Tag Archives: ipad

The iPad Mini will be just as bad a “general computing device” as the iPad, which means that it’s the future of general computing

When the iPad was first announced in January 2010, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber explained Apple’s purpose with an interesting analogy [about automatic transmissions replacing manual transmissions in cars].

Gruber is a smart guy and I wouldn’t bet against him when it comes to Apple, even here. But there is a problem with this analogy. It’s much more convincing if you live in North America than in Europe.

Note: there is one thing that will undermine the iPad/iPad Mini’s successful invasion of general computing. It’s included at the bottom.

Tom at The Unknown Coast critiques John Gruber’s analogy that the iPad is to a desktop computer as an automatic is to a manual, pointing out that most of Europe drives manual-transmission cars. I hadn’t noticed until now that my own piece on the iPad introduction (original WordPress version), published back in 2010, just a week after John’s take in Daring Fireball, also mentions a manual transmission, but only briefly. The specific issue is fair (assuming it’s accurate that Europeans generally drive stick), but Gruber’s analogy is still valid.

Europeans don’t have manual spark advance. They don’t have manual chokes. They don’t crank-start their cars, or drive on inner-tube tires. There are a myriad more recent automotive examples I could give — it’s likely most Europeans enjoy computer-controlled fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, and power-steering — but the point isn’t whether European cars have manual transmissions, or whether one particular technological advancement is inevitable or not; it’s that with cars as well as in computing, the overwhelming trend is simplification and abstraction.

Denying that the iPad is a general purpose computer is an exercise in climbing the hills to avoid the rising flood of applications. When the iPad was released, there were numerous software categories where the the iPad had nothing to offer. Over the last two years that has steadily changed. There are still things you can’t do on an iPad, but increasingly they are niche tasks that a small percent of people do with their computers.

Millions of people are buying the iPad, and for many it is their main computer, or their only computer. Apple is already the market leader in overall PC shipments, if you count the iPad as a computer. 

Breakthrough products often start out inferior to their competition, but then the market prioritizes different tasks, where the new products are strong. The iPhone was inferior to the BlackBerry in texting and email. As those tasks became just two of the hundreds of things people do with their phones, the iPhone eclipsed its predecessors and redefined the smart phone. Likewise, the iPad has weaknesses compared to laptops and desktops, but as the definition of what it means to use a computer changes, the iPad’s position grows stronger.

So it’s a mistake to think that the iPad Mini will undermine the iPad’s growth as a general-purpose computer just because it’s smaller. The iPhone is a reasonable computer replacement for many tasks, with an even smaller display. Having the option of a roughly-half-sized iPad will just mean that people have more choices, and the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire have some serious competition.

There is one thing that would be disappointing: the new user interaction model includes not just touch, but voice. This piece was written on my MacBook only because I don’t have the latest iPad (or a USB keyboard — there are limits to how much typing I want to do on glass). It seems unlikely that any new Apple hardware will lack voice input, but if the iPad Mini doesn’t support Siri, that will be a big issue.

Tablets that are (not) going to Rule the Coming Years | TechHotshot


“Sometime back laptops made the world wire-free and mobile. One could work from anywhere; but laptop today is no longer a substance of surprise. The glamour quotient has shifted towards a new cool stream of gadgets called Tablet PCs.”

“Today we are at the altar where tablets are empowering to become the gadgets of tomorrow and witnessing the growth potential of tablet industry it would not be wrong to say that 2009 was a year of laptops and 2010 will be a year of tablets.”


This is fundamentally flawed reasoning. The author is assuming that ten years after Bill Gates first proclaimed that the laptop and desktop would be supplanted by the tablet, now just happens to be the time people are ready to make the switch. That’s no more true than the idea that one hundred years ago people decided they’d had enough of horses and it was time to adopt another mode of travel.

People are buying the iPad because the iPad works as a tablet, not because they’ve finally decided they’ve had enough of laptops. The PC industry has a ten-year history of producing tablets that few people want. There is no reason to think that just because Apple has produced the iPad, people will start snapping up the Dell Streak or the Samsung Q1.

If other manufacturers manage to copy the iPad really well, or produce something useful themselves, they have a shot. Otherwise the next ten years of tablets will be like the last ten years, only thinner and lighter and more desperate as the iPad’s market share grows.

