Jump Ball


As an exercise in futility, I decided to see how long I could go without thinking about the iPad this weekend. So far it’s not going well. It’s not that the iPad is somehow the most important thing since fire or the wheel was invented. It’s that nobody else seems to have used all this free innovation time to come up with anything that comes close. Scoble offers Xbox Kinect as a worthy challenger, but I compare the number of times I see my kids playing with it to the noise cloud surrounding the iPad. It’s 20 to 1 easily.

But, Robert would say if I had him sitting right here, it’s amazing, so Minority Report-ish, etc. I’ll admit, it’s cool getting to do the super-secret spy analysis hand wave where instantaneous video from impossible camera angles complete with multiple cutaways are discarded with a gesture. Then there’s circling the shadowy out of focus suspect’s face from satellite orbit and “sharpening it up” until you can see the other conspirators reflecting in the guy’s eye. The technology is great, but it all falls apart when you put your best men on it. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters?

Seriously, how is Kinect going to work in Office? Will we be like Jerry Lewis typing merrily in thin air, keyboard- and clue-less? Will we construct a new sign language with gestures for expletive-laced searches, threads of bodily harm, inappropriate suggestions about where someone should go, frequently-repeated stock phrases (Winning!)? Or new methods of consuming realtime feeds by grabbing tweets and popping them in our mouths to hear read back to us by our favorite media personality holograms? I expect the Scobleizer video is being rendered as I ”type.”

No, Kinect is a feature, not a platform. It seems like the future, and it probably is part of it. If only they could replace Windows with it. Instead, Apple is doing it to them. By the end of the iPad 2 launch event this Wednesday, you could see a future without Windows. Not just Office dead, or in the cloud. An alternate universe, a path not taken, a recall of global proportions. As Doc Searls may have said or something like it, dead OS walking.

Everything about Wednesday was about what wasn’t yet said. As Steve Jobs moved through the material — the relentless comedy of competitors not quite getting there, of ideas bubbling up from the glass formerly known as a toy, of what was thinner, faster, smarter — the more you could see of what is going to happen to OS X, aka the Mac. The Mac is the new Apple II, it is being revealed. AirPlay is the new surface, push notification the Matrix, the combination of signals the canvas on which magic really is being practiced.

In the new film The Adjustment Bureau, there are moments that not so much take your breath away as leave you suspended in midair or mid-joke. You know what’s coming, as our heroes open a door in a long corridor and emerge by the monuments in center field. Not sure whether it’s CitiField or the new Yankee Stadium, it doesn’t matter. It’s funny and effortless, and you could imagine your own jokes — not just space but time, the night you first got lucky, the recording session for Kind of Blue. Nodding at Coltrane and settling to the floor in the corner to stay out of the way. Magic.

That’s what they’re bottling with GarageBand. Using the aerodynamics, the laws of gravity, where the beat lies in this new form of blues. I’m not saying they’ve made it possible for anyone to play. I’m saying they’ve cracked the code on providing levers to invent new sounds and rhythms. They’re at version 1 of the new platform, but already you can hear things I haven’t heard in a very long time. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not arguing that something has been automated or replaced or any of that Terminator stuff.

David Sanborn and I were telling stories about Paul Butterfield. We got there via Charlie Sheen, opening one door and then another, shaking our heads with the sad knowledge that sometimes you just have to disconnect for your own good. But then, another door, to a time when Paul recorded In My Own Dream. Paul had this way with a guitar, an acoustic that he turned into this kind of overtone drum, petting it and the muted strings like a velvet hammer. Soft but within this envelope a universe lived and breathed.

On stage Wednesday, the GarageBand developer demoed such a sound. It wasn’t the same thing, yet in its audacity it opened a door to some place and time where anything was possible, and often occurred. I think it was what made the Beatles so special, the lightness of being of the group’s humor. Drop the needle at any point and you hear this energy, casual optimism or hilarious darkness, the accumulated resonance of what came before and what would certainly come in the future. Nothing, not even the end, could stop us from playing the track again.

It brought the memory of Paul when I played a bass note on a Mini-Moog, a synthesizer Marcus Miller had programmed out in California and I’d brought East to a friend’s living room in Woodstock. Paul’s head jerked up like my dog’s does when he hears my wife’s car coming home on the street. It wasn’t the sound (awesome as it was) or the way Paul’s guitar and voice fed back through the Portastudio and into the room and drum kit. It was all of it. It was funny and expansive and full of possibility. As Jobs conducted the iPad 2 launch, you could tell he couldn’t keep from smiling.

I believe that’s at the heart of what people have called his reality distortion field. Nope. It’s the inspiration that comes to us as we see someone or some group or some country seize the possibilities of what has been done, and recognize the signature of what so much more can be done. Who knew what a silly thing like Twitter would bring? Right now we still don’t know, but applying this hybrid of instant and You’ve Got Mail and soapbox and Underground Railway has already shaken the world.

Applying a combination of gyroscope and accelerometer and touch and Apple has produced something that is velocity sensitive without that actual capability in the glass. What John Borthwick apologetically calls the Singularity is what I call the Audacity. And its ripples will overturn Windows as surely as OS X is back ported to iOS rather than the other way around. Our suppositions about the applications sitting atop the OS are now a jump ball. Our assumptions about Office: jump ball. Our presumptions about owning versus streaming: jump ball.

Steve Jobs described Apple’s edge as the intersection of technology and art. He played the Beatles non-stop at the launch, an audacity that worked because he challenged us to compare. At any moment, the Beatles’ momentum could have been stopped — by over or under reaching, by hubris without saving grace, by standing pat. Even the document of their failure gave birth to the moment on the roof where we see the alchemy of the group on Get Back, topped by just one more thing, the joke by Lennon about how he hoped they’d passed the audition.

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