The Real Value of Tablet Computers to Creators

Tablet computers showing images of sky

When the iPad was launched, amid all the huzzahs and hoopla, there were a few murmurs of discontent from the creative community.

“Sure, it looks slick, but you can’t make anything with it.”

“If this isn’t ‘lean back’ media, I don’t know what is.”

‘Lean back’, of course, was a reference to Jakob Nielsen’s well-known distinction between television (‘lean back’ = passive consumption) and the Web (‘lean forward’ = active creation).

So criticisms of the iPad as a ‘lean back’ device were effectively suggesting that Apple was selling out – abandoning its traditional role as the creator of computers for creators, and pandering to the masses, by giving the couch potatoes the ultimate couch surfing device.

Now that the tablet wars are hotting up, the iPad is no longer the only game in tablet town, with the proliferation of different sizes and flavours of Kindle. (Here the line between ‘tablet’ and ‘e-reader’ gets blurred, but the essential form and function – a flat screen for consuming rather than producing media – is the same.)

There’s even a $35 ‘Made in India’ tablet – the Aakash – which is being developed to take tablet computing to people who could never contemplate buying an iPad:

The rich have access to the digital world, the poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide.

Kapil Sibbal, Telecom and Education Minister, India

It looks as though these things are going to be as common as phones, as common as books.

Everywhere you look, people will be surfing, reading, watching, listening: email, websites, books, videos, music; in bed, on the sofa, on the train, on the loo, underwater and in outer space.

So the question posed for creators by the launch of the iPad is only going to get more pressing:

Are these just shiny new objects, distracting us from our real work of creating something meaningful? Or do they offer us something distinctive and valuable, that can help us realise our creative ambitions in new ways?

I’m going to suggest the latter, for two reasons – one of them about you as a creator, the other about your audience.

1. Consumption Is Part of Creation

Since I got a Kindle, I’ve been buying and reading a lot more books: poetry, novels, memoirs, biographies. Books about business, creativity, languages, cultures and social networks. Shakespeare, Milton, H.P. Lovecraft, R.L. Stevenson, David Bowie, Derek Sivers and Chris Brogan.

I’ve spent less time skimming ephemera from the web, and more time reading genuinely thoughtful, fascinating and stimulating writing.

I’ve also taken the time to read some PDF e-books that have been kicking around my ‘to read’ folder for a while. When I’m at the laptop, I’m busy writing, making things and interacting with other people via email and social networks. There’s always something to do, so there’s never time to sit and read a 50 page e-book at the desk.

But reading on the sofa, or a train or plane, is a completely different experience. I have time to slow down and read, not just skim. I’m not in a hurry. I can make notes on the device, and come back to them later. I’m learning a lot. Getting plenty of new ideas.

The iPad has a similar effect, even if you’re just surfing the web. Reading in your leisure time, when you have time to relax, reflect and absorb, is very different to skimming something at work, when you feel like you should really be doing something else.

Is all of this good for creativity? Of course. Because consumption is part of creation.

Garbage in, garbage out. You can’t produce amazing stuff, unless you’re consuming amazing stuff. And a ‘lean back’ tablet will help you do just that.

2. Your Potential Audience Is Growing Exponentially

So tablet computers are making it easier for us to consume digital media, in places more conducive to reading/watching/listening than a work desk. Which is great for creating – but the implications for publishing are even more exciting …

A few years ago, if you were self-publishing digital content – via a blog, newsletter, podcasts, YouTube videos etc – your audience was mainly restricted to geeks.

These days, when the internet has gone mainstream, you can reach a lot more ‘normal’ people (especially if you offer an email subscription as well as RSS). But you’re still reaching them at work, when their attention is divided.

Or maybe on their smart phone, on the commute. But when they get home, they are likely to ditch the small screen for the 30 inch plasma that dominates their living room.

But now there’s a new species in the domestic digital ecosystem. It’s small and unassuming – a mere furry rodent compared to big beasts like the home cinema, hi-fi stack or games console – but it represents a huge opportunity for creators.

Every time someone looks down from the TV and reaches for their iPad, they give you an opportunity.

Every time someone walks past the newsstand and downloads their morning read on the Kindle Fire, they give you an opportunity.

Every time someone browses through the Kindle store, looking for something new and different, they give you an opportunity.

Every time someone puts a low-cost tablet in the hands of a person on the other side of the planet, they give you an opportunity.

