Let me begin by stating that asking whether the iPad is a personal computer or not is a pointless question. Is the Isetta a car? It has no useful boot, it’s quite small, and some Isettas had three wheels. Still you drive it, it takes you from A to B, it has car controls, it evidently is not a motorcycle or a van or a truck, etc. Yes, like the more modern Smart, it is a peculiar car. Both these small cars have very specific features to meet specific needs. You won’t buy a Smart if you have a large family, if you travel by car a lot and need ample space for your luggage and personal belongings, or if you live in places where you need to drive across off-road paths and difficult terrain.
The car industry, over the years, has produced so many different vehicles that today we can safely say there’s a type of car for every need. Saloon cars, station wagons, space wagons, SUVs, jeeps, fastbacks, sports cars, utility cars, minivans, you name it. They have achieved a certain level of granularity. You certainly won’t bring your family of 5 on a 2-seat sports car, or load logs on a Ferrari. Apart from obvious design and aesthetic preferences, one tends to purchase the type of car that most suits one’s needs.
The parallel between cars and computers here seems quite obvious to me. Personal computers, too, are achieving new levels of granularity, addressing more and more refined, specific needs. Both Car and Personal Computer are very generic labels taken on their own. Both suggest a certain idea, of course, but if we look at their specific models and shapes — especially through their respective histories — we’ll end up with hundreds of different examples.
But, as its inability to carry logs or climbing very steep slopes doesn’t mean a Smart isn’t a car, similarly the fact that the iPad lacks a built-in physical keyboard or the typical array of ports, or that it doesn’t come with a CLI (command line interface), or that it lacks the same kind or level of multitasking as a traditional personal computer, doesn’t mean it isn’t a personal computer.
It’s truly personal
I for one think that there hasn’t been, in the whole computer history, a more personal device than the iPad. That’s because it’s the personal in Personal Computer what has subtly changed. The traditional personal computer of the last three decades has been called ‘personal’ to indicate, basically, a general-purpose machine that was meant for an individual user. Its level of ‘personal-ness’ was coarse, though: it was ‘personal’ in the sense that, well, you bought it, or only you were using it at the company’s office, or that it wasn’t a mainframe managed by a staff of technicians, things like these. And then, of course, there was the ‘general purpose’ aspect. A general-purpose device can potentially do a multitude of tasks, and those not only depend on the applications you decide to install on it, but also on your computer knowledge: power users, programmers, scientists can develop their own specific software, and have the computer perform many other processes. The average user wouldn’t even know where to begin.
The iPad is personal in a deeper sense. Its level of ‘personal-ness’ is more refined. The iPad is a granular personal device. It’s a ‘personal’ computer in the sense that it’s designed to meet the personal needs of each and every user by offering them an easy-to-use modular operating system, a system made of bricks (apps) the user can choose from a big box (the App Store) and assemble in the way the user sees fit. The meaning of ‘personal’ in the definition of the iPad as a Personal Computer is closer to ‘intimate’, if you want. The iPad can’t even be shared among multiple users (sure, you can pass the device to a friend momentarily if he needs to check something online, for instance, but iOS doesn’t support multiple user accounts).
You can perceive the higher granularity in the way the iPad is ‘personal’ also considering another important aspect: it is a computer truly designed around the user. It embodies the simplicity of an appliance and the sophistication of an advanced computer. It can perform a variety of sophisticated tasks without requiring technical knowledge from the user. And what’s more, it can perform such tasks in a brilliant, fun, user-friendly way. This is, I believe, the main reason lots of people are buying iPads, even for replacing traditional computers. Users love the iPad’s immediacy: What do you want to do? Tap here, tap there, done. You can choose from a menu as vast as the App Store. The only intimidating thing with iOS is the amount of apps you can choose from. You don’t have to ‘learn to use’ the operating system before doing whatever it is you want to do. You don’t have to worry about stuff you shouldn’t be worrying about, like keeping an anti-virus database updated or configuring a firewall.
While the iPad can’t fully replace a traditional computer for everyone, I think it is actually the first device to be more personal than any personal computer. It’s a matter of granularity.