The iPad's ripple effect

"Best iPad Apps" author Pete Meyers on how the iPad is shaping content and development.

As we approach the iPad’s first birthday, much has already been written about how the iPad is a game-changing device. But the iPad’s success goes beyond the hardware — it’s also opened the tablet market and ushered in new forms of applications and media. Pete Meyers (@petermeyers), author of “Best iPad Apps,” discusses these shifts in the following interview.

Content consumption is a big part of the iPad, but are there options for people who want to create on the device?

Pete MeyersPete Meyers: From what I’ve seen, those with creative urges have plenty of ways to
express themselves. Top of my list includes pottery making (Let’s Create Pottery HD), drawing (SketchBook Pro, Drawing Pad), music making (ThumbJam, Music Studio), roller coaster design (AirCoaster), 3D sculpting
(iDough), and all kinds of photo futzing (Photogene, Strip Designer).

Fact is, the iPad encourages creativity and experimentation in ways that are sometimes even better than paper. Think about, for example, the “undo” button that’s found in almost every drawing app. Especially for young kids, this frees them from worrying about making mistakes. It’s been fun to also read about artist David Hockney’s fondness for Brushes, one of the
most popular painting apps.

The most serious death-of-creativity concerns seem to revolve around fears that “Generation iPad” will never learn how to program, given the closed nature of the device. First off, I think this presumes kids will use the iPad as their sole computing platform. And while that may be the case among some people, I find it tough to imagine that a kid, intrigued by the complex magic of writing code, won’t somehow find his or her way to a “real” computer. Another promising development is found in apps that let you do some elementary coding right on the iPad. Basic! for example is a perfectly good canvas for junior code slingers. Will they develop a Python-powered, e-commerce backend? No. But neither do most mortals when they first start programming.

Have you come across any examples where the app version of an entertainment product does something you wouldn’t have seen prior to the iPad?

Pete Meyers: I think we’re at the very early stages. Much of what’s out there resembles TV in its early days, where content meant for radio was dragged onto the television (e.g. a bunch of people standing in front of the camera reading a radio play). Similarly, in the App Store’s early days you see comic books and graphic novels that are more or less digitized versions of print, magazines that maintain the page-based sequence of print, and so on.

A few reference and how-to books are doing obvious things like adding video explanations of cooking techniques (Weber’s On the Grill) or including recorded audio of bird calls (iBird Pro HD).

“Motion comics” are another area where the creative product is starting to change. Apps like Superare and Operation Ajax add motion to artwork that was previously still, letting the action play out inside of and across multiple panels.

But keep in mind that all these examples are mainly print products that have been repurposed as iPad apps. The real interesting stuff will come when artists, writers, and publishers build apps that don’t have a print-edition correlate. In these efforts we’ll see creativity that really takes advantage of the touchscreen medium.

How useful do you think App Store ratings and reviews are? Are there any tricks you’ve picked up for making sense of this mass of feedback?

Pete Meyers: Let me take a crack at rephrasing that first question:

How level-headed and thoughtful are most people nowadays when they get to comment anonymously online?

App Store customers haven’t proven themselves unique in that respect. My particular gripe: iPadders who attack developers with stark pronouncements for leaving off one particular feature. Reading these types of comments is like watching the pundits on cable TV — there’s lots of noise and not much information.

What I have found useful are a couple of telltale shapes in the ratings. Those are the 1- to 5-star horizontal bar graphs that aggregate user ratings.

A common sight is what I call the “C”-spread: lots of 5 stars, lots of 1 stars, and not much in between. I often see these on game apps, where a certain percentage of users have played the game on consoles and are bitterly disappointed when the app doesn’t replicate the console experience. The five-star ratings, on the other hand, are coming from the people who are thrilled to be able to play something like Madden NFL 11 on the iPad. I think the takeaway here is to approach these kinds of “it was the worst of apps, it was the best of apps” spreads with a good understanding of where your own interests and expectations lie.

Another common shape is the “L”-spread, which is marked by lots of 1-star ratings. This is one time when mass opinion is usually right. Just make sure the number of ratings is sufficient to judge against.

The most interesting shape — and the one that gets me downloading most often — is “the claw.” This is a jagged mishmash of bar lengths for each of the five possible ratings. Wild disagreement among the ratings usually means there’s something interesting going on, and at that point I may dive into the comments to see if I can discern some common themes.

Speaking of comments, I like to sort them by “most recent.” That way, I can quickly skim the reviews most relevant to the app’s current state, and not judge an app that may have started off on a rocky note in a previous version.

Finally, I also factor in the app description that starts off each listing. If it’s riddled with typos or offers an incoherent description of what the app does, my thinking is the developer probably offers the same kind of quality in the app itself.

When the iPad launched, some wondered where it would fit amidst smartphones, laptops, and desktops. What niche does the iPad fill in your gadget-using life?

Pete Meyers: I’m a bit of a fringe case, given the amount of time I just devoted to stuffing my two iPads with apps for my book and then playing with them in every conceivable niche of time and space I could carve out.

But in the weeks since I stopped working on the project full-time, I’ve seen my usage settle into a pattern that I suspect will last for a while: I use it at the breakfast table instead of cracking open my laptop; on the subway, I’ll use the iPad if I can get a seat (otherwise, I’m on my iPhone); on the couch after work, I’ll steal looks at Twitter, Flipboard, and some websites, as various toddlers scream at me to return to the mosh pit on the living room floor; and later at night, I’m incapable of watching TV without simultaneously surfing the web. In fact, I’m hoping TiVo or IMDb soon adds a new category: “Movies for Multitaskers.”

This interview was edited and condensed.



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