As the market for tablets explodes, so does your potential audience. The more people who are consuming digital media, the more people you can reach with your media.

So the game for creators is getting a whole lot bigger – in every sense.

Now, instead of competing for your audience’s attention with spreadsheets, email, and the minutes of last week’s meeting, you are competing with the TV, the DVD player, the PlayStation, the stereo, the bookshelf, the morning paper, and the magazine rack.

Instead of competing with other bloggers in your niche, with Twitter and Facebook, with Foursquare and Angry Birds, you are competing with CNN, the BBC, Mad Men, Kubrick, The King’s Speech, Grand Theft Auto, Beethoven, Lady Gaga, Steinbeck, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, the New York Times, and Wired.

Which raises the bar, does it not?

Because if you’re not as engaging, exciting, educational, entertaining or downright enthralling as the other things on that list, why should people choose to pay attention to you, instead of them?

Daunting? Maybe.

Exciting and inspiring? For a real creator, I should think so.

What Do You Think?

If you own a tablet, do you think it has had a positive or negative effect on your creativity?

Are you excited by the potential of tablet computers to open up your work to new audiences?

What other creative opportunities can you see with the proliferation of tablets?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, add Mark on Google+.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I have a friend, a cartoonist and artist who has been delightedly writing in Facebook about his creations on the ipad, so, perhaps it isn’t as lean back as people have predicted. Somewhere he got an app to draw there.

    I agree about the new challenge. A very exciting time.

    • That’s a great example!

      Yes, it’s possible to use the iPad for ‘lean forward’ creating – just as it’s possible to read ebooks on a laptop. My piece is about their typical uses, but of course there are exceptions to the rule. πŸ˜‰

  2. I’ve been stuck on whether to buy a tablet or not for the past 6 months, but I think your post has just pushed me over the line to buy one – thanks! I, too, have a stack of ebooks I haven’t got to reading, but more importantly, I am starting to see how I can create stuff for a tablet and take it into the classroom much more easily.

    • I hope you find it a good creative investment!

      Yes, much easier to take a tablet than a stack of books. The literary equivalent of the iPod’s ‘1,000 tunes in your pocket’.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the post. I have found a tablet to be very useful when my girlfriend says, “Simon, let’s go shopping together”. I really have little choice in the matter and I think to myself, “Ohhhh noooo, the last thing I want to do is go shopping!” But sometimes we all must make compromises. So I ponder, “how can I please her, but at the same time make progress in my business?”

    Ahhhhh, the tablet. I know its only a minor difference but, laptops are not as light or as easy to transport around a shopping centre. After awhile (shopping with my girlfriend takes a long time) the computer bag gets very heavy on my shoulder and my weakening skeletal frame becomes a little lopsided.

    So, whilst my girlfriend is happily wandering through the clothes racks forever trying on new dresses, new colours and new styles, I am reading the latest lateral action blogs and researching emarketing on a tablet. Finally, she comes back from the dressing room with a lovely dress looking beautiful and fulfilled, whilst I have passed 3 hours in a shopping mall and made my time productive on a tablet. I pass her my wallet and everyone is happy, including the shopkeeper.

    However, if I need to do much typing, I much prefer to use a laptop (Macbook Pro) because I like the feel of the keys. A little weird but important to me. I really dislike touch-typing on a piece of glass.

    All the best,

    • Glad to hear you’re putting the technology to such good use! (And compliments on your reading matter!)

      Don’t tell anyone, but I find the Kindle app on the iPhone the ideal choice when you want to discretely lose yourself in a book while out and about. πŸ˜‰

  4. Hi Mark

    A very interesting argument for the use of the tablet – I had better rush out and purchase one )to make sure I get the opportunity to be more creative and dynamic than I am currently!
    (Big grins)

  5. Omg, where do I begin! Definitely expanded my reading list with at least 2-3 new books a month and if I don’t want to pay for them, there are tons of classics available for free, not to mention my library systems on-line books.
    I used to journal every day. Like Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” i knew that physically writing was what I needed but arthritis hampered my ability to write. Actually it was very painful. For Xmas my husband gave me a special stylus to use with an App that allowed me to hand-write again. With little pressure I am able to journal again. Every day-pain free. Not only do I write in my “journal” I can make sound bites, insert video clips, cut and paste photos which I can draw over and around. All inside my journal-quicly and seamlessly.
    I had always wanted to try my hand at painting…but getting paint, setting it all up, etc. well there are a couple of great Apps out there that I have. After playing around with both, I have my fave. Now instead of dreaming about making time to paint, I play around with painting at least twice a week.
    Next project…music…found a cool app for this too πŸ™‚

  6. I always say that generally speaking my iPad is good for consumption not for production (beyond short email responses). But, as you shared in this post, I also have found that by having a “consumption devise” I’m more able both consume and produce. By separating my consumption and production times I have enjoyable, relaxing consumption when away from my desk and then also have truly productive time at my computer with less distractions.

