30 January 2010

Game Changer?

What is changing?

When Steve Jobs came out of his Fortress of Solitude last week to announce the iPad, I heard the phrase "game changer" over and over.

The iPad will save newspapers, end the Kindle experiment, completely alter education, change the design of computers forever, its potential, or the potential of this style of device, will alter the world.

Now, at the start, I'll admit that I don't believe in historic "pivot points." Yes, those are convenient solutions for history quizzes ("America was discovered in: (a) 1342 (b) 1492 (c) 1817 (d) 1776") but they always suggest the heroic breakthrough of the individual rather than an ever changing, ever evolving ("evolve" used in a non-progressive sense - is an elephant really "better" than a Mammoth? a panther better than a Sabre-tooth Tiger?) human race.

Humans change, their environments change, and thus their needs change. As those needs change, humans - the world's greatest tool makers - the world's most consistent tool users - start to look for solutions, and begin to invent answers. Multiple people went after the "voice telegraph" (the "telephone) in the mid-19th Century, because people wanted more than the telegraph. And multiple people "invented" it at the same moment. Multiple people went after the "moving picture" in the late 19th Century because people wanted more than photography, and multiple people "invented" it at the same moment.

On his blog, Shelly Blake-Plock and I have wondered about the impact of the iPad, and Shelly makes the assertion that perhaps this is the moment when those in power in education truly begin to learn the value of digital community. If so, it will be a "moment" - perhaps transformational.

Breakthroughs do occur, even if they are public conception breakthroughs. Looking back through my "new social history" lens, I've found a random few such moments:

The cheap Polaroid camera: Edwin Land had introduced (not invented) the Polaroid instant film camera in 1948. I can remember my father bringing home a massive, bellows style one using black and white film and a "do not ever touch this" leather case in 1962 (obtained used from Lord-knows-where, you would'a need to know my Da), but these were strange niche market items. In 1965 however Polaroid slashed prices on a new plastic-bodied camera and changed the perception of photography.

Prior to the Swinger photography was about memory, now, photography was a concurrent social activity. Digital photography, Flickr, etc enhanced this, but the creation moment happened 45 years ago.

The penny newspaper: In 1830 a newspaper appeared in Boston which was priced at 1/6th the price of any other newspaper in the United States. The Boston Transcript cost a penny and, for the very first time, allowed average people to carry readable news with them. And thus, the "penny newspaper" was born. It represented something else as well, the first time "published information" was provided to a mass audience far below cost because the bulk of the costs were born by advertisers (essentially, the penny cost was covering only the distribution network).

The idea spread wildly, across the US and the world, dramatically "lowering" journalistic standards (mass sales became essential to attract advertisers, thus heavy coverage of sensational crime news) - read Jack Finney's Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Storiesfor an amazing view of this - and destroying the old elite journalism which had carried the nation since colonial times.

From this point on, the model which so built US network radio and television, and which is now so despised by most newspapers, was invented. Users paid for the "delivery device" - not the content. If you bought a radio or TV the content came free. If you needed newsprint you paid for the newsprint and the delivery. The New York Times may rage at the unfairness, but it is their system. It is they who want to change the rules now, not the rules which have changed.

The dial telephone: The telephone had existed for generations before it became "self-service." Surely the phone was transformational, and yet, its function changed forever once you didn't have to ask someone to make a call for you - and perhaps - once you didn't assume people were listening in on your conversations (this is the period between the introduction of the dial phone and the George W. Bush/Tony Blair era).

So the dial telephone created a new form of non-face-to-face communication. A new kind of immediacy and intimacy not possible before. It also created the first distance communication system in which the "technology" began to become "invisible." You didn't know how it worked, you didn't care - you just picked it up and used it.

The Sears, Roebuck, and Company Catalogue: I almost included Amazon here, remembering, as I do, how Amazon was a national laughingstock in the year 2000 - "the world's largest non-profit" - because the idea of Amazon sure seems transformative - except - it wasn't really. The idea had been perfected more than a century before.

