Who’s afraid of the iPad?

Tech Life

It’s utterly amazing how a lot of people have all the iPad’s shortcomings figured out already. And by just watching an hour and a half keynote!

After the iPad’s introduction, I feel it is 2007 all over again. A lot of other people have already mentioned how the iPad seems to suffer from the same myopic criticism as the first iPhone 3 years ago, but there’s a specific shade of that criticism which baffles me. Both those who have dismissed, and those who seem frightened by the iPad and how it may affect the future of personal computing, share one common trait: they’re treating this iPad as it were an immutable device. As if it could never change or improve with time and future iterations.

The iPhone, too, lacked this feature and that commodity at first. Then they came. 3G came, MMS came, copy & paste came, tethering came (not for everyone, apparently, but still), third-party development came. The device evolved. The platform evolved. From the iPhone/iPod touch user’s standpoint, things got better and better. And from what I saw and what I read from people who actually tried the iPad, I have the feeling that the whole touch platform will soon be taken to the next level.

To some programmers and tinkerers the iPad looks scary, because apparently this iPhone’s big stupid brother could be the harbinger of a simpler computing experience, too simple and limited for their tastes. I’ll reply first by quoting this excerpt from John Gruber’s piece titled The Tablet (and written before the iPad came out):

The iPhone […] was conceived and has flourished as a general-purpose handheld computing platform. It was not introduced as such publicly, and is not pitched as such in Apple’s marketing, but clearly that’s what it is. The iPhone was described by Jobs in his on-stage introduction as three devices in one: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, a breakthrough Internet communicator. Thus, it was clear what people would want to do with it: watch videos, listen to music, make phone calls, surf the web, do email.

The way Apple made one device that did a credible job of all these widely-varying features was by making it a general-purpose computer with minimal specificity in the hardware and maximal specificity in the software. And, now, through the App Store and third-party developers, it does much more: serving as everything from a game player to a medical device.

(The emphasis is mine). With this in mind, I think the iPad is going to be an even more sophisticated device than the iPhone/iPod touch, software-wise. The oh so wide range of possibilities should entice enough curiosity as to invite to tinker all those who are inclined to do so. The key, in my opinion, is not to limit your view to the iPad you saw on January 27. If, as Steven Frank so brilliantly pointed out, we come to a scenario where you can develop an iPad application on an iPad itself, the Old World computing may have its days numbered. Tinkering? Not so much.

This leads to the second point I’d like to make: I’m not so sure that simple, closed devices represent a threat to tinkering with them. In my experience, the opposite has often proven to be the case. Pilgrim pines for machines like his old Apple ][e. Yes, it was certainly the opposite of an iPad or iPhone in terms of openness and customisation and that “I can do whatever I want” feeling. But it was also simple and friendly, at least considering the personal computing experience of those days. To me, simplicity in an object, in any device, has always been an essential feature driving my curiosity, capturing my attention and interest in the object or device; wanting to know more. When that spark is ignited, nothing can stop a true tinkerer.

When I was young, I was not attracted by complex-looking objects; my grandfather had a professional hi-fi stereo system, and all those levers, gauges, knobs, sliders intimidated me. They were surely a heaven of customisation for the expert audiophile, but they didn’t make me want to know more about that stereo system. If now I know a lot about stereos, record-players, radios, amplifiers, I really have to thank simple-looking devices, sometimes even toy-looking devices. Their simplicity, their sparseness of controls, the fact that they could perform complex tasks while looking so simple and easy to operate boggled my mind: I had to open them, to discover their secrets.

Similarly, I wouldn’t know what I know now about photography and cameras if I had started handling a professional SLR back in my teens. My dad had a Canon A-1 which looked impossibly abstruse to me. He occasionally let me handle it, when he wanted me to take a photo of him or my mother, and I remember asking him many times what I had to do, if everything was already set, because I didn’t want to screw things up. My first camera was an Agfa Silette LK Sensor — a sturdy, simple rangefinder with four shutter speeds (plus a Bulb setting), an aperture ring, a focusing ring and nothing else. In the viewfinder there was a needle, indicating the light measurement taken by the frontal selenium cell. When my dad gave it to me he said: choose a combination of shutter speed and aperture so that the needle stays in the middle. If you are taking landscape shots in a sunny day, focus to infinity, choose a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/300 (the maximum in that camera) and you’re set.

To me it was much simpler than his Canon A-1, and I happily snapped dozens of landscape photos. (I was also given disposable cameras, and things were even easier). But I never felt that that camera was ‘enough’. I never thought that photography was ‘just that’. I had to explore, to know more. I started experimenting with low light, a tripod, the Bulb setting; I wasted rolls and rolls trying to obtain decent photographs of the moon and night scenes. I used self-made, improvised filters to create colour shifts and effects in otherwise ordinary shots. I tinkered as much as I could, because that camera did not intimidate me, and little by little I was knowing its ‘secrets’.

This is why I don’t really understand some fears related to the iPad and its possible impact on tomorrow’s personal computing. I think Steven Frank has a point when he writes:

We worry that these New World devices are stifling the next generation of programmers. But can anyone point to evidence that that’s really happening? I don’t know about you, but I see more people carrying handheld computers than at any point in history. If even a small percentage of them are interested in “what makes this thing tick?” then we’ve got quite a few new programmers in the pipeline.

Any object, device, appliance, from what I’ve seen so far, is more likely to get people interested in ‘what makes it tick’ if it is user-friendly, if it looks simple and not intimidating, if it gives the user the impression that it can be easily and wholly grasped. I’ll say that again: when the tinkering spark is ignited, it’s a road downhill.

The Author

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11 Comments

  1. Whether or not there are good things about the iPad do you think the majority of people are going to buy it out of it catering to needs they have or for the simple fact that it is an Apple?

