Books: Too Sexy for Words

I love physical books. I also love my Kindle Paperwhite and I also love my iPad. All of them are wonderful objects, and oh yes, they allow me to read. The reading, you see, is the important part.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from the testimonials of some who dismiss ebooks and swear only by physical codices. In her essay in The Guardian, Paula Cocozza gives a slight nod to the pleasures of reading on paper versus screens, which I do not disagree with, but much of the column is a celebration of the physical book, not for its contents, but for its physical properties and how they can be creatively embellished upon:

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art … Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.

Do they? And if they do, well, so what? People want sexy-looking everything!

This obviously doesn’t speak to the superiority of books over ebooks as means to reading. It’s a display of fetishism for a product, the reduction of the book from medium to fashion item. If overly expensive smartphones are gaudy status symbols, then what do you call artsy displays of shelved volumes that are never actually opened?

I’ve actually come to appreciate physical books more than ever lately as I have tried very hard to steer my attention away from the constant stress and panic of social media. Kindles are actually great for that all on their own, since they can’t do much of anything other than display, notate, research, or purchase book content. (Oh, and they’re self-illuminating, which is a huge leg up on mere paper.) But there is that one additional step of removal from the online swarm that one can achieve with a physical book that is often deeply refreshing, and I am finding at times necessary. I am re-learning to treasure that.

And as much as I do appreciate a book’s physical properties (yes I am one of those “I love the smell of old books” weirdos), I don’t concern myself with books as art objects or accessories. My positive associations with books as objects, the reason I like the smell of paper, dust, and glue, has almost entirely to do with what’s inside them, how the words affect me, and how the experience of reading saves me from the world.

It’s fine to argue that physical books are better than ebooks. But if all you’re talking about is which makes for a better subject for photographic projects, you’re missing the whole point.

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Leaving the Day Behind (Tablets Re-Reconsidered)

I have been on a kind of device-consolidation kick for a couple of years now, shedding gadgets that I feel overlap in their use-cases a bit too much to justify keeping around. Last year, I wrote about how the tablet was being made redundant by the big-screen phone and the super-light laptop, and, becoming a phablet convert myself, I sold my beloved iPad, and my Kindle to boot. My creativity/productivity stuff was covered by the laptop, and the reading/kicking-back stuff was covered by the phone. What did I need a middle device for?

What I’m coming to realize, or at least be reminded of, is that there is a lot to the psychological baggage of a device (and really, all objects). I work all damn day on my laptop, and it is particularly tweaked and arranged and fussed over to serve that purpose. It is an optimized and remarkably powerful tool for getting my job done. But when it comes time to pursue some kind of creative endeavor or hobby, or just relax and browse, all the distractions and stresses of work carry over. It’s like trying to read a rich novel in the middle of a noisy office. That stuff stays in my head.

The phone is a little different in that it’s the device I use all damn day for, well, almost everything. It’s always at my side or in my hand, getting used. (I do adore it.) Achieving a switching of gears becomes difficult, because that object you wish to lean back and read something on is also the same object that you were just doing texts, emails, calendar checks, and (of you’re me) Angry Birds 2 on. The tactile sensation as well as the visual data of the display size make it harder for me to get away from all of that.

So I can see, once again, why it’s nice to have a middle device that can take on the lean-back tasks and for shits-and-giggles activities that the laptop and phone can also do just fine. It’s about leaving the other stuff behind intentionally.

Photo by me.

I was spurred to think more about this thanks to this piece at Medium by Tiago Forte (hell of a name) about the benefits of read-it-later services. He points out that other apps and services can serve the same functions as Instapaper and Pocket, but they bring with them their own baggage:

A common response when I recommend people adopt yet another category of apps is “Why don’t I just use Evernote?” Or whatever app they’re using for general reference or task management. Evernote even makes a Chrome extension called Clearly for reading online content and Web Clipper for saving it.

It is a question of focus. Why don’t you use your task manager to keep track of content (i.e. “Read this article”)? Because the last thing you want to see when you cuddle up with your hot cocoa for some light reading is the hundreds of tasks you’re not doing.

On a laptop, and on your phone as well, all your tasks are literally a click or tap away. Indeed, they may be blinking at you without input needed. And both of these devices invite you to act on those distractions. That’s what’s so great about them: they allow you to do so much. Sometimes you don’t want to do “so much,” though. You want to do very little.

That’s good territory for tablets and e-readers to cover, I think. I don’t know that it’s territory that’s worth, say, top-of-the-line-iPad money to cover, but something more affordable? More modest? Yeah, I can see that. Now. Again.

