virtual workplace


If you, like me, are weighing the pros and cons of the various e-readers out there, you may be wondering if the iPad might be the cost-effective choice (despite its $750 price tag for 3G). Every year brings a new development in web functionality and digital publishing, and no one has quite figured out yet which combination of features works best on which size gadget. Most of us have figured out that the smartphone is just too small for meaningful computing, yet the laptop, at times, is just too big. Many of us are thinking the tablet is the answer. But is now the right time to buy? If the e-reader function is at the top of your must-have list, I believe the answer is no – or at least, not yet.

I bought my Kindle several years ago – it’s not the latest generation, but it’s not the oldest either. But now that real industry standards for epub 3 are out, last week I bought the iPad 2, which supports epub 3 and thus enhanced e-books – something the Kindle can’t do. So far three authors have asked me to integrate enhanced features in their manuscripts and proposals, and since I also do book design, the iPad is unquestionably a game-changer. So the decision to buy was a simple business decision: required product research. But I was also personally interested in the iPad’s functionality as a multi-purpose computing tool – could it replace my laptop too? If it was a good e-reader, and it could let me edit on the run, it would be a considerable bargain.

Here are the pros and cons of each, as one avid cloud-computer and e-reader sees it:

Kindle

Pros:

  • Lightweight (easy to hold in one hand, just like a book)
  • Digital ink is easy on the eyes for long periods of reading
  • Page-turning is easy on the eyes (screen just refreshes instead of sliding, blurry, to the next page like the iPad)
  • Convenient one-hand reading (“next page” button is right where your hand is when holding it – no need to touch the screen)
  • Affordable price for an e-reader ($139 for wi-fi, or $114 if you don’t mind advertisements). More than pays for itself if you consider the saved space on your bookshelves, saved time in ordering, and saved money in e-versions. I buy a LOT of books.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G: I like my 3G, but there was no wi-fi option when I bought mine. My husband has the wi-fi version, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. Since Kindle is an exclusive e-reader, it’s not a huge inconvenience (for U.S. users, at least) to make sure to download books when you’re in range. You don’t need to be connected to read your books. So the even more affordable wi-fi version seems adequate.
  • Overall – a reader’s e-reader, great for reading standard books and curling up on the couch

Cons:

  • Does not have full Internet browser. So it can’t double as a phone (via skype), a computer, etc. This means it’s another gadget to carry that may duplicate perfectly adequate e-reading technology in your phone or laptop.
  • Does not have enhanced e-book capabilities. Epub 3 has just been released, so almost all publishers are working to take full advantage of its design capabilities. Video, enlarged graphics, and multiple links will be seamlessly integrated with the text, which means reading these books absolutely requires constant connection to the web. A touchscreen will almost certainly be the primary way to interface best with these books – or whatever they will be called. (“Enhanced e-book” is just too long a term to be used for much longer. This is definitely a new animal, but no one’s named it yet – we’re still just describing it, because it’s still being made.) Enter – the iPad.

iPad

Pros:

  • Enhanced e-book capabilities (for significance, see above)
  • Full Internet browser. This is the multifunctional gadget extraordinaire: if you save docs in the cloud it can double as a laptop (as long as you’re just primarily reading them); it syncs to iTunes so it doubles as an iPod, and if you need more screen space it can also double as a second monitor. For some it could function as both a laptop and a more convenient e-reader. The larger screen makes it much more user-friendly than a smartphone – but like a smartphone, it’s still primarily for e-mail, document viewing, and entertainment – until Office and Adobe CS go fully into the cloud.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G – iPad has both versions, just like the Kindle does, but since there’s no point in buying the iPad if you don’t want to take advantage of its internet browser, the 3G is far more valuable to the iPad than the Kindle, which makes the price differential even greater (see below).
  • Overall, a convenient e-reader for early adopters – for those who prefer their e-reader as a side dish rather than the main course, and who were primarily looking for a larger smartphone screen. The iPad’s main course is convenient Internet access everywhere, taking full advantage of all the web has to offer (which is a lot). But it’s not everything:

Cons:

  • The PRICE – for 3G, which I think you would absolutely need if you depended on its internet features away from home, it runs upward of $750, compared to $139 or less for a Kindle wi-fi.
  • The weight – too heavy to hold for reading in one hand.
  • Backlit screen and motion-sickness-inducing page sliding is harder on the eyes (sliding applies to epub 2 designed books – which, granted, is the past industry standard, but most e-books available now are in this format). Disclaimer: few may be bothered by the blurring of the page when swiping to turn pages, but I read pretty quickly and very often, so this swiping adds up for me.

