Why iPad isn’t a laptop killer…

There’s been a lot of comment about Apple’s new iPad – much of it very positive but not universally so

It’s Cory’s point that I want to talk about here.

Before I start, I have to “declare an interest” (as it were) – I am an Apple fanboy; I admit that – but that doesn’t (or at least, I hope it doesn’t, make me unable to take a more dispassionate and reasoned view).

I think that Cory is wrong – because he’s looking at the iPad as a computer…  It’s not; rather it’s the first serious & mass-market “web appliance”.

For as long as I can remember, the editorials in computing magazines have heralded the end “computing” as an activity for the chosen few – and it being for “the masses”.  Even long before my day, there were those who viewed innovations such as “high level languages” as opening up computers for the man in the street.

Sadly, and also for as long as I can remember, those same editorial columns have also been full of stories telling us that computers are just too hard to use.  Even the advent of the GUI, and with the uptake of internet use in the last fifteen-years, mass-market sales, hasn’t really helped.  You still read columns pointing out that washing machines don’t need you to reinstall their operating system every eighteen-months because they’ve gotten a bit slow…

Apple have a great track-record of spotting, and filling, niches in the market (albeit not generally by being the first to do something – but by being the first to do it right).  There were laptops before the PowerBook, MP3 players before the iPod, smart phones before the iPhone, and so-on…  With the iPad the niche is the one currently filled by Netbooks: except (in my opinion) that it isn’t quite that simple.  I don’t think Apple are going after the “ultra-portable” aspect of the market as such (though clearly iPad fits in there): but rather the “portable web browsing” aspect…

And there’s the clever bit; and there’s why Cory is wrong.  The iPad simply isn’t trying to be a “computer” in the sense that we think of them today.  It’s not a laptop without a keyboard – it’s something else entirely.  It’s an information delivery platform – not an information generation platform.  It really isn’t a laptop – but an overblown iPod Touch.  In short – it’s a web appliance.

People think about their computers and their phones different.  Until iPhone (with a few minor exceptions) people didn’t ever think about updating the system software in their phone.  It was what it was…  The iPhone changed that – and make the phone more like a computing platform.  The iPad’s form-factor accentuates this still further; but to think of it that way is to miss the point.

I believe that it’s been designed to be an appliance, in the way that a microwave oven is an appliance.  Yes, you still have to know how to cook to do anything useful with it – but you don’t need to be a radar engineer…

It’s the same with the iPad.  By controlling all of the variables – Apple have produced a device that will “just work”.

Now, none of this is to say that I don’t agree with Cory’s central tenet: that openness of systems is a “good thing”.  Of course it is.  But to apply that to the iPad – is to miss the point.  He writes:

“The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better…”

Well, no, okay.  That’s true.  But neither do I improve my fridge, or my TV, by “figuring out how it works and making it better”…

The truth is that over the last twenty-five years – the complexity of computers has increased exponentially (literally).  Someone keen and interested (with the right background and skills) could (can) understand how a late 1970’s vintage computer works – at the lowest possible level.  Indeed, you can even buy a (replica) of the Apple I in kit form: for home assembly.  But, with the best will in the world, no-hobbist can hope to build 2010 vintage iMac (for example) from scratch.  Miniaturisation and complexity have put pay to that.

This isn’t something that’s unique to computing.  Go back to the 1940’s or 50’s – and you’ll see that it wasn’t at all uncommon for enthusiasts to build their own radios.  Well, sixty or seventy years later – radio has given way to television as the mass-broadcast technology: and I don’t remember the last time I saw someone building their own plasma-screen TV from scratch…

The same is true with software too.  For all the myriad frameworks & libraries that exist today to make things “simpler” – they also (undeniably) add complexity.  Yes, using .net to write a Windows program is easier than writing that same program in C and calling all the APIs by hand; but even easier still is to write for the command-line…  GUIs make it easier to use computers – but harder to program them.

At the end of the day – most people don’t want to write their own code, but rather they want someone else to do it for them.

And, of course – for those that do what to write their own code: there will always be “fully fledged” computers… My suspicion though, is that the folks that buy an iPad instead of a computer – aren’t going to be the folks who want to write their own code.  The app store makes distribution easy – and safe: the installation process couldn’t be easier, and there’s no need to worry about virus and malware.  The lack of the ability to run just “any” code cuts both ways: it makes things safer, but it also limit what can be run to those apps “blessed” by Apple…  Is this a price worth paying?  For many people, honestly, I think it is.

And it’s not as if Apple are the first people to do this.  Take games consoles.  They are (arguably) the first home “computer-based” appliances.  Is there an outcry bemoaning the ability for individuals to write their own for their PS3?  No.  It’s just an accepted part of the way that these “appliances” work.  The iPad will be the same.

I think that the iPad has the potential to become the pattern for the future of computing for “the masses” (in the least pejorative sense of that phrase).  Yes, people will always want fully-fledged computers for “heavyweight” applications – but for mail, web browsing, and the like – I believe that the appliance approach is the way forward: and that iPad is at the vanguard of this coming trend.

Well, it is called “Random Thoughts”…

It’s called “Random Thoughts” – so I figured maybe I should start out with something genuinely random (though I’m not sure you could really call it a thought!), courtesy of the folks at random.org.

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