    For me this is a winning combination.

  7. I am reading your article on my iPad – so I just had to comment!
    I definitely see a positive impact on my creative work – I write more, I sketch more & I read more. And it’s all synced to my laptop – which is the best, as it saves me time and hassle.
    A short note on consumption: I especially like the Flipboard app – as I’m a visual person – with that I get all the blogs, articles and even my social media streams in a nice magazine layout – customised by me!

  8. I thought the same thing at first – that it would be more for consumption than creation, but as these things go, it doesn’t seem to be the case. I, too, read more because of my Kindle. I’ve not mastered the note-taking and transfer to evernote, but I’m working on it. Guys in my Bible Study get the study materials on their iPads and use them to take notes. About half the guys are using it. With all the ‘giveaways’ I just hope to get one some day! πŸ˜‰

  9. Hi Mark

    I know this is going to sound cliche’, but I am going to use it anyway.

    Happy new year.

    This is the first time I am speaking to you this year so I think I am in order.

    “Consumption is part of creation. Garbage in, garbage out.”

    I agree with that hands down.

    You know it happens all the time when creating music. If you listen to quality work from other artists, you tend to produce quality work yourself.

    Why? Because you know what great work sounds or feels like and you hold yourself to that standard. Anything short of that, you see it as something not good enough.

    And that is how it should be. That is how you create something amazing.

    • Thanks Sam, Happy New Year to you too!

      And I completely agree about musical consumption. In fact, as a writer I often consume music at the same time as I’m creating writing. (This morning my words are powered by high-octane rocket fuel in the form of Bowie‘s masterpiece Station to Station

  10. Javier Tenorio says:

    My ipad has given me huge amounts of time to complete personal and proffesional goals. Even when notebooks will stll be needed, the quickness to turn on and off, and the speed to start doing in an app has given any creator extra time that before the tablets were available wasn’t easy to have. Meal being cook? 2 extra minutes for creation… Wife’s taking a bath? 7 extra minutes…. Your customer has a delay? 10 extra minutes for creativity….
    Ever read the book “The Outliers” where the author proposes that for someone to be good at something they need 10,000 hours of dedication… Tablets are making simpler for people to reach the 10,000 hours.

  11. I love my Nook Simple Touch and I like the e-paper eReaders-the feel more like a paper book. I also like the fact that it tries to “feel” like a book.

    However, for internet surfing I don’t understand tablet computers. I use the web mainly for readiang and for writing-for which I prefer a keyboard.

    While I think tablets have its place, for many it is a glorified Television Set or Game machine.

  12. Maybe a bit late but as a tablet beginner I just wanted to share my thoughts here.

    As Javier mentioned before it is quite a benefit in my opinion to be able to use the smallest amounts of spare time for work. And may it be only 5 minutes or so in which you spell check a paragraph of this upcoming blog post or change the outline of something you are currently working on.

    I personally git myself an Android device with attachable keyboard (I will not mention any company or product name here πŸ˜‰ ). This, in fact, makes the tablet some kind of convertible netbook, which suits me best during my daily commute times.
    It’s been only a week now since I got my hands on the tablet and the real experiences are still to come (you know, geeky playtime with the new toy…) but I am sure that it will improve quality and quantity of output for me.
    Time will tell, as the saying goes.

  13. Very interesting topic, Mark, and I think you raise two excellent points here. I think another great prospect regarding the commercial proliferation of tablets is that we’re seeing so many new creative apps and tools being developed, simply because there’s enough of a market now to properly support and sustain them.

  14. I was recently given a tablet as a gift, and I’m still working on figuring out how to use it in a positive way rather than a time waster. I like your ideas about how making online content more mobile is good for both us as consumers and for our readers. Do you have any articles about specific apps for tablets that you enjoy or have found useful?