who has misstepped can now be sorted into This Box or That Label, I want to know what they did that was a problem. I want to be given a chance to draw my own conclusions and – the most vital part – I want to feel like I can come to a different conclusion than the consensus without being instantly shifted into the same box merely for not agreeing on what belongs in the box in the first place.

Please Stop

This is an important essay about the way we interact on social media. I need to take some of these lessons to heart.

Against The Algorithm And The Feed

Using Little Voices has given me something to think about, when it comes to social media. When we use Twitter and Facebook we are at the mercy of two different impositions. For Twitter, the imposition is the feed—the mostly chronological stream of content that we are fed by the service. On Facebook the stream is replaced by the imposition of the algorithm, which determines what you are supposed to see.

Tools like Little Voices, Nuzzel, and Social Fixer stand against these impositions. To varying degrees, they allow us to take control of our social feeds and bend them to show us what we want to see. Algorithms on social media in particular are not designed with the end user in mind. They are designed to optimize metrics that benefit the company and their advertisers. The more we post, like, favorite, retweet, and interact with the platform, the more data they get to use for monetization.

It’s why Twitter had to fracture their relationship with third-party developers. It’s why Facebook makes it harder and harder to access their chronological feed. Anything that goes against the feed and against the algorithm is dangerous to the bottom line. As long as we have control over our browsers and devices, in some form, we have the ability to interfere with these impositions.

In fact, it’s our duty as Internet citizens to use them and bend these services to our will. Communication technology is most valuable for its ability to build and strengthen social ties. It’s the exploitation of those ties that irks me. It doesn’t matter whether that exploitation comes at the hands of advertisers or harassers. By asserting control over our feeds that we maintain our identities online.

Living with Little Voices

It’s no surprise that people are overwhelmed by social media. Even a well-curated social stream can be a mass of noise with precious little signal. We lose track of the “social” part, and it just becomes a stream of media from our ostensible friends, indistinguishable from leaving the TV on in the background.

Recently, I heard about a Twitter app for iPhone called Little Voices, and decided to give it a try. Little Voices is notable for what it doesn’t do, unlike the stock Twitter app, or my preferred power user alternative, Tweetbot. Little Voices hides pictures, video, links, retweets, and @-replies from people you don’t follow. Instead, as the creators say, “[y]ou’ll only be able to read the funny, silly, educational and foolish comments they make.”

One thing I’ve notices after using Little Voices for a few days along with Tweetbot on my Mac is that the majority of my Twitter stream often is media, retweets, and links. That’s not a bad thing, but it makes me think of just how much Twitter has changed over the time I’ve been using it. Little Voices feels a bit like the Twitter of yore—before @-replies, before embedded media, and before a lot of what made Twitter so useful and so noisy all at once.

I’m planning to pair Little Voices up with Nuzzle so I can tap into the links and media, and keep the social aspects to its own space. By splitting the Twitter experience up a bit, I should be able to avoid the great overwhelming that can sometimes happen even with a power-user app like Tweetbot. Personally, I’d like to see a similar set of tools for Facebook. Social Fixer helps, but it doesn’t have the same filtering capabilities.