Sometimes, the prevailing discourse on the Internet makes one want to despair. Blog post after blog post of the same drivel. It often feels as though the ‘blogosphere’ is a little like The Island, a 2005 movie where Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johannson wear futuristic clothes and live in a hermetically sealed underground compound. Everyone there believes the same thing – only, it’s the wrong thing.
When Apple’s iPad was finally revealed to the public after months of rumours and speculation, the tech bloggers and journalists mostly had the same reactions: to them, it felt a little ‘meh.’ And perhaps the most oft-repeated observation was that it’s a closed system – just like the iPhone – and that this, somehow, will result in giving Apple ultimate control over what we watch, listen to, read, and do; and in the process it will stifle all human creativity. This is not atypical: the same things were said when the iPhone launched, and the iPod before it.
Brilliant, beautiful and desirable products apparently provoke this reaction in us; it’s harder to embrace something enthusiastically than it is to be skeptical or critical.
Here, then, are some ‘dissenting’ opinions from people who are seeing the slate from Cupertino for the revolution that it’ll inevitably end up being.
First up, the inimitable Stephen Fry, everyone’s favourite actor-turned-surprisingly-insightful-and-of-course-terribly-articulate-tech-commentator:
There are many issues you could have with the iPad. No multitasking, still no Flash. No camera, no GPS. They all fall away the minute you use it. I cannot emphasise enough this point: “Hold your judgment until you’ve spent five minutes with it”. [...]
How much easier it is to distrust, to doubt, to fold the arms and say “Not impressed”. I’m not advocating dumb gullibility, but it has always amused me that those who instinctively dislike Apple for being apparently cool, trendy, design fixated and so on are the ones who are actually so damned cool and so damned sensitive to stylistic nuance that they can’t bear to celebrate or recognise obvious class, beauty and desire.
His point is essentially that the device is incredibly simple, incredibly high-quality and incredibly versatile. And his prediction is that it will be widely adopted. Even if he leaves a door ajar at the end of his essay, just in case.
[T]he nature of personal computing has changed. Until recently, we mainly used our computers to run software programs (Microsoft Word, Quicken) installed on our hard drives. Now, we use them mainly to connect to the vast databases of the Internet – to “the cloud,” as the geeks say.
[Today], computing is all about the programming – the words and sounds and pictures and conversations that pour out of the Internet’s cloud and onto our screens. Computing, in other words, has moved back closer to the ideal that Steve Jobs had when he founded Apple.
Perhaps the key point here is that the iPad (and the iPhone before it) can be viewed as a genuine alternative to the still overwhelmingly technical nature of the personal computer. To an extent, PCs (and Macs) require us all to be our own technicians. Nobody should reasonably be required to know how to reinstall an operating system, install a printer driver, keep a virus scanner up to date or swap out a graphics card. Yet the fundamentally hobbyist consumer computing market requires us to performs these tasks regularly, and the only alternative is to pay someone else a lot of money to do it for you.
Fraser Spiers has an excellent post about this. The tech industry’s “meh” reaction to the iPad’s announcement, he says, is a kind of future shock. It’s what you experience when someone shows you clearly what you should be selling, and you can’t imagine how you’ll get there.
For years we’ve all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the ‘average person’. I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort. [...]
With the iPhone OS as incarnated in the iPad, Apple proposes to do something about this, and I mean really do something about it instead of just talking about doing something about it, and the world is going mental. [...]
The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get “real work” done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the “real work”. [...]
The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table’s order, designing the house and organising the party.
And there you have it. We should all be, we all are, tired of being technicians when it comes to using communication, entertainment, work devices.
The computer should be as transparent to us as possible: our real work is what should be important, not figuring out how to operate the technology. When you prepare for a presentation, how much time do you spend animating the PowerPoint slides, and how much time do you spend refining your message and rehearsing? Why should the need to reinstall your operating system every 18 months be anything other than a complete failure of the IT industry?
Now, there are those who, like Alex Payne in this article, somehow believe that the iPad represents the beginning of the end of creativity. He says,
The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing. It is a digital consumption machine. [...]
Apple can’t – or won’t – conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free.
And there’s the rub: Payne tries to slip a very typical category error into the discussion here, cleverly disguised as a kind of righteous rhetoric. “Open, usable and free.” These three concepts are somehow implicitly equated here; the technical community’s supposed consensus being that usability and openness go hand in hand (and if you don’t have to pay for it, even better).
I would counter that our tinkerer’s mindset has resoundingly failed creativity on countless occasions, not only costing us untold millions of dollars but preventing us from creating and accessing countless products of creativity. Every time an “open, free” computer gets in the way (because of a broken driver, say, or a piece of software you wrote that broke it), we have once again failed the user who can’t be creative as a result.
Payne goes on to say that “Apple’s decision to make the iPad a closed device is an artificial one.” He suggests that Apple made it to safeguard the devices against malicious code that would inevitably end up on them if they allowed users to install any unvetted software.
I find myself wondering – call it cynical, call it what you want – whether Apple decided to launch another closed device simply because the first round of tests (iPhone) indicate that it’s working really well for consumers. Sure, there’s no malware (unless you jailbreak your iPhone). But more importantly, the device just sort of gets out of your way. I don’t have to think about maintaining it. They do. If the OS requires an update, it magically comes to my phone. If one of my apps is out of date, the same. It just works.
And that, realistically, will help me gain back countless hours spent rebooting, installing, uninstalling, searching for answers, supporting friends and family. In fact, it might be a good investment to simply buy everyone who asks me to be their ‘computer guy’ a $500 iPad. It would be an investment in my own time.
iPad photo courtesy of Apple Inc.