If you haven’t already deduced, after using the iPad for a little while, I still much prefer my Kindle for reading books. The iPad is just too heavy to hold like a book, and the touchscreen (although it allows for cool design features in epub 3 books like translucent pages that really look like they’re turning) means you have to keep moving your hand to turn the page. (The Kindle has a button right where your hand is when you’re holding the book, so you don’t even have to move your hand. Very easy one-hand reading.) As an e-reader, Kindle is just easier for me to use. I look at a backlit screen all day, so the digital ink is a relief.

Even though it’s beautifully designed, as an e-reader the iPad is too much like a computer, yet as a laptop, it’s too much like a smartphone – it’s too small (even with the add-on keyboard, which is awkwardly small). I need the full features of Microsoft Word to do my work, which isn’t available on the cloud yet. So I can’t say I’d personally recommend it, based on what I need a portable gadget to do.

Bottom line: an iPad is great for people who have limited e-reader needs and limited computing needs, and want the latest and greatest multifunctional gadget that can combine an e-reader and full internet access, where the Internet functionality is the main course and the e-reader’s an added bonus. It’s also a must-have for publishing professionals and designers, as it’s a game-changer right now. But if you’re a heavy e-reader user or a heavy laptop user, it isn’t quite good enough on either count. Also, the price is very high right now, while Kindle’s is pretty low – the differential is about $600. You can get away with the wi-fi Kindle if you’re careful to buy books when you’re in range, if it isn’t too inconvenient. Everyone’s investing in tablet technology right now, and even though Apple’s is the most impressive tablet to date, I don’t think the iPad has got it quite right yet – I’d wait until more workhorse computer programs have a fully functional cloud version for the general public (like Office and Adobe CS) so internet access is enough to do a full day’s work, or until more books are using the epub3 format (there are only a handful right now, and they’re not that helpful yet) – and you decide that’s a good thing. Amazon is working on its own tablet, which may just add features to its Kindle, or be a whole new animal. There was only a year-and-a-half between the first iPad and the iPad 2, so in a couple years, maybe a tablet will be the thing to buy.

But if you’re primarily looking for an e-reader for text-based books and you still need a full laptop, I’d say the iPad isn’t cost effective…yet. Stick with the Kindle for both affordability and functionality.

I have always loved stories. In my childhood, they came in the forms of books, ghost stories told late at night during slumber parties and campouts, movies, and TV shows. That felt like a gracious plenty in terms of venues available. The VCR, which appears in my home in the fourth grade, was a revelation – now we could watch our favorite movies over and over again! No longer did we have to wait, hearts longing, for the yearly broadcast of the Wizard of Oz – we could tape it on cable (another new development) and watch it at will. We developed a taste for Bob Hope movies – anything that broadcast on the brand-new Disney channel – and we would bring those movies with us to play over and over again on the portable video player in our family’s conversion van, during our long trips from Texas to Pennsylvania each summer. We loved the multiplicity of stories available through this new, personalized, just-in-time media called cable and the VCR, and my parents didn’t seem too worried about limiting our exposure – the content was child-appropriate, and I’m sure it just seemed like more of a good thing. It certainly kept us quiet during those endless car trips.

That story probably dated me to the year, and I’m too young to wax nostalgic, but remembering my childhood has helped me in parenting – particularly in terms of the power of story and the imagination. Parents who have had their first children in the last decade or so have been bombarded with information that has empowered, yes, but has also overwhelmed those of us who tend to be perfectionists. We wonder how much media is too much: the current wisdom says children should have no more than two hours of screen time each day. Yet I feel pretty powerless to uphold that limit when my bread and butter comes from sitting in front of a computer (or smartphone) at least seven hours each day. Plus, there are so many media developments, and great ideas from smart people, freely broadcast every moment. Although I do wonder how long we can all keep this up without deciding it’s just easier to plug our brains into our machines so we don’t have to take the time to type or even speak our thoughts into the computer…but wait, someone’s already made a lot of money exploring that idea. The power of story…again.

We all know we’re physical beings that live by growing organically – just like the natural world does. So logic says that we need a healthy amount of time connecting to the physical world and physical relationships to live well – I can’t say how much that is. And surely the best stories and thoughts come from human beings who spend real time in the real world, connected to what actually sustains us. But I have to say, remembering the power of story from my our childhood, that I’m not surprised I’m having trouble keeping my sons from actively exploring all the media forms available to them. I’m doing it right alongside them. (With tightly controlled content, of course. I’m still a stickler about that – at work and at home.)

