This Dad Is Glad He Bought an IPad

It Helps Me and My Kids Consume Content Together, and That's a Welcome Surprise

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
New tools are never quite what they seem on the surface. Often the brightest benefits beam far from fixations of the blogging and twittering herd.

Such is my conclusion after nearly a month of toying with every digital nook and cranny of the iPad. For me, the biggest surprise has been the device's relevance and resonance with my "proud padre" parenting zone. Indeed, well over half of my iPad activity to date centers around my kids, and that percentage seems to be growing.

My fixation here has less to do with the Apple brand, per se, than the long-term implications of what this highly interactive, touch-pad functionality represents for marketers, educators and especially parents. Indeed, I've no doubt that by year's end we'll see close approximations of iPad functionality across most of the major device manufacturers, not unlike how mobile phones follow first-mover innovations.

That's a potential game-changer.

Let me state upfront that the iPad is far from perfect. If you are looking for a better, more portable laptop, look elsewhere. The keypad is clunky. Certain apps are way overhyped (even in the reviews). Big programs like Pages and Keynote are much harder to execute in a touch-screen environment than they appear. Moreover, excessive use of the iPad can immediately diminish "return on clarity" on any mobile device (from iPod to Droid) that uses video. Indeed, everything on my video-phone now looks ridiculously small.

On the plus side, four big benefits -- what I call the iPad "Four C's" -- really jump out: consumption, carry-friendly, creativity and collaboration.

Consumption. At the end of the day, the iPad is far less about computing than good ol' fashioned media consumption. Whether consuming TV, print, radio or even games, the iPad is quite compelling. One could even argue that it lends itself to passive, couch-potato activity. Newspapers, I've found, are a pleasure to read in a world where the screen is bigger and pages move or enlarge with a flick of a finger. TV shows scream in near HD quality. (Should I be embarrassed to admit I'd downloaded a half-dozen episodes of "Glee"?) The BBC, ABC and ESPN iPad sites take video to entirely new levels of impact and engagement. The book reader is surprisingly good and posing a real threat to my beloved Kindle. While there's no shortage of advertising, I actually find ads a bit easier to engage with or to push out of the way (if necessary) in an environment we might be well advised to re-label as "FGM" (Finger Generated Media).

Carry-friendly. Honestly, I've been quite surprised at how many places and venues I've been able to take and use the iPad. The portability is so compelling I initially started calling it "PupTV," as it readily deploys like a pup-tent. I've popped up the iPad just about everywhere. It deploys quickly for bedtime reading. It's cannibalized the minivan video player (which never worked that well, anyway), softened demand for the kitchen TV (which doesn't play on-demand YouTube videos), and already rendered the lame video screen on my Delta flights useless. This has important implications for advertising (more page views across different experiences), and massive implications for the whole world of "how-to." Imagine a world where the brand, product or service demo can be visualized (and repeated) anyplace, anytime. Indeed, maybe there's hope for me in the tool room and kitchen when my patient step-by-step video demos can follow me.

Creativity. This is the biggie, and far and away the biggest surprise. For kids the iPad is a fiesta of creativity and collaboration. The drawing tools are just outstanding -- almost like having unlimited access to the Crayola Factory (without the mess). Chalkboard's our favorite, but we've also thoroughly tested Sketchbook, ArtStudio, DrawingDen, handPaint SP, ColorPlay and KidArt. Everyone, it seems, can get a hand in the process, even my 2-year-old (assuming my 4-and-a-half-year-old twins cede ground). I love the fact that you can easily save artwork and then post to Flickr or Facebook. Some iPod apps like SpinArt work much better on the bigger screen. Overall, the "creation" tools are addictive (in a good way); so far the kids appear to agree.

Collaboration. What works especially well with the iPad, I've found, is the collaboration, participation and co-creation functionality. If you get these things right, there's an invaluable shared experience that can come from portable devices of this nature that seem to offer an answer, application or deeper-dive for just about everything. Google Earth on the iPad feels less like a cool phone app than a Daddy-controlled add-water-and-stir geography class. The easy-to-play piano app nicely complements the twins' Saturday music class. The books are not book replacements, but refreshed and enlightened versions. Here I think about the amazing Alice in Wonderland app that still looks like a book and integrates certain wonderfully interactive visuals. Then there's Disney's Toy Story book (a free download) that integrates stunning visuals, interactivity, voice-record-over and video.

Of course, this leads me to my biggest observation -- one flowing from both my role as a parent and former education policy analyst in the California Governor's Office & Legislature. It's hard not to see profound new models of parenting and education emerging from such tools. It's almost like the book bag and the chalkboard just got stuffed into a thin notebook. Whether the iPad or future competitive versions, the potential of where such tools can go is enormous.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not recommending another technology panacea to save our schools. Old rules of parental involvement, coaching and hands-on teaching still apply. But the barriers to smart "curatorship" of interactive content have plummeted in a world where the device can practically be thrown across the room like a Frisbee.

Any lessons for marketers? All marketers would benefit from paying careful attention to how these "touch-and-play" tolls are resetting a new bar of expectation around design and simplicity. Indeed, the iPad makes 90% of brand websites –- even Facebook fan pages –- look complicated, messy and congested with clunky content. The very principles that make the device so appealing to kids are probably what marketers need to figure out as well. Recall my previous article: "Three Words to Sing in 2010." Put that concept on steroids.

But let's not allow my "real job" to get into the way of my real job. The big "a-ha" here is in how this new piece of technology has shifted my daily playbook of interaction with my children. Not in heavy or overbearing "punt to technology" doses, but via meaningful and highly participatory steps. In a weird way, I'm as pumped about the exploratory as the kids, and that can only lead to more exciting destinations. A bigger and more vibrant screen, combined with portability that trumps the bulky laptop, and we have a device that's vastly easier for groups –- especially families –- to gather around and consume content.

So there you have it. Dad is glad –- not mad or sad –- he bought an iPad.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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