Look how spoiled we can get.

A couple weekends ago, I was lazing about the house, putting off raking leaves, and watching rented movies. Netflix has been expanding the number of movies and old TV shows that they stream online and they have an iPad app that lets you stream video directly to the iPad, and the quality is generally pretty good. So, ever au courant, I had an urge to watch an episode of the old TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which I had literally not seen since it was on first-run in 1974 (the episode with the mannequins still creeps me out). But as it was streaming, the picture became distorted and was briefly unwatchable, and I began to get frustrated. I was about to fire off a terse note to Netflix when it suddenly occurred to me: it’s amazing that this even works at all. What am I complaining about? Am I that much of a spoiled brat?

If someone had told me back in 1974 that someday I would be able to watch almost anything I wanted on a small handheld device in literally any room in my house at any time I wanted, I probably would have said...well, I was 7 in 1974, so I probably would have gone along with it. But remember, in 1974, there weren’t even VHS tapes. Consumers were at the mercy of media and content providers. If you wanted to see a TV show, or watch a movie, or read a book or magazine, you were dependent on those producing it to make it available, and you had to make time for it, and on their terms. “Tune in at 8 p.m. (7 Central)!” And we did. We had to. There was no choice, because everyone at school was talking about last night’s Six Million Dollar Man ($26 million today, adjusted for inflation). Missed seeing Herbie Goes Bananas in the movie theater? That may not be a bad thing, but maybe they would run it on TV someday. There was no going to the video store or putting it in your Netflix queue—or streaming it any time you want to see it.

Likewise, books. If you wanted to read a particular book back then, you had to hope that either the local bookstore or the library had a copy. If you lived in the suburbs, the selection available in the local mall bookstore was painfully limited. Some of us had to go to a city like Boston and all the cool Harvard Square bookstores to broaden our reading horizons. Today, I can find almost any title I want on Amazon and have it delivered overnight if I want. Or, if I am really impatient, I can download an e-book and read it in seconds. And I now often do. The selection of e-books available is growing steadily, too.

The point of all this is that when we write about new media and technologies like the Internet in general, or e-books or the Apple iPad in particular, and the impact they are having on traditional media, we’re not really talking about the devices themselves. We’re talking about how they change behaviors, and, crucially, people’s relationship with content. That’s where the real media shifts are taking place, and what print is up against as a medium for delivering content.

The iPad is not just a chunky iPhone or a slender laptop: it’s a way of offering access to all sorts of content on a completely portable, comfortable device. That’s why it’s hard to get mad at Netflix: it’s science-fiction, for crying out loud! Look at Star Trek: how often did their advanced technology not work properly and reliably? Phasers jammed, transporters were inoperative. And don’t mention those bloody warp engines! At least I won’t be sucked into a giant planet killer or eaten by a Gorn if my Netflix stream pauses for a minute. Or at least not yet.

But things like the iPad are nothing especially exotic to those who are growing up with them, for whom completely portable, accessible electronic content is, and will be, the expectation—and not “wow, it’s like Star Trek, man.” Give a two-year-old an iPad and it’s scary how quickly they grok the interface.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that WhatTheyThink has a new special primer report available called The iPad: What it Is, What It’s Not, and What it Means for Graphic Communication Professionals. As reports go, it was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve had in a long time, but in many ways it was rather a Sisyphean task—every time I thought I was done, some new item came out that I just had to add!

The report serves a variety of purposes for printers, designers, and others who produce and deploy content. First of all, it’s a basic introduction to the device for those who either don’t have one or wish Apple had included an operator’s manual. Secondly, it discusses apps at some length—what are apps, how and why would someone go about developing apps, and which are worth checking out from a user standpoint?

One of the points of the report is that the iPad is not about the iPad: it’s about a whole new class of device—tablet computers—and the report offers a rundown of some of the iPad competitors, including those that have appeared already (from Dell, HP, Samsung) and those that are looming on the horizon (Barnes & Noble’s NookColor, the forthcoming RIM PlayBook). The expansion of the market will only insinuate these devices into more applications, often displacing print.

The report looks at how the publishing industries (book, magazine, newspaper) and how they have been wrestling with offering content via the iPad and other mobile devices.

There is also a section titled “8 Ways the iPad Will Impact Print” that looks at a number (well, 8, actually) of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that content delivered via the iPad or other mobile devices can displace print and paper. Some are already happening. Some may happen. Others I made up.

Because we can, we also include data on usage and adoption from third-party sources as well as our own WhatTheyThink Economics and Research Center surveys of the printing industry.

Most importantly, the report also offers a number of suggestions and recommendations for printers and other disseminators of content. What can they do with the iPad? Why would they want to? Why not just ignore it and hope it goes away? A lot of these suggestions are not specific to the iPad; they are strategic approaches to offering new services for customers and you could easily search-and-replace “iPad” with “social media” or “video” and the same principles would apply.

And to show that we’re not Apple zombies, we also—for a bit of fun, as well as historical perspective—offer an appendix of Apple products that failed. I think I had half of them! (Remember the Mac Portable, a “laptop” if you were the Jolly Green Giant?)

Now if only there were an iPad app for raking leaves...