“Apple Released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung Phone.”

Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Foter / CC BY
Summing up the latest Apple event in which a slew of new products were introduced, including a giant-ass iPad, a better Apple TV (low bar), and new iPhones–6 with some odd gimmicks in them. The Verge’s Nilay Patel said on Periscope (and I’m paraphrasing), “Today, Apple released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung phone.”

And yeah, they kinda did. I think that’s fine, though, I’m not one of those folks who think Apple or any other company has to be 100% original with every product they produce. I’m glad they rip each other off and learn from each other’s good ideas. It makes all the products, in the aggregate, better.

That said, Patel’s joke was funny because it was largely true. The iPad Pro is Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface, which, despite some genuine confusion of what it was for, now seems to be a well regarded device for folks in particular fields and with particular needs. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of them with college students who get a lot out of the tablet-PC combo as well as the stylus.) I’m glad they copied the Surface! Since the Surface was introduced, I hoped Apple would make something like it, and they finally have. I’m glad they took the stylus as an input device very seriously. Is any of this any good? Who knows.

I do know one thing: It’s way too goddamned expensive for me. Baseline $800 without the stylus or keyboard cover, which kick you over $1000. Nope. I’m sure that’s very worthwhile to a great many people, but not me. Halve that, and I’d consider it.

(Kyle Wagner at The Concourse writes of the tablet-PC combo: “I have no idea why you’d try to marry the two, outside of blithe cowing to other people’s dumbass ideas. It is profoundly dumb. They will sell 500 million of these.”)

The Apple TV looks nice. And it does a lot of things other folks already do, but probably very well. That’s about it.

And then the phones, the iPhones 6S and 6S Plus. The big changes here are “3D Touch” and “Live Photos.” Until I use one of these devices myself it’s impossible to know just how useful or interesting either of these new features is, but I’m a tad skeptical. 3D Touch, where additional information can be gleaned about something on screen by pressing harder on it. I’m less interested in the hardware aspect of this, where the device knows how hard you’re pressing, and more interested in the UI side, where the user can now “peek” underneath things, or get quick access to actions or items without opening a full app. That could be pretty cool if done well. Will it be? I thought Apple had answered my prayers when they added third-party keyboards to iOS, but they turned out to mostly do it poorly, so who can say.

Live Photos strikes me as the Samsung-y move here, a kind of Harry Potter move where a photo also gets a bit of video recorded around it. It’s cute, no doubt, and will probably yield a few cool items, especially with kids. But Google, of course, auto-animates a series of photos into GIFs, which is similar in idea but very different in the actual output. And other Android manufacturers have had the photo-as-short-video feature before and no one really cared, including me.

(I’ll have more to say about the ups and downs of Samsung’s approach to iteration in another post.)

So it’s not a reason to buy a phone. Neither is the 3D Touch for that matter. But Apple will expect you to, and chances are, “you” (meaning the general smartphone consumer) will.

So, yes, Apple is (finally?) doing some of the things its competitors have done, and it pretended not to be interested in (like the stylus). That’s good, and they’ll likely do it very well, it’s all in the execution for them, as Josh Topolsky wrote at The New Yorker (I know, I was surprised to see him there, too):

That’s part of the reason why Apple’s “me-toos” end up feeling like “me-firsts.” In the age of digital, execution is staggeringly important, and there isn’t a single company in existence that can pull off polish and simplicity like Apple. While other companies struggle just to get all of their devices and services talking to one another, Tim Cook and friends are worrying over the details that actually make consumers pay attention. The products don’t just work the way they should; they feel the way they should. Reducing friction, even a single click, can change the way a user perceives an entire product.

Yes, but! I’m not so sure Apple is all-in on “execution” like it used to be. If it were, Apple Music wouldn’t be driving people nuts, iTunes wouldn’t be a software shitshow, and the new generations of iPhones wouldn’t start at 16GB. That’s right, those “Live Photos” you’re taking, those iTunes movies you’re downloading, and that 4K video you’re shooting will have more or less no room on that expensive new device. Matthew Yglesias gets why this is a huge mistake, because it sacrifices the quality of experience for short-term monetary gain, which it doesn’t even need:

Killing the 16GB phone and replacing it with a 32GB model at the low end would obtain things money can’t buy — satisfied customers, positive press coverage, goodwill, a reputation for true commitment to excellence, and a demonstrated focus on the long term. A company in Apple’s enviable position ought to be pushing the envelop forward on what’s considered an acceptable baseline for outfitting a modern digital device, not squeezing extra pennies out of customers for no real reason.

