The iPad Revolution

John G. Mabanglo/epa/Corbis
Apple CEO Steve Jobs introducing the iPad at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, January 27, 2010

As just about every sentient being knows, Apple Computer launched its “revolutionary,”1 “game changing,”2 “magical”3 tablet computer, the iPad, on April 3. This was after years of rumors, dating back almost a decade,4 but starting in earnest in February 2006,5 when Apple filed a number of patent applications that hinted at its intentions to move into touch computing. Though this turned out to be the prelude to the iPhone, tablet rumors began building again throughout the summer and fall of 2008 and into 2009,6 despite consistent denials from the company. By following the age-old dating protocol—flirt, be coy, don’t call back, flirt some more—Apple successfully turned up the dial on desire: here was a device that, sight unseen, large numbers of people wanted and believed they had to have, even without knowing precisely what it was or what it did.

In October 2009, at about the same time that rumors about the phantom Apple tablet were beginning to swirl, but before they coalesced into a media suck, the bookstore chain Barnes and Noble issued a product announcement of its own. It was getting into the electronic book reader business (again, ten years after its failed RockBook launch) with a small device called the Nook, reminiscent of Amazon’s popular electronic book reader, the Kindle, whose dominance it meant to challenge. Though The Wall Street Journal gamely live-blogged the launch, which took place in a basement conference room at the Chelsea Piers sports complex in Manhattan, and despite an overrun of holiday preorders for the Nook, once Apple revealed, right around Christmas, that it was planning a major product announcement at the beginning of the new year, excitement that another player had entered the e-book arena dulled.

At the Nook event, there was a lot of talk about the book industry and the future of books and the promise of e-books. Stephen Riggio, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, pointed out that publishing was still big business; at $30 billion a year, it was bigger than both the music and film industries.7 He also observed that readers wanted books on demand, which is what the Nook—with its access to the Barnes and Noble catalog, as well as to the more than one million scanned public domain books already on offer through various online sites, and, most likely, to the millions of books promised by the pending Google Books settlement as well—would give them.

Riggio pointed out all the ways that the Nook was different from the Kindle: it was based on Google’s open-source Android operating system, it used the nonproprietary ePub format, it had both wireless and 3G Internet access, it had a dash of color and a rudimentary touch screen, and it could be used to play…

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