Why the iPad Matters

The iPad's simplicity and intuitiveness are constraints. But technophobes like my mother don't care about precisely controlling their computers, they just want them to work.
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There have been a host of complaints about the iPad - it doesn't do this, it doesn't have that, why can't it, I wish it would, it's closed ... Even Hitler was disappointed.

All this misses the point.

The iPad represents a fundamental shift in the metaphors and language of "computing." Or rather it extends that shift that was tested first in our pockets with the iPhone, and brings it to our desks, our coffee tables ... everywhere else. The iPad is a huge change.

We have lived for the past thirty-plus years in an engineer's universe of computing, where layers of implicit understanding - about file structures, multiple programs, menu idiosyncrasies, nomenclature -- are required to figure out how to make your computer do what you want it to do. To many of us, these metaphors are completely embedded in our brains. So we can't understand how someone like, say, my mother, can't figure out how to use her scanner software. XKDC captures exactly our frustration, with this flowchart to be printed out and given to our less technically astute family members:

To most of "us" this flowchart says: "It's easy to figure out computers, you just play around until they work."

But for people like my mother, asking her to play around with her computer until it works kind of like asking me to play around with a German dictionary until I speak German. It can probably be done, but it's not going to happen. My mother, like 99% of computer users, wants her computer to help her do some basic things: send email, write a document, scan a file. And yet look, for instance, at Excel -- a veritable locomotive of an application -- powerful, robust, mature, flexible. But in fact most of us just need to add and subtract a few numbers, and multiply or divide the results. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with Excel, but, as with most software, there is so much flexibility that in fact it is difficult for many people to use. Further, that flexibility ends up causing all sorts of problems when unwanted options or formats or behviours suddenly inject themselves into what you are doing.

Apple's OSX is cheered for its simplicity and intuitiveness, but it is still built on the same engineering-based metaphors, natural metaphors to many of us, but baffling to a huge number of people.

The iPhone was a revelation though. Because space is so constrained on a mobile device, all those things that we expect from our computers -- the options and the features and the controls -- either disappeared, or were so removed from the user as to be irrelevant.

iPhone apps were forced by the constraints of the platform to do something revolutionary: to do one thing well.

When that thing is something people want to do, the apps are successful.

Extending this design principle beyond a small phone to a larger device will alter the way we think about software, our relationship with "computers" -- and the network. Some -- many -- will decry our loss of control with the iPad, but I can assure you: my mother doesn't want to control her computer, she wants her computer to help her do what she wants to do. Controlling a computer is the last thing on her mind.

As for me, while I like controlling my computer, there are many more interesting and useful things I would prefer to do with my time.

As Fraser Speirs says:

Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get "real work" done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the "real work".

It's not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party. [more...]

I don't know if the iPad will be commercially successful, but I believe it represents a fundamental shift in the metaphors of computing, as significant as the move from text to graphical interfaces.

[PS: numerous conversations about the iPhone shaped these thoughts, especially a delightful conversation in Ludlow with Chris Hughes, about his computer-hating father who loves his iPhone.]

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