Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why the iPad will change our definition of computers

During the anticipation and hype overload that preceded the arrival of the Apple’s iPad, one of the most important questions for me was would the iPad expand its palette of applications beyond those of the lightweight and portable iPhone and iTouch apps with those that have previously only been available for desktop computers? With Apple itself releasing iPad-oriented versions of its iWork applications, the answer is a clear “yes.” But the real long-term question is not will normal, casual computer-using people be adding the iPad or similar devices to their existing desktop and laptop equipped home. Rather it will be whether this new generation of computing appliances will supplant the traditional microcomputers of the last 25 years in these users lives. As groundbreaking as the iPhone was in redefining how people could interact with their cell phone, it is the iPad where Apple has truly laid the foundation for changing how the average Joe will interact with computers in the not too distant future.

Of the many reasons for the success of the iPhone, few will argue the importance of how simple the device is to use. Especially when compared to the interface of all cell phones ever released up to that point in time. Cell phones before the iPhone might be the only electronic devices ever to be more of a hassle to use than a microcomputer. So while technology pundits, bloggers and fanboys all found their own reasons to decry the iPhone for not having this or that future or for being too limited compared to their desktop or laptop computers, Apple didn’t care. They had already learned that the key to the iPhone’s success was not in appealing to the technorati. The iPhone had to be a device that catered to everyone, from mom and dad to the teenager and possibly even grandparents. (Pets need not apply.) Considering that the majority of the computer-using world still finds the typical desktop computer too confusing, the tried and true desktop GUI paradigm - even after over 25 years of refinement – was not a viable option.

The result of Apple’s quest for an interface that was simple enough for anyone to pick up and use immediately can be traced to two features. The first was replacing the mouse and keyboard inputs of traditional computers with touch-based input. The results were immediate and obvious, especially for a portable device: convenient, quick, and - by allowing people to control this cell phone and computer rolled-into-one through actual physical contact instead of a mouse, keyboard or stylus - intuitive. Whether through selecting items with a finger, scrolling through lists with simple finger swipes, or resizing images with pinch gestures, the whole iPhone experience can be summed up best in one word – natural. I’ve yet to find anyone who finds interacting with a desktop OS as “natural”, except for comparisons that something is “more natural” than another.

The second is that in lieu of the traditional desktop and file system that a user would use to navigate a traditional computer GUI, the iPhone dispenses with these and instead offers just 11 pages of icons. These icons are either programs or URLs that open in mobile Safari, and the only customizations the user has is to organize which page the apps appear on and their order on each page. Even then the pages follow very specific, unbreakable rules:

- No more than 16 apps on any one screen

- All apps fall into a 4x4 grid

- The apps line up starting in the upper-left, filling each row with its maximum of 4 apps before wrapping to the next row

Some people would say that this is too limiting and that they should have more control…like they do with their computers. But they are missing the point: the iPhone is not for technology geeks who want to be able to customize as much as possible. The iPhone is built for all the people who don’t. And guess what, there’s a lot more people who fall into the latter category than the former.

In my eyes the most significant way in which the iPhone breaks with the traditional desktop GUI paradigm is through its hiding of the file system from the user’s view. You may have noticed that the iPhone doesn’t allow the user to so much as view its file system, let alone decide where to open or save files within it. Compare to this to computers, where management of the file system is an ongoing task, or perhaps struggle, depending on your point-of-view. Like the home screen, the iPhone makes a compromise: it assumes that what the user misses out on by those times where accessing the file system would be helpful is more than made up for by all the times the user doesn’t have to worry about the file system. The shocking result for even for a GUI veteran like myself is that after using the iPhone for a couple of years, I don’t seem to miss the file system one bit.

The iPhone has banked that the lack of file system access would lead to a better overall user experience. I think it’s hard to argue against its success. iPhone apps know where to open and store their documents unbeknownst to the user. As long as they can get to that data quickly and easily, they never care.

Maybe this works so well because so many applications only access data files that they created. I don’t really care where FaceBook stores my username and password or where Notes stores my notes, as long as those programs know where to get the data from, I’m happy. If I need to open a saved video in VideoNinja, the program will show me what videos I have to choose from. I don’t know where the files are on the file system and I have no choice on where to save them or load them from, but it doesn’t matter because here, less choice = simplicity. This model works so well yet I haven’t read anyone who really appreciates how easy it works. Like any great interface, it works so well you don’t even realize it. Or put another way, the interface stays out of the user’s way.

Apple is now bringing this simplified computer interface model from the portable world of the iPhone to the iPad, a device that more in common with a laptop or even a desktop computer. The significantly larger screen means the iPad will be capable of displaying applications previously best suited to the desktop, such as word processors and spreadsheets. While professional level applications like Final Cut Pro are not coming to the iPad – proving that desktop computers still have their place – the iPad is focused on performing those functions that most people do most of the time. Functions like Web surfing, e-mail, social networking, media viewing and sharing. In short the iPad is built from the ground up as an entertainment device. It leaves the content creation to the desktop world…for now.

By focusing on the average computer user – both on what the user wants to do and how to let them do it quickly and easily – the iPad is positioned to truly be the computer that finally lives up to the often-recited “for the rest of us” selling point. As scary as it first sounds, the average computer buyer doesn’t need most the choices and capabilities that have defined home computers since the original Apple II. More importantly, they don’t want the accompanying responsibilities that come from all those choices and capabilities. While Netbooks have been around for a couple years trying to reach for the same audience, all they are offering are the same capability overload of a traditional computer wrapped in the same GUI running on cheaper hardware at a cheaper price point. While it has been a win for casual computer users who can get an Internet-ready laptop at a previously unheard of sub-$500 price, the user experience is still stuck in the computer dark age.

There are several issues with the iPad that I haven’t addressed that prevent it from fully replacing a typical computer in one’s household. Almost all those issues revolve around the fact that Apple built the iPad as a cloud device and by all appearances you will still need a traditional computer acting as your “digital hub” (as Apple likes to call it) to get the most out of you iPad. But credit Apple for recognizing that the vast majority of computer buyers want a simpler way of interacting with a computer with less maintenance and focusing on just the abilities they use most. And for recognizing that those computing abilities are better enjoyed in our hands while sitting on the living room couch than sitting in the office staring at a stationary monitor.

There will probably be a place for desktops for many years to come, but they will most likely become almost exclusively used for prosumer and professional level work. For the rest of us, we’ll wonder why the computers of old made us work so hard for so little. Or maybe, just like what the iPhone did to traditional cell phones, we’ll have adapted so quickly to this new GUI paradigm that the iPad will have started that we’ll simply forget how it use to be.

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