    • Ashley: I think that — as often happens with Apple products — many people will try the iPad and find themselves attracted to the possibilities it might offer. I agree with ciaopaparazzi when he says Most won’t buy it for their “needs” because the point is that they don’t know what those needs are yet, since they have yet to be discovered. They will find some familiarity with the iPad, because they’ve already been exposed to the same user interface with the iPhone and iPod touch; but the larger screen, the fact that some developers are already at work to create customised applications for the iPad, the fact that people will also be able to use it to get stuff done (thanks to the reengineered iWork suite from Apple), the mere fact that the iPad suggests, hints at more possibilities and uses, in conjunction with the classic design care Apple is known for — all these, in my opinion, will be the factors that’ll win people over.

      Cheers,
      Rick

  2. The next revolution in computers will come from people who have grown up with iPhones and IPads — not from traditional programmers.

    People are complaining that the iPad is not “revolutionary.” Apparently, the only way it could have met that standard is if it accepted input telepathically or via direct connection to your central nervous system. The iPhone and the iPad are part of the same revolution — and guess what? The only player is Apple. Those who have tried to duplicate the iPhone’s success (Blackberry, Palm, Google) have failed because they think the revolution is about the hardware. It’s not. It’s not even just about a great “user experience” or the creation of a true lifestyle brand (of which Apple is the only one in the entire tech realm today). The revolution is about how we interact with the world — both real and virtual.

    People think that it was the interface that sold the iPhone. In reality it was the phone that sold the interface. Without the phone, the iPod Touch is just a niche device. (Remember the Newton?) Jobs was smart enough to realize that convergence was the Trojan Horse that would give the Apple revolution its next quantum leap of acceptance. And now that they have that bridgehead, Jobs is smart enough to realize that it’s multimedia that is the future. Funny how other people talk about that but — just as with phones — still manage to fail to realize what that actually means. Multimedia doesn’t mean a clunky device (eg: any laptop) that can do a lot of things separately and awkwardly. It means a single device that does media and the normal day-to-day activities of a wired world seamlessly and extremely well. I am by any definition a techie. I started programming using paper tape and toggle switches. I programmed for the Apple ][, bought the original Osborne I, and have used PCs since DOS 1.0. I can touch type 120 words a minute. But I don’t want to have to be a techie any more — and I don’t want to use a keyboard and a mouse. I want to relate to both the real and virtual worlds seamlessly. That’s the revolution — and that’s what the iPad lets us do.

    As for specific features, again, people don’t understand the Apple philosophy: everything should be a black box, and what ties those black boxes together is both a unified user experience and a unified control center called iTunes. (Talking about names — notice how stupid that sounds now that it has grown so far beyond music? Think anybody cares? It’s become a brand now.) Both smart design and smart marketing. They also make sure to leave plenty of space for developers to target submarkets that actually do want some of those features — whether in software or hardware.

    Finally — Flash. Doesn’t anybody realize that Flash is obsolete? It was designed when (relatively speaking) bandwidth was at a premium while local processing power was plentiful. Today (again relatively speaking) the situation is reversed — and it will only continue to improve on the side of bandwidth. (There is an inverse relation between processing power and bandwidth: the more bandwidth you have, the less local processing you need.) Plus Flash is a proprietary technology that Apple doesn’t control. In a high-bandwidth world, HTML 5 can do everything that Flash can do — better — and as a universal standard. This is about Apple ensuring that it and it alone controls its own destiny — and if that means changing the established order — then the order is going to change.

  3. Before I got an iPhone I was wondering who was buying them. When I saw that all the trendy — non-techie, non-business — people at the nightclub I work at had them I realized that Apple had succeeded in creating a device that had opened up an entire new segment of the market for them.

    People will buy it because it’s from Apple — which means they trust it will give them a great user experience. Most won’t buy it for their “needs” because the point is that they don’t know what those needs are yet, since they have yet to be discovered. So this is a transformative device for multimedia the same way the iPhone has been for personal communication. And everyone with an iPhone will want one because it complements it — it doesn’t compete with it.

    Techies don’t understand that it’s not about the hardware any longer. The hardware is just the face of the revolution — not the revolution itself.

  4. I, for one, am looking forward to the iPad. As a real estate agent, I expect it will provide me a “clean” way to show homes without having to lug around folders of paper with showing instructions–instead, I’ll pull them up real-time. And if we come across a new or interesting property–voila, 3G to check it out online.

    Presentations, especially in one-on-one environments, become more intimate and interactive. And responding to clients needs become quicker with a faster keyboard for emails and social media. As the iPad evolves–and it will–I imagine phone calls may even look more like video conferences.

    And, yes, I’m an owner of Apple products, so I know the iPad will integrate seamlessly with my other devices. What a concept that is. It’s also one of the coolest and leanest looking devices I’ve seen.

  5. ipad will go boom with the advent of notion ink adam. adam can doo much moreincluding hd, 36 hours standby, 768 px video rec, 3g, wifi/wimax. then again ipad will look the dumbest of the lot with no multitasking and sd slot, and you have to shell 650 $ for 3g

  6. I agree great article by the way…people complain about the same things “no flash, just a big ipod touch, no camera” these people aren’t seeing the big picture its in the software that is what defines a device not the device itself the software will change the device overtime just like Riccardo said

  7. Great article and agree with you about the device. I see the great potential when it comes to education. If a student could carry just the iPad around campus and nothing else it would be amazing. I am an iPhone user and will be picking the iPad up some time after it comes out.

  8. Thank you everybody for your comments and insights, especially ciaopaparazzi: I found myself nodding in agreement while reading your musings.

    Cheers!
    Rick

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