iPad 2: faith and a See of good grass

I was there, at the iPad 2 launch. I was there as Steve Jobs made his surprise appearance.

I was there, at the iPad 2 launch. I was there as Steve Jobs made his surprise appearance. I was there to be told, as I have so often been told, that Apple is relentlessly superlative. That this is the year of the iPad, and that the iPad 2 takes all those unimprovable adjectives of marvel that the iPad earned, and improves them.

No. Not buying it. It's still an oversized, overpriced, not very useful mobile phone that can't make phone calls — albeit now available in white. But instead of going over what the iPad 2 is and isn't, let's have a look at the support system that propelled it into the world.

An Apple launch, these days, has a unique scent. The event proper takes place at the true epicentre of Apple fandom, downtown San Francisco, in the sanctified cathedral of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Yerba Buena means 'good grass', and the event reaches for the highs of heaven with all the rampant fervour of a religious revival. The journalists, for want of a better word to describe beings reporting from an elevated state of ecstatic receptivity, stomp and holler, give standing ovations, and generally affirm the life-changing miracles taking place on stage before them.

It's not like that over here. Apple books a large space — currently, a studio at the BBC's Television Centre is in favour — to show a satellite broadcast of the San Francisco event. The audience comes from all over Europe; there's always SRO (the Jobs' dictated Standing Room Only; empty seats come at a high price to the organisers), and at first the appearance — white, male, faint hint of hipster — looks much the same as the Yerba Buena Be-In.

Take a closer look. Although the darkened auditorium is liberally peppered with those glowing Apple logos of tribal affiliation, some are defaced by stickers: penguins, biohazard trefoils, even a vulture. We are at the edge of Empire, where products arrive later, more expensively and with hand-me-down American marketing. This slight sense of disrespect is reciprocated: heresy, apostasy and dissent aren't just tolerated, they're listened to.

And we don't applaud. Some try — to a one-way screen, already — but are glared into silence. Muttered yelps are as good as it gets, although a breakaway mob of Italians did get over-excited by the iPad 2's magnetic cover.

Also, we don't take pictures. Or rather, we do and try not to get caught. For, despite this being the year of our Lord Berners-Lee 2011, with every journo in the place equipped and ready to paste words, pictures and movies onto the Web, and despite the new product having the true miracle of video cameras, there are no pictures allowed. No recording of any sort. The event organisers spot the faintest glow of live photons from a viewfinder screen and shut it down. We're even given an FBI Warning style notice before the simulcast that Apple Public Relations owns our souls and won't hesitate to damn them, should we fail to comply.

As Apple didn't tell us this beforehand, failure to comply is more a badge of honour than a mortal sin.

And then it's an hour of superlatives from a spindly, look-I'm-still-here CEO, and a gadget that costs the same as two weeks' minimum wage. The only real innovation was the level of spritely spite reserved for the competition, roundly condemned as clueless losers more times in ten minutes than I remember from the last ten launches combined.

Reading the twitterstream afterwards, the sense that nothing had changed only grew. "I still haven't worked out what to do with my iPad 1, but I guess I'll have to buy this one!" said one. "A design classic! Take that, Android!" said another. "I want one so much I feel physically sick" and so on. But perhaps there were more this time than last, saying "I don't understand, why is this exciting?" and "if you spend your pocket money now, there'll be nothing left for the iPad 3 in September". Unlike Apple's true world-changers — the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone — if you stop believing in the iPad, it stops being useful.

It's high fashion, not high function, and high fashion falls the fastest of all. At some point, peak Apple will occur. We may even be there now. But look for signs that it has over here, in Europe. It'll take a lot of reality to penetrate that cathedral of good grass.


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