Bottom line: this is an exciting time to be in the media business. I really don’t want to unplug right now – and my kids are the kind of people who would be excited about it too. Screen time is not the only important parental metric, is it? My boys are smart and quick and extremely creative problem solvers (just like your kids probably are) – skills that will serve them well as digital natives. If limiting their screen time means limiting their imagination, I’m just wired to err on the side of growing the imagination. Not because that’s the objective ideal, but because that’s who I am, and I can only change my natural design so much. I have beat myself up plenty because I would rather play a computer game or read a book with my kids than run around outside with them. (That’s what their friends are for, I tell myself. And I was always the kid with my nose in a book, anyway.) I have viewed that aspect of myself as a terrible, fatal flaw in my motherhood. But we parents have the hardest job in world – raising digital natives who still have a body. We can probably stand to cut ourselves some slack while we figure this out. If it’s possible, I’d rather enjoy this exciting flurry of digital creativity instead of feeling guilty about it.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard a lot about how freelancing is becoming the fastest growing business sector – that as software and business processes are moving to the cloud, so is hiring (see this Christian Science Monitor article qualifying our impressions of freelance growth). 

This got me thinking about the freelance business model in general. Now that the cloud has unhinged us from the office, should free-agent hiring be the new business model? Companies can handpick talent for specific projects, talent collaborates, and then when the project’s done, said talent looks for the next project that makes the most of their particular skills. Surely this is much more efficient – less overhead for the company in paying employee taxes and benefits, and more enjoyment for the worker as he or she handpicks the work?

Being an independent contractor has certainly been a boon for me and my family. But although freelancing definitely has its benefits for certain contexts, I don’t think it’s the new ideal business model across the board. Here’s why:

1. Efficiency. Although freelancing may seem more efficient for the firm and the independent contractor, the independent contractor doesn’t just do project work, as every solopreneur knows. Once you own your business, YOU are the HR department, the marketing department, the accounting department, and the CEO. Some people enjoy this small-scale variety and being in charge of each aspect, and the independence is worth it. But certainly the corporate model, with its economy of scale, gets work done more efficiently in a measurable sense. And worldwide commerce benefits from this efficiency.

2. Many people prefer the camaraderie of a company. As the CSM article pointed out, freelancing has surged recently because more people are out of a job and need to find some way to make ends meet. If those jobs opened up tomorrow, many would likely choose to return.

That said, here’s why freelancing has been the best choice for me:

1. It’s good for our family. We have two sons, ages 5 and 7, whom we want to raise well. And we’re pretty convinced that having plenty of direct parental contact is needed for children to grow up feeling secure, loved, and capable of being independent when the time comes. Working at home allows me to do that. But that said – one parent raising children while the other is absent at work isn’t necessarily the ideal either. Which leads me to #2…

2. It’s a temporary solution to a larger societal problem regarding “work” and gender. If one parent stays at home with the kids and the other works at an office full-time, for example, and the stay-at-home parent is ambitious at all,  this will lead to a lot of resentment, either open or hidden. (Can you tell I’ve been there, done that?) I believe that men and women work best together because they were made to do so – and this isn’t undermined just by the “separate spheres for men and women” ideal of 19th century romanticism (of which remnants still remain in American culture), but also by the separate spheres of work and home. Both professionally and personally, in my experience, men’s gifts are activated best when with other women, and vice versa. Moms parent best when they parent with dads; women work best when they work with men; women lead best when they lead with men – when men and women value each other equally, of course. And vice versa all around. To return to the original point: until society moves more fully away from “work and home as separate spheres,” freelancing provides some creative solutions in the meantime. My husband and I nurture several income-producing streams from home, which allows us to parent together more, work together more, and make a larger contribution to the world alongside others. Frankly, it’s been the only way to invest in all our disparate interests!

Before the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., work and home were joined in one economy in the form of the family homestead. But it was hard work! The Industrial Revolution created a higher standard of living – through the separation of work and home. And at the beginning, a new cultural romantic ideal of women at home and men at work helped everyone accept this split more easily. But it didn’t last long. Certainly when women began joining men in this now-separate sphere of “work,” women finally got back some feelings of empowerment and achievement, but for parents, emptying the home of women AND men hasn’t been the ideal solution either. Child labor laws mean we can’t send the children to work too! Surely a better solution is to integrate work and home more so that those who are parents of young children – a very temporary time – can be home together more often. Otherwise children will always inherently be a burden – their needs will always be competing against the office’s needs. Our identities as parent and careerperson will always be competing, instead of complementary. And in the day-to-day stress, we’ll forget that children, the potential adults in our care, will grow up to become working adults and will shape the future of the world. Companies who strive to create long-term value care about how children are raised – not just in terms of current employee morale, but in terms of their economic future: children are the future work force. How did your childhood and quality of home life impact your adult life? Doing their part in helping their employees raise children well is simply an investment in their long-term assets.

