My iPad arrived at 10:30 a.m. E.T. on the day it was supposed to, Saturday, April 3. I remember the time because I had just looked impatiently at my clock, wondering, Where is it?, when the UPS man buzzed my doorbell. Perhaps it wasn't quite like the birth of a child this baby has got to perform tricks immediately, and there's precious little time to grow up.
I am anxious, of course, because I have deep roots in dead-tree media and still take substantial nourishment from it. (For the record, I am the news director of both TIME and TIME.com, but the nature of breaking news means that most of my day is spent making sure the website gets fed with stories.) With the publishing industry in a depression, Apple's latest innovation (or feat of technological repackaging) has been hailed as a potential savior: the entry point for print to become a whole new medium while preserving its essential identity. Since TIME's iPad app was also debuting on Saturday, it would be the first app I would download.
For such a heralded contraption, the iPad came packaged in next to nothing: a box with little ostentation, save for an image of what you'd see when you opened it; the machine itself, prophylactically sealed against the elements; a cable; a plug. The last two components were tucked in niches in the plastic casing, which helped insulate the contents to protect against jarring. I tried prying open the casing to see if there was anything more. Nothing. Except a small, thin envelope with a little key that ... Sorry, that's from Alice in Wonderland. I'm getting my fantasies confused.
There was an envelope, but it contained only the tiniest slip of instructions: basically, download the latest version of iTunes (9.1 for those of you who must know these things) and follow the instructions from that point onward. A little hubristic, I thought, this pointed refusal to trumpet on arrival. But a half-hour after the unsurprising ritual ("Agree?" "Continue") of synching the latest of my Apple products to its desktop ancestor and uploading my iTunes library, my iPad was ready. It was as if I had known it all my life.
Or at least for as long as I've had my iPod Touch. I love iPods, and got the Touch in early 2009 (even though, for some psycho-consumerist reason, I've refused to buy an iPhone). I love the Touch's handiness and the fact that, beyond carrying my entire iTunes library of everything from Rachmaninoff to Lady Gaga, it also has the neat Amazon Kindle app that lets me upload War and Peace (or whatever book in my library I'm reading) and take it with me palm-sized and backlit.
The iPad is much, much bigger than the Touch, and like the Touch only partially abled when away from wi-fi (a version of the iPad that connects to AT&T's 3G network will ship in about a month). But the extra real estate does make a difference. The Touch was convenient. The iPad is intimate. Its weight, though only about a pound and a half, gives it gravity and a sense that it should be more than simply useful.
Indulge me a moment, and consider what it's done for TIME. The magazine's content has always been available on TIME.com along with the enormous amount of Web-originated stuff we do daily but reading it on the website always felt atomized, as though the material had been through the Large Hadron Collider. A story here, a story there, a link here to distract you from the narrative flow of the text. The magazine content also has to fight its way through reams of online stories and features just to be noticed. Even the photo-essays never really worked online the way they did in print. The hunched-over, "factory floor" nature of viewing content at a computer on a desk or a lap neither enhances nor encourages the enjoyment of more than a shortish text block or the occasional ravishing image.
On the iPad, magazines in their electronic manifestation get to be real magazines again, incarnated without paper. The iPad makes the electronic magazine something you get your hands on, something you can play with. Look at the fantabulous app from Popular Science in which each story is a wonderland that you can scroll and push and pull, moving overlay and text and stories around like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes you can't tell advertisement from original content and I mean this in a good way. Nothing really intrudes on the experience. If you don't like what you see, swipe it away. But if it does interest you, you can be sure there's something you can touch to lead you deeper into a whole new world.
I took the iPad to dinner with journalist friends that first evening. Everyone expressed interest, but we kept the machine to the side while we gossiped about other things. We did call upon it to answer trivia: What kind of movie career did Farrah Fawcett have? Was it insignificant enough to justify her exclusion from the Oscars' annual montage of farewells last month? (Answer: She made Cannonball Run but was quite good in The Apostle. Otherwise, she was a TV star.) It was easier to look the information up on the iPad rather than switch on a computer or fumble through the multiple steps required on a smart phone. All the iPad did was lie flat on a side table while we talked, a self-contained encyclopedic world waiting to be consulted.
So, will the iPad save journalism? No. Journalism is something that should go on fighting for its existence constantly, proving it is worth consuming because it is useful. Its existence will be independent of its medium of delivery. The iPad is just another way for news outlets to try to figure out a way to survive. That brings us to a more pertinent question: Will the iPad save the magazine industry? Not entirely. But it will help because it brings an excitement back to the field and an undiscovered realm of possibilities in which to play. A lot still needs to be done, though. (TIME's app has a few glitches, for instance.) And the iPad that's on sale now will continue to evolve as Apple works on its design and as consumers offer their reactions to the way it delivers content.
So this is not a story of instant gratification. Even on a more mundane level, you don't get instant gratification with the iPad. By the end of that night, I decided to rent a couple of movies. But you can't just do so and watch in an instant. Forty-five minutes after ordering the director's cut of Donnie Darko, I gave up and went to sleep, letting that movie and Dune (yes, I'm a geek) download throughout the night. But you know what? After the dark night passed, joy came in the morning. Me and my iPad are off to celebrate Easter.