Was Sears the first? Of course not. Aaron Montgomery Ward beat him to it by more than a decade, Hammacher-Schlemmer by over almost a half-century, but Sears made shopping from home "the big thing." He transformed our way of "wishing for products." No longer did we just walk past shop windows, now we sat and browsed through a book of representations, and began to depend on descriptions and labels ("Sears-Best" "Lady Kenmore").

The arrival of the Sears Catalogue was that moment when it became "perfectly OK" to stay home and dream about consumer goods, stay home and research products, stay home and shop.

The Lisa Computer: A computer with a non-code interface. Now that's revolutionary. I recall standing in front of an Apple dealer's store window staring at thing thing, with its "desktop" and its ability to print out a real image.

You may want to skip the five minute intro, but you can look back at a time when Apple thought multitasking was really important

The Lisa was absurdly expensive and pretty much "nobody" bought it. But, and in this Shelly Blake-Plock's concept that the iPad will transform leadership thinking becomes relevant, the Lisa demonstrated that a personal computer could be used by people who were not trained technicians and the Lisa demonstrated that computers were something more than highly evolved adding machines. That was "game-changing."

Steve Jobs and his followers proclaim, of course, that the iPad is "magical." That now people will be able to go anywhere and read, write, communicate, watch video, view pictures, listen to music. "Magical" perhaps, but if I look around, if I say, walk through my campus, or my town, or ride the El in Chicago or the Subway in New York or the Luas in Dublin or the Tube in London, I see just about everyone under the age of forty, and many above that line, reading, writing, communicating, watching video, viewing pictures, and listening to music on small digital devices. The transformation, of course, has occurred. It is the packaging that has changed. Think floppy disk to flash drive, not invention of the railroad (which, although still an evolution of transportation systems, did allow - for the first time - for humans to move as rapidly on land as they could on water).

So, is the iPad transformational? My thought is that the transformation has already happened - the game has already changed. But I also know that we won't really know that for a long time. Games change when we least expect them to.

- Ira Socol


HomerTheBrave said...

I was interested in what the iPad could do for me, until I looked at the promo movie on apple's web site. It starts with the same bit as that 'it's magical' video, where the product development guy from Apple said that the iPad exceeds everyone's ability to understand how it works, and is therefore magical.

My response: It's a 9" iPhone. I have an iPhone, and understand it and I'm learning enough CocoaTouch to write my first app, one which might very well also run on an iPad. So don't treat me like a child, please.

Also, I want to link you to this presentation by Bruce Sterling about 'the singularity.' Sterling explains real technological shifts in real terms, rather than transhumanist BS or Apple PR-speak.

Anonymous said...

My grandparents always assumed that someone was listening in on the line, even into their 90s. They hated having personal conversations with anyone; it was always a tool for making a face-to-face appointment, never anything more.

Essentially, their view point never changed, nor did the views of their intellectual colleagues. They just died, and their viewpoint largely died with them.

narrator said...


Thanks, few build the great connections you do.


That's a very powerful observation. The perceptual change only "begins" at this point. It takes generations.

- Ira Socol

Dan McGuire said...

My offering for a 'game changer' would be the FCC Carter Phone Decision. This article from 1984 is rather quaint now in it's 'who would have thought' observations.
"In their decision, the FCC cited their earlier (1956) "Hush-A-Phone" decision and clearly stated that a subscriber's right to use the network in ways which are "privately beneficial without being public detrimental" extended to all types of equipment, including telephone terminal equipment."

This is very personal to me, since I worked in the 'interconnect industry' from 1964 to 1984, and then later did a variety of jobs in the post 'Divestiture' telecom industry including international equipment brokering (I placed one of the first successful installations of U.S. teleco equipment in the then still rather small Chinese market in 1989.) My work work up to 1973 was after school, summers, and college breaks; I started pulling cable as 105 lb. 8th grader who could climb over rafters in old buildings.

And I remember later as a young salesman doing cold calls in NW Iowa pitching the advantages of an 'interconnect' PBX being looked upon by some as someone who must be somehow related to the mob (most of the people who looked at me like that were associated with the beef processing industry which actually was way too closely tied to mob activity-lots of Chicago money got 'cleaned' in Sioux City livestock trades.)

Making a Skype call today to my brother in Rome or @Lasic in Perth is still a marvel, though.