Two words about the new Apple tablet: Think different

Steve Jobs will unveil something big on Wednesday morning.

Early word — and there’s been much of it — is that Apple will reinvent the idea of portable computing with a new tablet that just might revolutionize publishing in the same way the iPod did music or the iPhone did, well, whatever class we now consider as that piece of mobile computing.

There’s been a frenzy of coverage, all of it wildly speculative because, as is the way of the Cupertino-based company, no one at Apple has officially said anything about this new device. And this time, it looks like Apple has not shared the-whatever-it-is with the favored journalists ahead of release, as it did with the iPhone 3G. (Keep in mind that it was just three years ago when Jobs introduced the game-changing iPhone; hard to recall what it was like before that, isn’t it?)

But if you’re worried about the tech specs and the price and the size of the thing and who will win the coveted phone contract (if there is one) and how the wireless will work and the millions of other rumors out there, you’re missing the point.

Apple thinks bigger.
It traffics in ideas.

So when Apple’s chief evangelist walks onto that stage in San Francisco to preach to you about the iPad – or iTablet or whatever other name they were able to secure for this new brilliant piece of engineering – keep in mind that he’s selling an experience and not a product. If you do, you might just be able to design stuff for this amazing thing he’s about to unleash on the world, stuff that might reach beyond even what Steve Jobs imagined.

For designers, that’s an epic opportunity. (Veteran design and graphics guru Joe Zeff wrote smartly this week about why the tablet matters for people like us who do journalism.)

Indeed, it always has been that way — at least for the better part of the last 30-odd years.

There’s a reason why we flock to the design ethos of Apple products, why we had done that long before the iPhone or the iPod, astounding as those two ultra-cool inventions of the last decade were, why we enjoy the renegade spirit that made the fledgling computer company everything Microsoft wasn’t, which is to say simple and elegant, and why the company continues to matter to people who consider themselves part of the creative class.

Apple, it follows, enables creation, becomes the distinctive cultural expression of people like us. For those of us who make things — newspapers, magazines, graphics, Web sites, interfaces — there’s pretty much nothing better.

Think different

When I was working at the San Jose Mercury News, we would swarm the Apple announcements. Every detail, from the big-picture scope of what it meant for Silicon Valley to the small-screen review of how every pixel performs (and whether or not in the right way), was in the scope of what we’d cover.

One of my favorite graphics from the Merc was from a few years ago when the company was turning 30. Our graphics director Pai, who is also a regional director for SND, and artist Doug Griswold made a cool timeline that was a tree of innovative Apple moments. Beyond liking the organic metaphor, I loved that I could place myself in so many of those moments. (Download a pdf to take your own trip through computing history.)

The example, it seems to me, is all about approach. The beginning of understanding what a device can do is seeing how you fit with it, finding your voice inside it. The reason I enjoy that Apple graphic so much is because I can remember what each new Mac meant for what I was learning at the time, the impossibly alien landscape of knowing nothing and then building to a place where you can feel competent, maybe someday even expert.

In 1997, Apple launched an ad campaign that’s widely credited with helping turn around the company’s fortunes. Voiced by Richard Dreyfus and featuring some of the most inspirational risk-takers of the 20th Century, “Think Different” lent legitimacy to what those of us who had been “Mac people” had known for years: Dreaming was not out of the question and changing the world was in reach.

In fact, the joy in being different was our common thread, the thing that paradoxically held us together, the idea that prefigured I’m a Mac (and, thus, not a PC).

I mention all this by way of saying that, despite your inner geek (and, maybe later, because of it) the best path when thinking about this new device might be to put away all the accumulated knowledge you have. Approach this with fresh eyes.

The wonderful part of something new is the newness it can bring to things that have been around for some time. Don’t let your critical self rob the kid in you from seeing with child-like wonder. Maybe — just maybe — you won’t shovel old content into a new form just waiting for all kinds of new interactions if you take that approach.

Change things

When newspapers made the shift online, they did not realize all of the potential the new form could have for the craft of journalism. This has now, famously, become an instructive tale about how not to experiment.

Which brings me back to that tablet computer that Steve Jobs will roll out, with his usual sense of the dramatic, in the Bay Area on Wednesday — TechCrunch reports that he’s saying it “will be the most important thing I’ve ever done.” Think of it as a new moment for journalists to take back some of the innovation they so easily squandered. Think of it as a fresh start.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, circa 1976.

My favorite image may be of Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in those early days, working on a dream, full of ideas for what could come from their start-up company. About to be transported on an incredible journey.

Where to start now?
With people. Of course.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

That’s what was missing when publication after publication parked their content online — and then forgot about it, until print wasn’t paying the bills anymore. Meanwhile, a generation of internet users had begun to move on.

Time to hit the reset button.

  1. Design for people: Pay attention to the experience of touching this thing, using it, and how the interface could begin to enable a cultural shift if you start with what people might want (or need) to do with it. Play the role of the person you’re designing for and work toward solutions that make sense for that experience, not what’s convenient to code or cheap to mass produce.
  2. Plan on sharing: The social aspect of all media has changed what’s needed. Audiences are more in control than ever. Predictions are that the mobile Web will accelerate that sharing experience to more than half of all traffic in the next two years. Imagine what that means. Design for it.
  3. Mix it up: Much of the visual content being shared online now is not professionally made. People can now easily see themselves in the visual experiences that were once the purview of only pros (Pictory is my favorite new example of this). The smartest encourage collaborations between professionals and regular people — designing interfaces that make this easier than ever. What could you do with a bigger screen? And the idea of touch?

The challenge will be to broaden your thinking. Look beyond what’s already been done, shift your attention and occupy yourself with possibilities. Visualize that change you could make if you keep people in mind when designing the next journalism experience, instead of just thinking about new contexts for old media.

Minds wide open, then, on Wednesday morning while you’re following every twist and turn (I’ll be checking in via my friends at Cult of Mac).

Abandon your jaded sophistication — just this once — and realize that the device won’t be perfect from the start. Not all the content will be there yet (though some reportedly will). Take the longer view on what it could be if you help change what it is by designing the new, the cool, the never-before-seen.

From one Apple believer to another: Think different.

Matt Mansfield is an associate professor at Northwestern University and the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. Mansfield was president of SND in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield