(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 2, 2012.)


It’s very possible that historians will mark April 3, 2010 as the day that everything changed regarding how first-world, 21st century homo sapiens would eventually study from textbooks, play video games, communicate face-to-face electronically and consume books, newspapers, magazines, comics, movies and TV, finally catching up to changes already made in how people listened to music and other audio programming.

It was on that April day less than two years ago when the Apple iPad tablet computer went on sale. The device was and is so popular that it has redefined the words “tremendous success” and combined with its replacement, the iPad 2, Apple has globally sold more than 55 million of the devices. With a price of $499 for the Wi-Fi 16 GB introductory model (and $829 for the version with Wi-Fi, 3G wireless and 64 GB capacity), it’s not cheap, yet they have sold astoundingly — so is it any wonder Apple has become the most-successful consumer electronics company in the world? If tablets are included in the count, Apple just became the world leader in personal computer manufacturing over Hewlett-Packard.

So, the company that redefined music consumption via the iPod and redefined mobile telephony via the iPhone has in the iPad yet another hit consumer electronics gadget, in a new category that it essentially created and still dominates, despite a plethora of competing tablets from rivals that have thus far failed to deliver the elegance, number of apps, ease of use and design of Apple’s product.

Over the recent holidays, tablet computers — including such alternatives as Amazon’s Kindle Fire — were one of the best-selling, most-desired items, with the Apple iPad still the most-popular tablet.

The latest research shows that more than half of people who own a tablet computer are between the ages of 18 and 50. If you’re not one of those who owns or has experienced a tablet, you may be asking, “What is a tablet computer?,” followed with the question, “Do I need one?”

To answer the first question, the typical tablet is a computer that is primarily a media consumption device, not much different in height and width from a sheet of paper. For instance, the specs for the second-generation iPad: 7.31 inches x 9.5 inches and 1.33 pounds (slightly heavier in the 3G version.)

The front surface is glass and nearly all screen, other than a slim bezel that surrounds the active area. The display is high-resolution, with color, not just black and white. Like a bigger version of a touchscreen iPhone with its single button, the interface is the surface of the glass itself and your fingertips. No stylus or keyboard comes with it, although there are aftermarket add-ons for that function. (Frankly, very few people would want to use the built-in “virtual keyboard” for anything more than jotting a few notes.)

As to the second question, “Do I need one?,” the short answer is no. Then again, nobody “needs” one, any more than we “need” clean clothes, regular showers and baths, a car, a place to live, and food and drink other than some Plumpy’nut and water.

The iPad has redefined how media is consumed, but is the popular tablet computer a need or a want?=

Maybe the question should be: “Would having a tablet computer such as an iPad enhance and enrich my life?”

I’d answer probably — but it still would not be a necessity if you already have a functioning laptop or desktop computer. But at the same time, if you get one, you won’t be disappointed.

Personally, my thinking was that iPads were novel, but I didn’t have a burning compulsion to get one. But a few weeks ago for my combined birthday-Christmas present, I received an iPad 2, thanks to the generosity of a longtime friend. I’ve been experiencing its utility ever since — when my two children aren’t playing “Angry Birds” and “Doodle Jump” on it.

Needless to say, I was happy to get an iPad as a gift. Honestly, though, left to my own devices (no pun intended), I probably would not have bought one. That’s because I use my laptop computer — an Apple MacBook Pro — to consume media, but I’m also a media creator, be it using the laptop to write this column, load the NikkeiNation.Net website or work on photos, videos and audio programs. I considered my laptop a necessity and a tablet a luxury.

Now, as an iPad user, I can see the fun, convenience and utility of having a tablet — and I’ve only just begun to exploit its capabilities.

For instance, thanks to the rich app environment, the lightweight, easy-to-use iPad has become an arrow in my quiver of tools I use in my fitness routine. I use it for playing music via Bluetooth headphones and to display an interval timer during exercise, then to track the results from my heart-rate monitor on the Polar Exercise Tracker website.

I’ve also used the iBooks store to buy a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” which I am reading from every night as a bedtime story for my kids.

As a web browsing tool, the iPad is fast and convenient, with long-battery life. In addition to playing recorded music, it can also store photos and purchased TV shows and movies. With built-in cameras front and back (iPad 2 only) for video, pictures and face-to-face teleconferencing, the iPad is simply a very versatile device.

It’s also compatible with Apple’s iCloud or virtual storage option announced last fall. This is a development that, as it evolves, could also change the routine of our lives. It also obviates the need to have a large-capacity built-in hard drive to store stuff because that stuff can be stored and accessed via cloud computing.

Not only that, Apple just announced an initiative to have interactive school textbooks for use on its iPads. If any company can take school-based book learning into the realm of what is technologically possible, it’s Apple.

One of the things the late Steve Jobs of Apple wanted the iPad to do was help save the publishing businesses of books, newspapers and magazines, which have been suffering from declining sales and revenues. It’s still early, very early, in this arena but the arrival of the iPad may be what saves these old, important industries from going the way of the dodo bird or friendly neighborhood record store.

The ease of use, portability and convenience of a tablet — unlike a desktop computer or even a laptop — is something that even elderly folks can embrace. Also, if the past is a predictor, tablets will become more powerful, cheaper and easier to use with every passing year. The inherent advantages of the iPad’s form factor and ease of use compared with a laptop make a compelling case for adoption.

I think tablets can also have a place in building and maintaining ties in the Japanese American community. This newspaper, for instance, could thrive if it survives long enough for a Rafu Shimpo app to arrive just as enough potential subscribers switch to digital delivery via the iPad. (Since software controls the iPad, switching to a language like Japanese from English is simplicity itself. It could probably also do rough translations back and forth.)

Furthermore, it’s not out of the question for a national organization like the Japanese American National Museum or the Japanese American Citizens League or the Buddhist Churches of America to approach a vendor like Apple and have its non-iPad-owning members buy in bulk at a volume discount (and possibly subsidized) price iPads or other tablets that could be used to disseminate information, serve as communications devices for meetings or, in the case of JANM, narrowcast an event or exhibition held at the L.A. location for members scattered across the land.

Recently Floyd Mori, who announced his impending resignation as JACL’s national director, wanted to make that organization’s Pacific Citizen newspaper all-digital (I’m presuming website-only) instead of newsprint. While I’m sure cost savings were a major part of his calculation, other advantages would include user-interactivity, scalability and online search. Speed for news dissemination would also have been a major advantage.

But JACL members, who skew demographically older and don’t necessarily take to newfangled techno doodads, railed against the idea and quelled that notion. They liked getting their newsprint newspaper, which I can understand. But make no mistake on this: In time, it will be digital or death.

In my opinion, however, Mori was correct, just like Steve Jobs was correct in dumping floppy disk drives in its computers years ago, or more recently eschewing Flash technology in iPads. Consumers yelped, at first; no one likes change when it is forced upon them. But does anyone now miss their floppy disks or wish their iPads had Flash to slow down their web browsing?

Mori, however, wasn’t in a dictatorial position like Jobs to force a digital transition. Timing is essential. IPads hadn’t yet taken hold when Mori broached the idea. Maybe within a few years, it will happen for JACL and other such groups.

By then, new generations of tablets will come out that have voice commands, greater capacity and ease of use. Not only that, they will be cheaper and make today’s cutting-edge iPad 2 look like a Neandertal.

Like I said, I still value my laptop more than my iPad, but perhaps it’s just because I’m more used to it. Maybe over time I’ll find that writing this column, for example, is just as feasible and easy (easier?) on an iPad. IKid you not.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)






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