On the iPad

The question I think Apple asked themselves during the development of the iPad is this, “how can we make a larger, more general purpose computing device as easy to use as the iPhone?”. From this, there’s a grain of truth for those dismissing the iPad as just a big iPhone. I think a lot of people would like “a big iPhone”. No fuss and none of your typical computer maintenance, just apps to get things done.

In order to be easy to use, the iPad throws away many of the things we traditionally associate with computers. Apple are undoubtably taking a gamble by stripping down the computer so completely. No doubt Apple have removed things which are useful, but is this price worth the benefit of a much simpler computer owning experience?

Looking at the iPad, I see tablet computing’s next stage of evolution. Instead of trying to be a computer in the traditional sense, it tries to play to the strengths of the medium. What can we do better, and what should we throw out? Tablets have been hobbled by the misguided belief that they are just desktop computers with a different form factor.

I believe the iPad is better—and very different—to the tablets which have gone before. Why? It’s the software, stupid. Commentators are paying too much attention to the different form factor, rather than the different software. The iPhone is the same—the software that takes the device to new heights. In both the iPhone and iPad, software and hardware have been designed in tandem, each feeding into the other. The basic form dictates the software, of course, but the actual realisation, that we need a screen precisely so big, is driven by the software.

Previous tablets have tried to take the traditional Windows metaphor and translate it to a new medium, and because of this have failed. The experiment was worth doing, I believe, but personally, I concluded it was a failed direction several years ago. Taking an interface designed for precise mouse interaction and projecting it onto a device with a far less precise interaction mechanism—typically a stylus—was destined to failure. Previous smart phones fell directly into this stylus trap too, producing interfaces too fiddly to use on the move.

Creating software dealing in fingers and touches and swipes—physical gestures—and building hardware around this interaction style created the iPhone. It also removed the requirement for a dorky, easily lost stylus and instead made you feel like you were using something from the future. This is why the iPhone was a huge success amongst consumers. You felt cool rather than dorky with an iPhone.

People are excited about Apple’s products not because they are cool, or they look pretty. It’s because Apple have a history of tackling tough problems in novel ways which move the state of the art forward. Sure, there have been tablets before, but they have been unwieldily machines; excitement around the iPad is based on the idea that Apple may have got it right. There is no “reality distortion” field around Steve Jobs, just a string of great products which lead people to believe this one will be the same.

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