Why do we invest so much hope in new technology? What do we expect these devices will do for us, and why are we so disappointed when the Next Big Thing turns out to be just a new computer? This is what I'm asking myself after Apple's latest overhyped product introduction. This time around the Next Big Thing is called an iPad. It's basically an oversize iPod Touch, and it will be great for watching movies, reading books, and browsing the Web.
Yet for some of us who sat in the audience watching Steve Jobs introduce the device, the whole thing felt like a letdown. The iPad is a perfectly good product. It's reasonably priced, and after spending a few minutes with one, I'm pretty sure I'll buy one for myself and probably a second one for my kids so they can watch movies on road trips.
So why did I feel disappointed? As a friend at Apple put it, "Did you think it was going to cure cancer or something?" The thing is, rumors about an Apple tablet have been floating around for months, and during that time a lot of us started dreaming up a list of amazing things that it might do.
Some said the tablet would save newspapers and magazines by creating a platform where publishers could charge readers for digital subscriptions. Others said Apple would offer TV subscriptions so we wouldn't need to have cable TV anymore.
At the very least, we had hoped a tablet from Apple would do something new, something we've never seen before. That's not the case. Jobs and his team kept using words like "breakthrough" and "magical," but the iPad is neither, at least not right now. It might turn out to be magical for Apple, because what Jobs is really doing here is trying to replace the personal computer with a closed appliance that runs software only from Apple's online App Store. So instead of selling you a laptop and never hearing from you again, Apple gets an ongoing revenue stream with iPad as you keep downloading more apps. That really is "magical"—for Apple's bottom line, anyway.
And that's fine. What's wrong, or at least interesting, is why some of us expected so much more from a new gadget. I suspect this is because for some people, myself included, technology has become a kind of religion. We may not believe in God anymore, but we still need mystery and wonder. We need the magic act. Five centuries ago Spanish missionaries put shiny mirrors in churches to dazzle the Incas and draw them to Christianity. We, too, want to be dazzled by shiny new objects. Our iPhones not only play music and make phone calls, but they also have become totemic objects, imbued with techno-voodoo. Maybe that sounds nuts, but before the iPad was announced, people were calling it the "Jesus tablet."
Our love affair with technology is also about a quest for control. We're living in an age of change and upheaval. There's an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. But technology gives us the illusion of control, a sense of order. Pick up a smart phone and you have a reliable, dependable device that does whatever you tell it to do. You certainly can't say that about your colleagues or families. And no wonder a lot of folks in the media wanted to believe that a new device from Apple could stop the decline of our industry. Newspapers and magazines are struggling to adapt to the Internet, and no one has any idea what our business will look like when we get to the other side of this wrenching period. We just have blind faith that technology ultimately will make our business better, not worse. In one example of that blind faith, David Carr of The New York Times wrote recently that Apple's tablet would be nothing less than "the second coming of the iPhone, a so-called Jesus tablet that can do anything, including saving some embattled print providers from doom."
He may even be right—eventually. My friend Richard Ward, the vice president of innovation at IHS Inc., a research firm, imagines deals in which you'll get an iPad free, or at a very low price, when you sign up for a two-year subscription to one or more news publications. No doubt there will be loads of partnerships and new uses coming.
The thing about any new platform, including the iPhone and now the iPad, is that its real power is never apparent on day one. What Apple delivered last week is a simple product that does a few things very well. And whatever disappointment we might have felt says more about us than about Apple.