The Things We Carry!

Before you even decide on an iPad, the rest of the world is off making designer bags for it.

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I don’t need an iPad. I don’t want an iPad. But every few days for the last two months, I’ve spent some time thinking about whether or not I need an iPad, or want an iPad. Apple’s TV commercials for the product aren’t making me ask these questions. Neither are all the cool things an iPad can reportedly do. I’ve heard there are apps for magazines like Wired and Sports Illustrated that are so remarkable they’re going to save the magazine industry, but I have no idea what makes them so mind-blowing. I do read a lot of websites that specialize in showcasing new products, though, and every few days now, at least one of these sites features some new iPad case that catches my eye.

 

It started on April 1, two days before the iPad’s official release. Hypebeast featured a canvas and leather iPad case manufactured by Temple Bags. At first, I was struck by the way an iPad case neatly echoed the iPad itself. Just as you don’t actually need an iPad to watch movies, read e-books, browse the web, or do any of the other things that an iPad can do, you don’t actually need a specially designed case to transport an iPad. Your hands can do this, a backpack can do this, a pocketbook can do this — the iPad case is an unnecessary product for an unnecessary product.

This double superfluousness intrigued me, but what really sold me was the case’s scuffed leather, its not-too-shiny brass hardware, its beautiful craftsmanship. The iPad itself was getting mixed reviews — it couldn’t multi-task or run Flash, it didn’t have a webcam, it lacked USB ports, its virtual keyboard was only good for brief bouts of typing, its had limited memory — but the Temple iPad case seemed perfectly designed. And because shopping blogs all tend to feed off each other, it kept popping up in my data stream. After the third or fourth viewing, I definitely wanted one. Which of course means I sort of want an iPad. Not explicitly. Not even consciously. But if I’m imagining myself owning the Temple iPad case, picturing it, well, I guess there must be an actual iPad involved somewhere in this fantasy, too…

In two months, Apple has sold two million iPads worldwide. In the early days of its release, predictions of such success were far from unanimous. Not only were there serious doubts about the iPad’s many technical limitations, there were serious doubts about tablet computers in general. “Steve Jobs didn’t invent the tablet computer,” wrote Time’s Lev Grossman. “In the past 10 years, practically every serious PC company has shipped one…But nobody has ever gotten the marketplace to pay attention. The tablet computer is like a siren that calls seductively to computer engineers, only to wreck them fatally on the stony coast of our total lack of interest.”

But if the tech journalists were skeptical, the case vendors believed! New products to protect and transport the iPad have been flooding the web over the last two months, and each one is yet another advertisement for the iPad, a vote cast in favor of its legitimacy and its future. Hip Handmaidens offers a case that looks like a giant sanitary napkin. ModulR offers one that integrates a range of accessories, so you can mount your iPad on a car seat or display it on a table like a picture frame. There are iPad holsters, suits with iPad-sized pockets, dresses with iPad-sized pouches, and designer cases from luxury brands like Louis Vuitton.

Pots help sell plants. Bookshelves move books. It’s the same with high-tech gadgets. The usefulness of the iPad may still be up for debate, but the case vendors have already literally created a place for it in our lives. If you buy a 20-pair shoe cubby, you’re probably going to end up with at least 20 pairs of shoes. If your wallet has room for eight credit cards, you better make sure you’re fiscally responsible because you will fill each of those slots. Voids seek to be filled. If you’re going for a hike in your local state park, you may have no interest in taking your cell phone along. You may be going for a hike precisely to get away from cell phones, in fact, plus coverage is unlikely there anyway. But if your backpack comes with a cell phone holster on its shoulder strap, you might second-guess your decision to leave your cell phone behind. Others must be bringing theirs on similar excursions; if they weren’t, the holster wouldn’t be there. Its presence reinforces the idea that carrying a cell phone at all times is the standard thing to do, the normal thing to do, a given. Similarly, if the iPad wasn’t a must-have gizmo capable of enhancing our lives in infinite ways, would we have so many iPad cases to choose from already? Maybe all those earlier tablets failed simply because we’d had no place to put them.

Apple wants you to believe in the iPad’s simplicity, its ability to declutter your life. It wants you to believe this so badly that it sacrifices utility for the sake of metaphor. Look how clean and streamlined the iPad is. It has no physical keyboard, barely any buttons — it feels more efficient before you even start doing anything with it. Once again, the iPad case echoes this perfectly. You’re not going to spend 10 minutes rooting inside your form-fitted iPad case looking for your iPad. It’s right there. You’re not going throw some book or newspaper you’re never going to read into your iPad case just before you hit the laundromat, because there’s no room for these things. Like the device it’s designed to hold, an iPad case is pretty much a single-tasker. It holds an iPad, and if you get one of the more capacious ones, maybe a couple of pens. But that’s OK, because, really, what else do you need? You’ve got an iPad, and an iPad does everything you want to be doing. So while a bigger bag might be more practical, it would reduce the iPad’s perceived utility. A sleek, single-purpose iPad case reinforces the iPad’s status as the only computing device you need, which in turn increases demand for more iPad cases. And, thus, while content creators look to the iPad as the silver bullet that can magically get consumers to start paying $5 for a single magazine again, it’s no new morning for everyone. Briefcase manufacturers, adapt or die! • 8 June 2010

 

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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