The fact that this is still around shows a degree of cynicism and greed that should worry the Apple faithful. As more of a Reformed Apple-ist, I can appreciate and wonder at how well they’ve executed on so many things. But I can also take a step back and ask if they really sweat the details like they say they do. Not giving customers a sufficiently capable device is a big detail to miss.

Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.

Just Let People Use Their Damn Gadgets

Here’s Federico Veticci on iPads as cameras:

And yes, I think I’d look silly shooting photos with an iPad in public. But, to put it bluntly, whatever. At the end of the day, any device that facilitates memories is a welcome addition to our computing lives.

I’d always been put off by the hostility from tech elites about people taking pictures with their iPads’ and tablets’ cameras. (Excepting of course at events like concerts where they rudely obstruct others’ views.) People own tablets, they want to take pictures, and they take a picture with the tablet they have on them. So what? The civil peace is not being disturbed, social order is not being upended. It’s just a big, flat camera. Get over it. And good on Viticci, who is perhaps the iPaddiest person alive, for having a little humanity about it.

It’s the same kind of tech snobbery that provokes a huff of moral indignation about people shooting video with their phones in a portrait (up-and-down) orientation. What neanderthals! What boors! How dare they pollute the Internet with their vertically-oriented pseudo-cinema! Forcing us to look at all that wasted black space on either side of the footage of their toddler dancing to “Gangnam Style” in their diaper! Built in to Android’s stock camera app is now an animated prompt to strongly suggest a user change to landscape should they be about to record video in portrait. No doubt put there some by Google engineers who feel grossly offended by the practice, harming their delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

It reminds me a little bit of the way so many in the tech sphere thought that using a large phone or phablet looked ridiculous, particularly when up against someone’s face being used as a telephone (and note how, as with the tablets-as-cameras, it’s more about how it “looks silly” than anything substantive or practical). Of course, now Apple’s released a phone much bigger than those early “big phones,” so now it’s okay. It’s what people wanted all along, it turns out, of course.

I don’t know. Just let people use their gadgets the way they want to. If they want to use big tablets as cameras, or hold giant phones to their ears, or if they really want physical BlackBerry style keyboards, you know, just let them be. No one shooting portrait-oriented video is going to come and take your $500 messenger bag or your AeroPress. You’ll be fine.

My Deep, Insightful, and Entirely Novel Think-Piece on Living One Day without a Mobile Device

It fucking sucks! I hate it! It’s total bullshit! Who are you people??? What is going on??? Oh my GOD I just hate EVERYTHING.
I sold my iPad, and now I’m waiting a day for a return and exchange on a phone to go through. Thus, no mobile device. Ugh! Why would anyone voluntarily do this?

Gah!!!

Comics on Tablets: A High Bar Easily Cleared (Addendum to “The Tablet Reconsidered”)

20150104_125122_HDRIt occurred to me that after my 3400-word opus on how the tablet is being squeezed out of its reason-for-being by big phones and sleeker laptops, that I owed it to myself and my tens of readers to give a serious look at one use-case for large tablets that I suspect no other device can match, and one that Steve Jobs never mentioned when he first introduced the iPad: comic books and graphic novels.
The Google Play Store was having a sale on some interesting titles, and keeping in mind that I know next to nothing about comics and I’m fairly intimidated to dip in, I rounded a few titles up (including a collection of the new Ms. Marvel, which looks pretty cool). But what I began reading last night on my iPad Air, just before bed, was Watchmen. I’ve read a little more today, too, and also took a little spin around a couple of titles on my beloved LG G3, which has a 5.5-inch screen.

There’s no two ways around it. Reading comics and graphic novels on the iPad Air is fantastic. I can only imagine what a revelatory boon it must be to comics enthusiasts to have an iPad, plus services like Marvel Unlimited. The art, the story, and the bird’s-eye view of an entire page’s layout come through beautifully on that big, colorful screen. If you’re a comics fan, you really must own a large-ish, high-resolution tablet of some sort.

IMG_0012It looks like comics are doable on a phablet. If the resolution is high enough (and on the LG G3 it’s crazy-high), even zoomed all the way out, most text is still legible, but you really do need to zoom in on individual panels to get the full effect. That’s a busy, fiddly process, and not as much of a “lean-back” experience as one would want comic reading to be. You have to repeatedly poke at the screen on each page.

So there’s a big justification for tablet existence. If you dig comics, there’s no other way to go. It’s not enough to keep an entire mass market product category afloat, but it’s a reason for someone like me, who’s interested in getting into comics, to keep it around.