The Apple iPad and Slate PCs, Promise and Peril as Content Production Machines

I have waited for a true tablet-sized PC for a long time. I have dreamed of having a way to easily operate a computer without a mouse and be able to seamlessly write without a keyboard. Perhaps this is rooted in my trouble learning to type in the seventh grade, or it could be from the images of handheld computing devices that litter science fiction stories and film.

I was reading on Liliputing today about Lenovo’s resistance to cutting the keyboard from their ThinkPad tablet PCs. The post’s author, Brad, wrote:

Sure, cutting the keyboard would let you make thinner and lighter devices that can be used with stylus input and/or on-screen keyboards. But ThinkPads are productivity machines first and foremost, whereas tablets like the upcoming iPad are designed for consuming media rather than creating it. [read the whole post here]

He’s absolutely right about the current importance of media consumption on the iPad. It’s something that I’ve given some thought to, particularly because of the limitations of the iPad in terms of ease of writing and the lack of a built-in camera. The lines of access, the ways in which we can get our ideas and work with them within the digital space of the computer are squeezed, not shut, but pushing the limits of anti-ergonomic torture. However, I don’t think that it should be this way.

I disagree with Brad’s idea that slate PCs are all about consumption. We are just beginning what I hope to be the emergence of cheap, lightweight, portable keyboard-less computing, but even in its infancy, we should (and I’m sure many of us will do so) push the limits of this new technology. We shouldn’t settle for just using these things for the consumption of entertainment that others make. We have to do the making, and we should find ways that we can use this new technology in ways it may not have been imagined by its creators. Furthermore, Window 7’s handwriting recognition has significantly improved over its earlier iterations, and Apple is pushing its iWorks suite on the iPad (with virtual keyboard and sans handwriting recognition). So, the possibilities for content creation are there.

If the iPad had a back facing camera, the first thing that I thought about was augmented reality, but it would be so much closer to what James Cameron used for ‘filming’ Avatar. Gripping the sides of the iPad like the stick of an airplane would have felt like flying a camera through space.

I had wished the iPad had handwriting recognition, but there are many other tablet and slate PCs out there and coming out soon that have this feature. Will someone develop an app that will provide this kind of feature, or will Apple bring this into the fold with an update to the planned iPad-based iWork?

Regardless, I believe that we have to rethink these new tools and I’m confident that many folks will do exactly that. Apple, as demonstrated by their recent moves with the app store, want to define what their products are used to do. Obviously, we, the people who use their products, can find our own uses for their products that challenge and disrupt the models proposed by corporations.

Why can’t tablet or slate PCs be productivity oriented computers? They can be, and will be, because we will make them serve our purposes despite the worst intentions of their corporate creators.

And a final note: K9, pictured above, would be a significantly giant leap forward over the iPad and any slate PC. Just saying . . .

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.