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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The missing quality

The iPad is an amazing, culture-changing tool-as long as you don't drop it

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

I had an opportunity a few days ago to spend a whole half hour with a brand new iPad. To say that it's a remarkable little tool is a vast understatement. It is culture-changing-on the order of moveable type, the Linotype, and the original Macintosh computer that came out in 1984.

If you think my three examples show my prejudice for the field of publishing, I will quickly agree. But it's the main field in which I can speak from experience. And from that experience, I can also tell the experts at Apple exactly where their iPad-astonishing as it is-is still deficient.

The iPad, like all of its competitors, won't be perfect until it is droppable. The engineers need to build into these amazing little gizmos the same quality that newspapers, magazines, and books have had for years. The issue of WORLD magazine you're reading right now-unless you're online, like any of the 100,000-plus people who use our web content every month-has that critical attribute the geeks in Silicon Valley have so far apparently ignored. Drop this copy of WORLD, and it's none the worse for such wear.

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I have dropped moveable type. My dad first introduced me to a dozen different fonts of "handset" type when I was 7 years old. Each piece of lead type (can you imagine letting your children handle raw lead?) is about the size of a small paper clip, and must be carefully assembled (keep in mind that moveable type, like a rubber stamp, is backward and in a mirror image) from a large compartmentalized tray called a California job case. That's a challenge for little fingers. When printers drop type, it's called "pi," and I can't tell you how much moveable type-and other parts of my life-I've pied.

I have also dropped a Linotype. Four years after teaching us to set moveable type, Dad bought a Model L Linotype and installed it in our basement. Even a Model L, one of the simplest of all Linotypes, weighs well over a ton and has thousands of moving parts. The genius of the Linotype is its mechanical ability to manipulate about 1,200 tiny brass molds, each the size of a quarter, lining them up at the keyboard command of the human operator and casting a lead "line of type" into the molds before automatically sorting out and re-storing the molds for repeated use. If you saw one running, you would agree with Thomas Edison, who called the Linotype the "eighth wonder of the modern world."

So with all of five years' experience as an operator, I bought a 25-year-old but fully operative Linotype to take with me to college. With it, Dad and I agreed, I could earn my way through school-and end up with a useful machine as well. Neither of us counted on a critical error. While we inched the machine down a stairway toward the basement room I had rented, a chain gave way-and the Linotype, with all my life savings, tumbled ruinously to the bottom. By God's grace, no one was on the lower side of the huge machine. I visited that stairway last week, noticed the chipped edges of the concrete steps, and observed a moment of silence. I couldn't help thinking: Genius that Ottmar Mergenthaler was in Edison's eyes as the Linotype's inventor, he forgot to make his machine droppable.

I'm blessed never to have dropped one of the several Macintosh computers that since their appearance in 1984 have transformed the publishing industry. One of my grandchildren did, a couple of months ago, spill a cup of water on the keyboard of his family's laptop-and the results were a good bit more expensive than if it had sloshed all over that week's issue of WORLD.

I couldn't help thinking of all this last week when I noticed the badly shattered glass face on the iPhone of one of WORLD's reporters. "What happened?" I asked. "Dropped it on the sidewalk-but amazingly, it still works. But naturally, it's a little hard to see what's on the screen."

Theologically, we call it "The Fall." On every front, "far as the curse is found," we see its effects. And we pray for a Redeemer with the power to make all things droppable.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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