Monday, February 1, 2010

Life in the Age of the iPad

We have five or six inches of snow here in North Carolina, and it's a snow day. The kids are thrilled. They've been sledding down the driveway and building snowmen, but eventually they'll get tired and want a break.

This "break" will almost certainly involve watching something on our Tivo or on the computer. Or they might play a game on the iPod Touch. In fact, they use the computer and television interchangeably, as if these devices are one and the same.

As a Gen-Xer who remembers rotary phones and life before cable TV, I'm constantly amazed by how comfortable they are with technology at such an early age. They're fearless. They also have clear expectations about what technology can, and should, do for them. Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but they really do take it for granted sometimes.

When we stay at a hotel, our 5-year-old always asks me to rewind the television so she can watch something a second time. The Geico Gecko commercials are a particular favorite. Our exchange usually goes something like this:

"Mom, it's the Geico Gecko! I need to see it again! Rewind it! Rewind it!"
"I can't rewind it. I can rewind our TV at home, but not this TV."
"Why not?"
"The hotel doesn't have Tivo like we have at home, so I can't rewind it."
[confused pause]"Why doesn't the hotel have a Tivo, mom?"
"I don't know. But you can watch the Geico Gecko when the commercial runs again in a few minutes, or when we get home."
"I can't wait that long! I want to see him now."
"Well, I can't rewind the TV." [A brief discussion follows about how delayed gratification is an important life skill.]
"Mom, I need a snack. Can you pause the TV, please?"
"I can't pause the TV, either."
"Why can't you pause it!? I'll miss my show..."


You get the picture.

Today, our 5-year-old needed to tell me something. "What is it?" I asked.

"I going to need an iPad," she said with a look that said, Oh yes, it will be mine. I asked why she needs an iPad. "Um, because it's a cool TV and I can watch movies! And I can play games on it!"

I said she has a "real" TV to watch, but that wasn't cutting it. "Um, an iPad would be...funner. And I can take it in the car, on my lap!" She also likes how the screen rotates. "It's sooooo cool!" she cooed. I think it's funny that she can identify Steve Jobs by his photo. She thinks he must be soooo cool, too, since he can make a screen rotate.

Because it's a cool TV. My 5-year-old already equates the iPad with watching television, and she hasn't even used the iPad yet. She also refers to the television in our living room - which has the usual plethora of cable channels - as "mom and dad's TV." Any parent can tell you that once a child starts referring to something as belonging to mom and dad, it's uncool and out of date. Her fledgling views on content delivery should strike fear in the hearts of management executives at Comcast, Time Warner and any other cable TV provider. Glimpse the future, guys.

We'll end up with an iPad at some point, and I'm sure I'll have to fight for my turn. A lot of technology writers are talking about how the iPad doesn't have any transformational features to set it apart, but I don't think that's true. The greatest impact of the iPad will be on today's grade school kids, for whom the long-fabled wi-fi tablet is now going to be an everyday reality. They're going to form specific expectations around this technology and what it can, and should, do for them. Just imagine the expectations they'll have when they enter the workplace in 10 to 15 years. They're going to make Gen Yers look like Luddites.

In the short term, the iPad is going to lead to a whole new set of parent-child conversations about technology. But that's okay. Besides, my kids will probably be showing me how to use it.

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