Changing the game

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about iPad by now.

Given the rhetoric that Apple is using, it’s no surprise that there’s an insane amount of discussion (and argument) going on in the blogosphere and the media.

iPad is, as Apple has said, a new category of product. It’s not a handheld, but it’s not a computer, or a netbook. Using the traditional definition of a tablet computer, it’s not that either. When I saw it in the keynote, the first thing I thought of was those pads everybody carried around in Star Trek: The Next Generation (incidentally, those are called PADDs). Which puts Apple around 300 years ahead of the curve. It makes me hope Levar Burton already pre-ordered his.

I think iPad is going to change the game. Maybe not this year (though I think it will sell well right out of the gate). But in five years, the landscape will be quite different because of iPad and its siblings.

Even ignoring Apple’s current cachet in the marketplace, iPad is going to appeal to the public for a few key reasons.

Ease of use

Here’s something a lot of geeks tend to forget: regular people don’t buy something because it can do 4,000 things adequately and lets you peek under the covers. They want to do something.

Traditional computers are tools. No matter what OS you prefer, they carry a relatively heavy learning curve.

First you have to adapt to using some sort of pointing device, be it a mouse, a trackpad, whatever. You have to learn the different actions the pointing device enables. Clicking. Dragging. Double-clicking. Right-clicking. The scroll wheel featured on most mice now.

Now you have to learn about menus. Buttons. Text fields. If you want to make the most of it, hotkey combos like Cmd-C and Cmd-V to copy and paste.

You have to adjust to the abstraction of moving your hand over in one area on a desk and how that maps to the disembodied pointer that you see on a screen. You have to learn how fast to move one to move the other. Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. You have to learn how to switch between windows and between applications. How to pick up a window and move it around. How to resize it. You have to keep a mental model of what’s open, because you end up with applications covering each other on the screen.

And the complexity! Open up a common application like Microsoft Word or your web browser sometime. Look at the menus available to you. That’s a lot of stuff! Have you used half of it? Do you even know what half of it actually does? Probably not. If you’re talking about something like Word, Excel or Photoshop, you probably haven’t used a fifth of it.

For some people this is all second nature. For quite a lot of people it’s a struggle, especially people who didn’t grow up with computers as kids. If you’re 20, your relationship with your computer is very different than someone who’s 50.

On the other hand, my three-year-old can figure out many iPhone apps with barely any help. The basic skills he has learned manipulating objects in the first years of life are all he needs in order to manage the universal input device used on an iPhone: the finger. It’s the first tool we learn to use.

The main stumbling block he runs into is figuring out which button does what (he can’t read yet). He guesses right surprisingly often. I wonder how smooth he’ll sail along once he can read the labels.

So the only prerequisites to using an iPhone are:

  1. Knowing how to use fingers.
  2. Knowing how to read.

My mother-in-law has had a computer in her house for as long as I can remember. But she’s never moved beyond playing Freecell. It’s not that she has no reason to learn more; if nothing else, she has a son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild living out of state that the rest of us keep in touch with online. The computer intimidates her. Maybe she’s afraid she won’t be able to figure it out, or she’ll break it.

iPad could would well be perfect for her. She would be able to use it without the anxiety that traditional computers often instill in people.

It Just Works

Apple fans have been trotting out this line for longer than I’ve been a Mac user. And compared to Windows, there’s something to it. But the honest truth is that Macs don’t always “just work.” They work a heck of a lot better than Windows machines, in my experience, and they’re considerably easier to use, too. But anybody who tries to tell you their Mac “Just Works” 100% of the time is lying to your face.

The iPhone, on the other hand… I’ve had mine for years and I can seriously say that (mostly) it Just Works. I’ve had to hard reset it once or twice in three years. That’s infrequent enough that I consider it a rounding error. I run into bugs in apps, sure. But I don’t have any of the problems that plagued me when I ran Windows, and I have far less trouble with it than with a “real” computer (even a Mac).

I’ve lived in the IT world for a long time. And if I can say anything about computers generally, it’s that people are sick and tired of having to play administrator on their own machines. People don’t want to deal with virus scanners. They don’t want to deal with defragmentation, or blue screens of death, or any of this other nonsense. They just want to do work or play games. Talk to their grandkids. Email. Buy some stuff on the web. Whatever.

Traditional computers create friction. You are taken away from what you want to do, in order to deal with some nonsense. A frequent example taken from my daily life is that my keyboard just stops working. My mouse works, but I can’t type anything. The keyboard is on, and it’s plugged in, and the LEDs even work (e.g. Caps Lock). The only cure is to unplug the keyboard from the USB hub and plug it back in. This happens to me at least once a week. It’s so stupid, and it only takes a moment to fix, but it irritates me every single time, because I am in the middle of something I actually want to do, and I have to get up and go deal with this dumb problem that shouldn’t even happen.

What’s a filesystem?

One thing users just don’t get is the filesystem. I know the argument. It’s supposed to act like a file cabinet, you put things in folders, blah blah blah. People don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense to them. I think it’s because it’s too raw.

I’ve noticed this in my wife more times than I can count. And let me stress: my wife is a perfectly capable, intelligent woman. She’s more computer-savvy than most people I know who don’t make their living at it. She is college-educated and she’s conversant in topics way beyond my ken, like anatomy, physiology, and surgical instrumentation. But I have had to intervene and locate various documents on her hard drive several times over the years. Why? Because she’s working on something and saves it, and later she comes back and the machine has decided to look in some other folder, and the file’s not where she thought she left it.

Apple has been slowly moving the user away from the filesystem for years. Look at two of their most popular programs for the Mac: iTunes and iPhoto. Both of these are essentially “black boxes” into which you put files (music and photos, respectively) and after that, they’re just handled by the software. They exist in the filesystem, but you don’t have to know or care at all about where they are. You just know they’re in the program. If, for some reason, you want to get the file back out of there, just drag it into another program, or onto your desktop (the one filesystem location users do understand).

So it’s only logical that they took it to the next level with iPhone, and now iPad. The filesystem is totally obscured. And really? Thank God. Finally.

I’m not saying filesystems are going the way of the dodo, or that they should. I wouldn’t accept this sort of thing on my servers, or the web hosting service I use (where I primarily access a Linux prompt via SSH). But it’s perfectly fine on my iPhone. I have no need or desire to get at the filesystem there. I don’t want to play admin on my iPhone. I bought it because it Just Works.

Give ‘em what they didn’t know they wanted

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The world may not think that what it wants is an iPad revolution… yet. We’ll see. If I were a netbook manufacturer, I’d be scrambling right now.