In the newly renovated, higher-revenue-per-square-foot, IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, wild American friend Odell gently moves his steaming avocado and organic birch sap cappuccino to the edge of the uncomfortably small table and carefully sets down his new baby – the very Apple of his bursting-with-pride eye – an iPad.
He is in heaven. When he upgraded years ago from an insert-and-play TV with built-in VCR to a laser disk system that required him to scramble on the floor rearranging the wiring twice a day, he was over the moon. When he acquired a pricey and very wide flat-screen TV that stretched the picture and made the newsreader look fat, he was delirious with happiness. When he ditched his old mobile phone for a more expensive one that drained the battery twice as quickly, he was overjoyed. He watched Avatar three times – twice to experience the much-hyped 3D effects and once to actually watch the film, though he still didn’t follow the plot because he was so distracted that afternoon thinking about the new electric toothbrush he had just bought.
The iPad is an undeniably handsome machine – a tribute to Apple’s sense of design. Design and… style. Odell bristles at the suggestion that it is an overpriced fashion accessory, but he struggles to tell me what exactly the thing is for, other than being itself. It does nothing that previous devices don’t do, and it does them for several times the cost. The mark-up on this gadget, if you break it down into the bulk-commodity components it is made of, is considerable (40-50%), and he paid a big premium on top of that for getting one here and now before the official release in Hong Kong.
Although incredibly thin, the gizmo is not as light as you expect. There is no mouse or keyboard: you jab the screen with your oily fingers. Apparently, it doesn’t do multitasking, so you have to shut some programs down to use another, which sounds like Windows in the 1990s. Odell is very defensive about this; I sense burning humiliation, but he insists it’s no big deal. The same with the fact that it doesn’t support Flash, so you can’t view a lot of the video out there on the Internet. I produce my memory stick full of MP3s. “Want to listen to this Kate and Anna McGarrigle song about a woman who’s happy with her old, outdated possessions?” I ask. But no luck – the iPad has no USB ports. You can’t even change the battery yourself: you have to send the whole thing back to Apple with US$100. This is progress. Less is more – definitely for Apple shareholders.
“Naaah, you don’t get it,” Odell chuckles as he waves away my objections. “USB ports are gonna go the way of floppy disks. And I mean look at the definition on this picture!” He holds the machine up to let me peer closely at a Lady Gaga music video.
“Yes,” I agree. “Like you say, that’s amazing clarity and sharpness and colour. Superb. Well done, Apple! Jolly good!”
He’s right: I don’t get it. And he doesn’t get me. My Olympus camera is grainy and megapixel-starved; my Fender Telecaster is rust-tinged; my middle-aged Dell home desktop postpones retirement with a RAM upgrade and an external drive. I can easily afford better, but, to his puzzlement, I don’t bother. Over the Easter weekend I watched the whole of the classic BBC drama series I Claudius on a fuzzy, four-inch YouTube window with the sound on half the episodes out of synch. Even if it had been Lady Gaga, Odell couldn’t have handled it.
Different things obviously make different people happy. The folk who felt themselves compelled to fly from Britain and Brazil to get an iPad in New York the minute it went on sale glowed with excitement as they showed reporters their new toys. Essentially, they bought a work of technological art for the easily amused – an ornament that is aesthetically pleasing, enjoyable, fun and not without some uses. But it does nothing new, except to give Apple more opportunities to leverage its ownership of the process for providing software and content; it’s a revenue-generator.
Still, for someone who has been ripped-off, Odell is beside himself with delight. As are the curious passers-by who, faster than you can say ‘Veblen good’, stop to stare in wonder.
I can wait a couple of years.