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What Asia gets about the iPad that the U.S. doesn’t

Even as U.S. consumers continue to debate whether the iPad is more like a gigantic iPhone or a miniature laptop, international entrepreneurs have already gotten over the "what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this?" factor and are already putting Apple’s newest mobile device to real use: [T]he iPad in Asia is starting to make a mark in the business world — ...

GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images
GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Even as U.S. consumers continue to debate whether the iPad is more like a gigantic iPhone or a miniature laptop, international entrepreneurs have already gotten over the "what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this?" factor and are already putting Apple’s newest mobile device to real use:

[T]he iPad in Asia is starting to make a mark in the business world — it’s for example already being used by a Japanese wedding planning company, will soon be integrated into the day-to-day operations of a luxury hotel chain and an Australian airline will offer it to clients on their flights for a small additional fee.

Also in Australia, a prominent restaurant owner has boldly converted his menus and wine lists into an iPad-friendly format and isn’t looking back.

It’s remarkable just how quickly Asia’s begun to experiment with the iPad in a creative, commercial setting. I’m not aware of any Western — or, for that matter, American — firm that’s taken to the iPad in such innovative ways. That doesn’t mean Asia will necessarily stay ahead of the adoption curve forever. Nor is this evidence that U.S. companies are finally being outstripped by the long-awaited Asian juggernaut. But the United States had an extra two months to play with the iPad before it was released internationally, and the U.S. market still sees the device as little more than a souped up e-reader and, in some circles, as an expensive cat toy. (Stephen Colbert made salsa with his.) The staggering amount of satire that’s been leveled at the iPad since its U.S. debut seems to reflect a fundamental confusion about the iPad’s role in American digital society, a confusion that isn’t shared by entrepreneurs in Australia or Japan. So what gives?

Tablet computing is a fairly new industry even among the most developed countries of the world, so the playing field is already pretty level when it comes to the iPad. As such, the "Asia-as-tech giant" argument that would normally apply here does a poor job explaining both Asia’s effective use of the device as well as why the United States — the country that first conceived the iPad — has been so slow to do anything more productive with it than blow it up.

A different reason why the United States lags here could be cultural. In some circumstances, computer illiteracy is worn as a badge of pride, a kind of rebellious symbol of anti-trendiness. In the same way that it’s cool to know how to drive a car with manual transmission, it can be cooler not to use electronic gadgetry when everyone else seems tethered to theirs. Combine the cultural factor with low overall broadband penetration and high subscription costs, and what you get is sluggish adoption rates of new technology across the board.

But the cultural argument is, I think, less convincing than the marketing argument. Take a look at Apple’s iPad advertisements. The TV spot targets casual end-users — ordinary consumers. The focus is on entertainment — streaming video, games, and novels, with a little music-making on the side. Apps are the iPad’s strong suit. Small, downloadable programs expand the device’s functionality beyond the boundaries of its hardware. Not only does Apple have a specific type of user in mind for the iPad; it’s also telling that user what she should do with the object in her hands. What sets the iPad apart from other tablet computers, though, is that its actual potential is largely measured in terms of context and scenario — not by its capabilities.

The conceptual hurdle that Asia’s innovators seem to have overcome — and Americans haven’t, yet — has to do with recognizing the iPad’s potential as a tool for accomplishing larger, more complex tasks in the real world. Apple thinks the iPad is meant to help users do more on the Internet. That’s true — to a point. But Asia’s up-and-coming businesses understand that the iPad’s appropriate place is actually closer to the intersection of reality and digital life.

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