Why Tablets Are Content Creation Devices: It’s All About Context

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Kyle Lambert / YouTube

A finger painting of Stephen Fry created by artist Kyle Lambert using the iPad.

In the wake of my colleague Harry McCracken’s sensible commentary on Richard Gaywood’s TUAW piece about the iPad’s viability as a content creation tool, I wanted to write from the standpoint of someone with friends in both the pro-visual and audio side of the biz who increasingly use tablets as go-to devices for serious musical and visual content.

Spoiler: Yes, I view tablets as content creation devices in their own right. And by “content creation,” I mean everything from keying in a book to tapping out a music album to finger-sketching serious visual art.

But first I want to raise a point about context, about the perspective of some of the people who do what I do for a living and tend to shape the more visible public discussions about what devices like tablets are (or aren’t) good for. A lot of that discussion has to date been focused around whether the iPad, or really tablets in general, can or ought to or already do one-up your garden variety laptop or desktop computer.

(MORE: I’m Sorry, All Computers Are Fundamentally Compromised Content-Creation Devices)

It’s an interesting conversation, one worth having repeatedly as we work out what we want our personal technology to do (to refine is to revisit, there’s no shame in that). It’s also just a facet of a more complex, nuanced question about how consumers can extend a product’s range of use well beyond those of the product’s architects, as well as the ways in which subtle shifts in the technology landscape — tablets were old news at the enterprise level well before the iPad arrived — can lead to tectonic ones once consumers weigh in.

How you have this conversation depends on your frame of reference, of course. Do gadget-focused bloggers who play with tablets fully appreciate how people outside their gadget-angled purview use these things? When I see debates about whether the iPad’s perfectly flat glass touchscreen fails in terms of its tactile fidelity, compared with a keyboard or mouse, or assertions that content creation on such devices given those “limitations” is “niche,” I worry something’s getting lost in translation.

I have no more proof than Gaywood that content creation isn’t niche, by the way, and my experience is probably circumscribed by my tendency to spend a lot of time with writers, musicians and visual artists. But the rate at which I’ve seen these people both assimilate and then integrate the iPad into their daily creation routines over the past two years has been astonishing. And the things I’ve seen casual users, i.e. friends, relatives and colleagues, produce with these devices — not just fiddling with them as toys — have at times been breathtaking.

I’m also not sure I fully agree that all computing devices are fundamentally compromised content creation devices. If we hold that as true, then don’t we also have to hold that all technology is fundamentally flawed, from pencils to erasers and paintbrushes to pianos, at which point the phrase “fundamentally compromised” loses its import? I’m not sure “compromised” is the right word here. Even our sensory abilities (eyes, ears, hands) can seem compromised at times, after all, in terms of translating ideas to Bristol board or staff paper.

I do agree that it’s silly to criticize a touchscreen for not being a mouse, but for the same reasons it’s silly to accuse a pencil of not being a pen, or a pen of not being a paintbrush, or a paintbrush of not being a piano. These things have specific uses (as well as occasional unconventional ones). It’s just as wrongheaded, in my opinion, to expect a tablet to do everything a computer does, as it would be to expect a computer to do everything a tablet does. To call these things “compromised” because of what they do or don’t do can, I think, confuse what they’ve either been designed for, or at times unexpectedly appropriated to do.

Let’s return to context. Gaywood acknowledges in his piece that people have managed all sorts of complex content creation feats with tablets, from writing novels to creating sculptures to drafting visual art. But he then waves much of that away by stating, “Great content can be produced with even the most awkward of tools, but it’s clearly silly to suggest this intrinsically means that all interfaces are equal.”

It’s certainly true that not all interfaces are created equal, but doesn’t that overlook a still more crucial point? That not all context for said interfaces is equal?

In a large room with comfortable chairs and ergonomic furniture — my preferred lighting, preferred acoustics, etc. — and all the various types of creation tools at my disposal, I (as a pianist) would probably pick a MIDI-enabled acoustic piano to work on a piece of music in a professional DAW like Pro Tools or Cubase or Logic Pro.

But in a home studio with space constraints, I might instead pick something like Yamaha’s acoustic/sampled hybrid, the AvantGrand. And in a home office with extreme space limits, I might employ a much smaller digital keyboard, like the Kawai MP10 or the Nord Piano. And while on the go — in a car, on a train, on an airplane, sitting under a tree in my backyard — I might well turn to a tablet and Garage Band to work on a musical project (serious or otherwise).

Haven’t I just made Gaywood’s point by describing a series of downward stepwise compromises? I don’t think so. I’d love to have 20 or 30 fingers to play the piano instead of just 10. We work with the tools at hand in a given situation. (You should incidentally hear musicians who can do extraordinary things with just five fingers!)

Without the Yamaha AvantGrand, or the smaller digital keyboard, or the tablet, I’d have no piano in the home studio, no digital keyboard in the office, and nothing to interface with, music-wise, while on the go. In other words, the latter three seem more like opportunities, not compromises.

Let’s talk about fidelity, or maybe the better word would be authenticity. Take someone arranging music for orchestra. Such a person might use a sample library of orchestral sounds, then articulate them using a MIDI keyboard. The point might be to use the sample library to rough the music eventually intended to be played by an actual orchestra, or it might, just as validly, be to craft a musical experience from the sample library itself. The MIDI keyboard in the former case is an intermediary between the  compositional idea and the final product, played by an actual orchestra. But in the latter case, it’s the instrument itself and not an intermediary at all.

Tablets can be roughing tools as well as serious endpoint content creation devices — the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

It’s not just about spatial constraints, either — sometimes it’s about actually preferring one interface to another. Do I need to explain why Garage Band on a tablet can be a much more liberating compositional experience, sitting in a park, or lying in bed, or out on the go, then, say, dragging your entire mini-studio and desktop/laptop around with you just to use the more granular, MIDI-instrument-controlled OS X version?

The same carried over to the drawing paradigm in lieu of dragging along paper and pencils and erasers, a video camera to capture yourself sketching an incredibly photorealistic portrait and a computer to upload all that to YouTube?

In those contexts, is tablet content creation a compromise or an opportunity? Something only a handful of people are going to be interested in, or (increasingly) multitudes? You tell me.

MORE: TouchFire: The iPad’s Keyboard Gets Physical