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Having fun thinking about the iPad.

January 30, 2010

Well, I’ve found the magic formula for actually having readers … now, I shall create a post so long that nobody will want to read it (I’m a dadaist at heart). What I attempting to do here, is not to tell you that you should buy an iPad … many of you shouldn’t.  What I am writing about is how people look at the design of technology. Currently, most people are comparing this thing to what they already have, and there’s the mistake.  I’m pretty sure that the folks at Apple didn’t say “let’s make a better laptop, or let’s replace the desktop” (since they make laptops and desktops (for a purpose) , I doubt that’s what they’re up to)..  They said, “how can we make a device that does what people want, in a way that they like, at a price that they like?” … I enjoy watching Apple to see if they have accomplished this.  It’s very odd to me that people seem to have expected Apple to create new things to do with a computer … the question is whether they have created ways to do the things people do, that are different enough (have the “wow” factor), for people to care, go “wow”, and buy the thing to do what they do with computers.

Anyway, what I enjoy about all Apple announcements is that they get people thinking (even the failures).  The iPad is certainly not an exception and I’ve been working this one out in my head since Jobs took the stage. Many tech people have ripped apart this product without much pause for reflection, and it’s been all about what “it doesn’t have”, or “I can already do that with my other devices”.  This very literal thinking sounds logical and seems to make people happy, but it doesn’t deal with the questions of why a company that moves very deliberately designed this device (and there are reasons), or whether people adopt this thing as their new “appliance”.

One thing that’s very difficult for people to deal with in terms of Apple, is that their new products almost always take away things and appear to offer less, rather than keeping features just because they were there before. The classic case was when the release of the one-button mouse resulted in cries to add another button.  Of course, the next release had zero buttons.  While many take this as corporate stubborn-ness and a “we know what’s good for you” attitude (and I won’t rule those things out), it also the product of thought, and a design decision.  Long ago, I realized that for the Apple decisions that don’t seem to make sense, it is interesting to wait, and see why this thing was designed as it was.  In terms of the mouse, I haven’t had a mouse with a button on it in years, and I don’t miss the buttons.  Whoever decided that you don’t need buttons was right … I don’t, and they aren’t necessary  … it is also true, however, that many people still want buttons, and they should buy a mouse with buttons.   I have a MacBook Air, and it came along exactly when I was thinking that I’d happily not lug around an optical drive that I never use and would like a device that tis meant to work “in the cloud” … Apple took away a lot of things on this device that people moaned about, and some that mystified me.  A couple of years later, the Air is my main productivity computer … of course, that’s me.  If you edit video, don’t get one, it’s the wrong tool.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the Air is a bad tool … it is the perfect tool for lots of people, and certain work … don’t criticize a lock-picking kit because you can’t make a lamp with it.

Anyway, the iPad has been really interesting for thinking about design. Keep in mind that I am talking about the way that it looks (yes), but also the entire range of design from materials to interface. I say this because the number one thing people have said is that this device just does what I can already do, so, who cares?  Well, the answer is actually quite simple.  Really a lot of people care (in fact, I’ve been surprised myself by how many people seem to want an iPad).  In fact, if  “I can already do that” is a reason to reject a new design, I’m not sure why everyone isn’t still using Windows 95 … I read my email, worked on documents, listened to music … I never needed anything else, did I?  To be more clear, I could easily demand that there was never any need to design a car after the AMC Gremlin … I could drive it to work.  Heck, I could drive a Gremlin clear across the country, and even play music while I was doing it. Strangely, people seemed to move on … even though anti-lock brakes and power steering just steer and stop a car, right? And how a car looks doesn’t matter, as long as it drives, right? (I may actually think that, but most people?  Please)

Design matters, and while the design of the exterior is wonderful, design of interface is more important than most think.  So, I admit that you can read your email, create documents, watch movies, and listen to music (and maybe read a book in a crude way) on your laptop. The difference, clearly,  is not function, but how you perform those functions.  The iPhone allowed you to call people, browse the web, and play games … all things that could be done “better” on other devices that people already owned.  So, the iPhone was a flop, right?  In fact, the pundits declared the iPhone an expensive toy on its release and complained about what it didn’t have and couldn’t do.  As we know, it still is not the tool of choice for many in business, but it is very desirable and obviously very functional for other purposes that did not quite exist all in one package before. The most important thing about iPhone design was not its appearance (although that was a huge draw).  The most important thing was the multi-touch interface, the screen, and the App store, I think. So, it is not the best phone, not the best web browser, and not the best gaming interface, but put all of it together and add the interface, and for some millions, it made people say “wow” when they tried it, and is what they want. And they’re not even settling … people desire this technology.

So, the iPad … it doesn’t have too many entirely new functions for a computing device (although the ebook reader may be enough of a leap to be officially considered “new” … not sure yet. While your laptop can perform all of the functions (like email, word processing, watching movies, listening to music) it can’t do them the same way, and yes, that does matter (or you’d be driving a Gremlin … or using Windows 95).  What is different?  Well, the multi-touch interface for one, which is a pretty major “wow” (your laptop does not have that).  It also has an accelerometer for gaming and screen orientation which is a really great way to do many things, a new ebook reader which shows great promise and is directly connected to publishers, the App store where 140,000 applications are available for this device and are often under $5, iTunes for music and movies integrated into the system (rather than as an add-on like on your laptop), a 3G connection with a pretty good monthly plan if you’re a mobile type, a near full-size virtual keyboard (and some of us do like those), a very pretty design, a 1.5 pound weight, a very nice photo organizing ability … and all of this is me forgetting many things and talking about the first-generation before it is introduced.

This machine will do many things that your current machine does not.  In fact, pretty much everything it does it will do in a way that your current machine does not.  Important note:  there are many of you who will not care … that’s okay.  There are millions of you who will continue to buy what runs your latest Windows-based game with the power you need … that’s fine.  Don’t buy this to crunch video files, or shoot a major motion picture … that’s not what it’s made for. What Apple is betting (and they may lose that bet) is that this device will do what a lot of people like, in a way that they like, and for a price that they like. It is different from the machines that you currently own as I have described above (it just is …. those are differences, people).  Whether those differences matter to people has a heck of a lot to do not with what you are doing, but how you are doing it.  Apple has not invented new things to do, it has come up with new ways to do them.

People should stop reading reviews from the tech pundits … they should ask my 11-yr old daughter.  The pundits spent a huge amount of time criticizing the iPhone because it didn’t have cut and paste … my daughter, like millions of others, tried one for about 10 seconds and said, “give me one of those”.

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