The ability to work remotely through virtual communication can help us reintroduce sustainability into our business models. Successful corporations – usually appearing on “the best places to work” lists – are already finding creative ways to integrate employees’ personal and work lives. But for the rest of us, in the meantime, freelancing provides yet another healthy alternative.

Forgive the length of this post: it’s my first one and I guess I’m a little pent up.

I was flipping through the book Wikinomics at the bookstore the other day, intrigued by the title and hoping to find a nuanced assessment of how the virtual workplace and free-agent employment is changing the landscape of economics and our culture. I was disappointed to discover that the book seemed to polarize the discussion of the virtual workplace along the old same unhelpful line: the virtual, collaborative workplace is wholly good and here to stay, and the only ones who resist or criticize it are the old stick-in-the-mud corporation-minded business owners or cultural elites who have everything to lose in this new model. In other words, the virtual workplace represents progress, and its critics are simply afraid to lose the power and commodities they gained under either the bricks-and-mortar corporation model or the publisher-as-quality-control model.

Wikinomics reads with all the blind fervor of a political manifesto for the virtual workplace – it dismissed concerns about work relationships, for instance, by simply saying that a person’s new community would be a virtual one via email and shared online projects – glossing over the very real concern about the importance of tangible relationships with PEOPLE, who you can physically see and touch, and who know where you live. Say your colleague in California has become your “best friend,” as a result of deeply shared interests and time spent collaborating on online projects (and spending time with whom has caused the neglect and dissolution of other face-to-face relationships). Is he going to be able to help you move into your new house in Virginia? Is he going to be able to meet you for a drink when your relationship with your significant other is on the rocks (no pun intended)? Perhaps on Second Life, but not in the real world. Virtual relationships are the junk food of relationships, speaking in terms of long-term sustainability: they enhance the enjoyment of everyday life, but they do not sustain us. Unfortunately they mask our hunger for real relationship enough so that it may feel like they sustain us, especially if they’re all we’ve got, but if we could see the state of our soul, it would be seriously malnourished. We may not look like we’re starving- we may even look indulgently overweight – but we’re only filled with empty calories. We’re only relating with information at best; facades at worst.

Switching sides, I was educated under the assumptions of the reverse perspective (but same pole): intellectual elites turning up their nose at the virtual workplace (especially virtual publishing or blogs) because there was no “quality control” – just mass chaos and mediocre thought. Virtual learning was by nature a hack job; self-publishing was for second-rate writers whose work just wasn’t up to real publishers’ standards.

But it takes the same kind of blind faith to believe that the profit-driven mega-publishing companies are sentinels of quality control. If what you have to say is risky, and won’t make money, it won’t get published by the big names. Writers have figured this out a long time ago, and now there’s actually a venue for them to disseminate their ideas that isn’t dependent on profit. One can’t help but remember Thomas Paine and Common Sense, and how the ubiquitousness of the printing press (an instructive parallel to the internet in terms of communication technology) galvanized the loosely-linked colonies under a single idea – revolution – when most had resigned themselves to capitulate to the King’s commands. Accessible grassroots technology made that happen – not the nod from the powers that be (or were).

The common fallacy here is that both sides, the ardent supporters of mass virtual collaboration and the resistant elites, assume that the virtual world, as “progressive” and “popular,” is a monolithic entity that can’t be assessed and limited and changed. It’s either good or bad – and keeping the conversation in such black and white terms reveals that we have already fallen prey to what Neil Postman calls “technopoly” – when technology controls society, rather than society controlling technology as a tool. If technology is a tool, then we are its masters, and we can discern (either face-to-face in meetings or in the virtual workplace, take your pick) what this particular tool is good for. Once we determine what it’s good for, what its proper use is, then we learn how to use it well, and how not to use it in destructive ways. For example, we might wholeheartedly use the internet to disseminate ideas, but we might not use it as our primary source of relationships. The internet – and all of technology, for that matter – does not have a mind of its own. We must not uncritically accept whatever is possible – or whatever is already happening – as progress and therefore inevitable. “The latest thing” is not our master. Technology is not our master. We must master it, and get nuanced and specific about what precisely is helpful and harmful. Only then can we use it responsibly and sustainably as the powerful tool that it is.