[FoRK] Clarifications and expansions... Re: What the hell just happened?

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Wed Apr 7 07:05:13 PDT 2010

So, too many responses to the original post to address individually.

In general, the thesis I'm advancing here is that the iPad, when used by a general technologist who has made his livelihood inventing new things based on imagination and an ability to extrapolate what people in general will do when given certain tools...  will likely provoke profound confusion.  And, maybe, a little bit of gestalt, if given the chance.  In short:  this is the first device of the Internet era that *truly* serves as a new category of computing device for the non-technical user.  (Arguably, the first few generations of Mac did so in a largely non-communicating era...  and, like the iPad, did so well *because of* rather than despite what techies perceived as "limitations.")

First, to the "nothing new under the sun" crowd:  that's just the point.  You're right, of course:  the individual pieces and parts of the whole "solution" are nothing new individually, indeed there are *less of them* there than in what you or I might have designed into such a thing.  And that's the point:  the iPad *actually pushes its limitations as design principles* worthy of first-class consideration for a broad base of users:  the non-technologist.*  The parts are less than the sum of what's possible, but when carefully pieced together the whole may actually be *greater* for a large class of heretofore-underserved users, e.g. grandparents, small children, etc.

I had the opportunity to observe several non-techie folks playing with my iPad over the last few days, and am stunned by their reactions, by how immediate and intuitive and satisfying the experience was for them.  People who don't have laptops, who generally don't use their desktops for anything but e.g. e-mail and surfing, etc...  and they just pick the device up and go to town.  They aren't hindered by, annoyed at, or even aware of the limitations:  the single-tasking, the non-data-sharing, the fullscreen apps, the small screen, etc.  In fact, these limitations appear to be a *good thing* for those users:  they take away all the "noise" of features we've been pushing on the non-techie for three decades.  And in taking away the noise, Apple *clarifies* the use cases.

To the "you must have been brainwashed by Apple" crowd:  get over your dogma, I assure you nothing even remotely similar has occurred.  Your dogma will prevent you from seeing the implications, or even speculating about them, just like looking at e.g. Napster from a purely-tech perspective would have prevented you from seeing it as the opening shots of a world war between content, channel, consumer and technology vendors that has and will continue to reshape entire industries.

I won't be replacing my laptop, desktops, machines-in-the-closet-or-cloud, etc.  You won't either.  This isn't a universal computing device for folks like us.  A lot of folks will be frustrated by that --- technologists, mostly.  For the even larger set of "everybody else" --- this could indeed serve as their "one device" (aside from phone, and maybe even then I'm having some bias-fail.)  That's the shocker for me.  And if you think that doesn't have profound implications for the future of computing, think again, *you* are the one suffering from acute imagination-fail.  (One bit Apple gets wrong:  if they truly want this to be the One Box for those types of users...  then you shouldn't have to plug the damn thing into a machine w/ iTunes to activate it.  I expect that dependency to disappear in a not-too-distant release.)

A few more observations / thoughts.

Eugen almost gets it right:  this is the first device that might reasonably replace paper for many uses for a lot of folks.  It's also a substitute for several other things, including --- I submit --- for many people *any, or at least most, other types of computing or media device.*  This is a profound reversal from my previous position that keyboards aren't going to go away.  I now think, perhaps, many or most folks have far less stringent data-entry requirements than those that would necessitate a keyboard.  For the non-technical user, i.e. my Mom, text entry via keyboard is an infrequent task and doing so on a virtual keyboard on the screen is no more onerous than doing so via a physical keyboard, which is friction for her anyway.  Remove all those sources of friction and you have something *more* rather than less useful --- for those folks.

Furthermore, the limited input capabilities will force app designers and information architects to come up with newer, better, smarter user interaction modes and methods.  It's already happened:  the user experience on the device for e.g. consuming media, in many or all of various apps e.g. Wikipanion, the newspaper apps, even mail *for the read-mostly case* --- is superior to what you get elsewhere.

Is the screen too small?  Too large?  Prior to playing with the device, I was intensely confused by their choice of size and aspect ratio.  I vacillated between thinking it was too small and too large for any given use case I could think of, or that they'd got the aspect wrong for everything by shooting the middle.  It's none of the above;  it is precisely the right size and form for the use cases that it is becoming clear that it is intended for.  As a personal and portable media-consumption device, it is exactly the right size.  It is the perfect *media consumption device* for the non-technical person, for personal media and media (limited, read-mostly) interaction.  It's a Goldilocks set of choices by Apple --- for end-users who aren't like most of the folks on this list.

And the portability is a bigger deal than expected.  While I probably will never leave the house with mine --- no need, given phone and laptop, neither of which will be going away for me --- many people, those people for whom this is the "One Box" will indeed move around with it, hence the 3G makes sense.

For the "just a screen" crowd:  too closed-minded;  the same argument, more or less, could be applied to e.g. any computing device ("just a screen and a keyboard" etc.)  Come on, folks, you are smart and imaginative;  use your facilities to consider things w/o thinking you understand the answer a priori.

It's a configuration of features behind a very good, right-sized screen, aimed at folks who have different assumptions and requirements than you do.  Open up and think about possibilities.  (Bill K., I'm particularly disappointed with you;  even your slap-down of the Napster analogy reveals a lack of imagination.  Yes it was overhyped (though not so when I wrote my Quiet Revolution post here) and an eventual failure, but to think that it did not profoundly alter the shape of several industries, areas of law, etc. is to have your head stuck in the sand.  And historically, even, which is even worse than the same fail when prognosticating.)

This is going to be like that, only even more impactful.

General comment to the naysayers:  you all sound like the grizzled techie types that poo-poo'd the Mac GUI upon introduction as "WIMP for wimps."  Open your minds;  this thing is going to be important, and not necessarily in ways that are immediately obvious to technologists who have adapted themselves to the existing classes of tools and modes of interaction.

You watch.  Here's a first testable prediction:  for all the "what the hell is it" noise, you'll see almost every computer manufacturer on the planet scrambling to get something similar out the door, with similar limitations and feature sets, as quickly as possible.  Hell, it's already happening;  just the *rumor* in Q4 '09 of the upcoming Apple announcement had others scrambling to show off tablets at CES in January, after years of analysts and companies saying "well, there's no consumer demand for such a thing." 

Lemmings?  Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on categorical product-fail, here.  I've seen the future, and it's the same scary future that e.g. Jonathan Zittrain, Ed Felten, etc. have warned us about --- only more so.  And as scary as that is for folks like us who like to use tools for unintended purposes, who use tools to build tools and for whom technology is more than a means, but rather a purpose in itself --- that scary future may in fact better serve the masses than what we've offered them to date.  That's the bet Apple appears to be making here, and I am hesitant to bet against it.

For my purposes, it will serve the intended use:  it is a superb home control screen.  It wasn't a "buy it and see what it does" sort of thing;  I had a specific use case in mind, and it will do the trick.  But I am surprised to find that I will likely end up using it a lot more broadly than just that...


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