iPad, You Pad, We All Pad…

I just got back from one of our local Apple Stores and the iPads on display had quite a throng around them.  I didn’t check, but suspect that they are probably  sold out for today. My visit got me thinking about how to explain why I think the iPad is both so successful (and this is not just a belief, it’s a fact: Apple has already sold a million of them, and this past Friday they first went on sale in the rest of the world, (including here in Canada), and why Apple has once again filled a need that people didn’t know they had in the first place.

First, How to Define It

In describing what the iPad is, it’s easy to get caught up in what it doesn’t have, since that may be what strikes one at first; There’s no keyboard, no mouse or trackpad, no monitor stand, and all of the rest of the stuff that goes along with the experience of using a computer or connecting to the Internet.  That also includes a desk or table, chair, mouse pad (or with the advent of optical mice, at least a surface for moving the mouse on) or the various power, video and network cabling, external hard drive or optical (DVD) drive. There’s also a lot of upkeep and maintenance that has been taken away from the iPad;  there’s no anti-virus package that you might be reminded to get shortly after starting it up (at least, not yet), no place to get software except the built-in iTunes store. You don’t have to worry about defragmenting a hard disk (there is none – it’s solid state memory) or even emptying a trash can on the screen to free up disk space. While all of this does get one closer to the uniqueness of the iPad, it circles around the issue somewhat, which I’ll get into in a bit.

It’s also common to define the iPad as just a large iPod Touch or iPhone, since those are devices we are already familiar with. The fact that Apple chose to use a very similar operating system and launching screen to the one on those devices only serves to bolster the opinion that the iPad is merely a larger version of these other gadgets, something I’ve heard especially from people already familiar with those existing products. I think this is an incorrect assessment, simply because there are activities and media that are obviously far more suited to the larger form factor (like watching movies) than the smaller ones. A wall clock is not merely a large wristwatch. It’s a completely different, but related timekeeping object. But again, I think this is looking at the wrong thing.

To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, don’t look for the word, look for the use. Rather than try and define the iPad by what it is lacking or what it appears to be based on, define it by how it’s used. It’s here, I think, that you get to the really interesting and exciting thing about the iPad, which is the user model, or the totality of the experience under which it’s used.

Many of the most revolutionary technological advances are ones that embrace a new user model. Wi Fi and laptops freed people from being tethered to a single office or desk. The new 3G networks and hardware to connect to them on a Netbook allow one to be connected to the Internet not just in a Café with a local wi fi access point but perhaps sitting outside, by a babbling brook.

The iPhone’s size and weight meant that you didn’t have to be sitting down to use it. You could be waiting in line, walking, or sitting  in a seat on the bus or a car. In fact, the iPad is the first computer  that is almost intended to be used while slouching. It’s not a desktop or laptop;  it’s a loungetop! The idea that a computer is not necessarily for work (the Desktop and Laptop computers are ostensibly for that purpose) or for communication (all of the above plus the smartphone or PDA  – Personal Digital Assistant, a term coined by another Apple CEO –  plus phone) leaves the iPad a computer for casual use, mainly media-consumption with some email and web surfing. One could certainly do work on an iPad, and no doubt, some people will dedicate themselves to using it for their work tasks, but the iPad is first and foremost, the first computer designed to be used while a user is sitting back comfortably. That’s probably the big (if not one of the biggest) deal, in my opinion.

The lack of all of those other items (keyboard, mouse, external drive, cabling) meant that there is less to distract the user from the touchscreen and the content displayed on it. People often describe the experience of using an iPad as qualitatively different; that there is no longer ‘something’ in the way, between them and the Internet. While the day has not yet arrived where we ‘jack in’ directly to the Internet, the iPad comes a step closer to that consensual hallucination.

The iPad as Harbinger of a New Age of Human Control Interfaces

It’s even more interesting to take note of the fact that Steve Jobs conceived of the iPad first, and then realized that they could use a smaller version, with some of the scrolling behavior, as a way of building a telephone and internet device/iPod. The pure idea, that of a simple, flat, sheet of glass that displays content and interacts with the user was the original idea. You could put that foundation under any other gadget. People will now expect the iPad/iPhone touchscreen interface with it’s combination of mimicry of physical scrolls and easily changed collection of buttons or controls depending on the context as the default user interface for any number of other technologies. Your car will have a small iPad screen built into the dash (someone has already installed one, according to one of the tech blogs). You’ll set your thermostat or fade your lights with one of these glass interfaces, and you’ll program your microwave, dishwasher, or even toaster with one, once the technology becomes cheap enough to use everywhere.
By jettisoning the clutter and encumbrances of computing, the iPad pulls the rest of the world into an intelligent and software-driven set of controls. Physical knobs, along with raised physical buttons, will only be used where absolutely necessary. As for the rest, we all Pad.

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