Cargo Cult Design

In the Pacific Ocean after World War II, islanders built imitation landing strips, aircraft, and radio equipment, and mimicked the behavior of the departed military personnel, not understanding that going through the motions wouldn’t bring back the huge amounts of goods that arrived when the real military was there during the war. A similar situation is developing with tablet devices.

Tablet 101

For nearly ten years people have been proclaiming that tablets are the way of the future (2001), that the tablet PC still has a strong future (2005), that the tablet PC is going to obsolete paper (2007). Now there is the iPad, which as some point out is just a big iPod Touch. That’s not the insult PC World seems to think it is: the one break out successful tablet device of the last decade — or two, if you like — is the iPhone/iPod Touch, with roughly 75 million sold, which as far as I can tell is more than the total number of tablet PCs sold in the last ten years.

The industry has learned from the iPhone experience, and Apple won’t have a grace period to establish the iPad as dominant in the re-made field of tablet computers; there are dozens of competitors looking to jump into the field immediately. But do any of them really understand what they’re doing?

Cars with tillers

Henry Ford sits at the tiller of the first car he made, in 1896 when he was 33.

In the early days of the automobile, cars looked very much like the wagons that preceded them:

That’s understandable: no one knew what a car should look like, and a wagon was the closest thing to a car anyone had seen. As car manufacturers experimented with different designs, they came up with the many things we take for granted today. Some advances, like seat belts, took far later than you might expect, but once the steering wheel was introduced the tiller quickly faded away.

Still, that doesn’t make the early car designs any more practical just because their design flaws were understandable. A car with a tiller was impractical and was doomed to be replaced by those with a steering mechanism not mired in the past.

Cargo cult design is everywhere

The Space Shuttle -- over 100 flights

Buran -- 1 unmanned test flight

Honda CVCC -- 37MPG City, 47MPG Highway

AMC Pacer -- 16MPG City, 26MPG Highway

It’s easier to take an existing design and copy it. Come up with a few variations on the theme and you’re done. But if you don’t understand which attributes are important, you’ll copy the wrong things and modify the crucial parts and end up with a dud.

Defining a (successful) tablet

There are many attributes necessary for a tablet computer: accurate, finger-based multi-touch; a display large enough to work with the web and web applications, and suitable for general use including video; wireless networking. There are more, but one in particular that Apple’s eager competitors (and the tablet PC makers of the past) seem to have overlooked is a user interface designed for use on a tablet. It’s not enough to put a coat of paint on a desktop-keyboard-mouse-oriented user interface. Henry Ford could have pointed to the wheels on his first car, shown above, and said, “Look how the wheels are specifically designed for a car, not a wagon!” That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that the user interface, the tiller, is wrong.

This lack of UI support has doomed every tablet PC that came out with a customized version of XP, Vista, and now Windows 7. There are basic differences between a finger and a mouse/pointer that have to be accounted for.  Imagine a Chevy Corvette with a leather-covered tiller and you have something like this:

Lots of little fiddly bits

The application icons are a reasonable size only because they’re heavily framed (doesn’t the OS support larger-resolution icons?), and the other controls are just too small and too close together. After ten years you’d think the UI designers for tablet OSes (mostly from Microsoft) would have realized the things they need to give up in order to deliver a viable user experience.

The Cargo Cult designers of the HP Slate, the Dell Streak, the Lenovo U1, and others are aping Apple’s hardware design, using large touch screens in stylish cases, and trumpeting how they support Flash or function as a laptop replacement, but they will all fail miserably as long as they try to dress up a tiller to make it work like a steering wheel.

Edit: here’s another example of someone who thinks it’s about the hardware.

Postscript: I first ran into the term “cargo cult” because of Richard Feynman’s use of the term “cargo cult science.”

Anything less than instant is unacceptable

Application responsiveness is like the weather

I used to live in Los Angeles, and I was always amazed at those “Best Places to Live” articles that failed to properly weight (in my opinion) the weather. Living in Southern California it’s easy to take for granted that the weather will be nice most of the time. If I even thought about the weather I’d simply look out the window and smile at yet another perfect day. Now I live in St. Louis, and I check the weather forecast online every day before I head out. Don’t get me wrong, I love St. Louis, but the fact that I could freeze to death if I dress wrong is a bit of a negative.

When it comes to usability, responsiveness is like the weather: everyone agrees that a slow user interface is a bad thing, but the moment some feature comes along that looks cute but runs a little bit like sap in winter we still have to deal with interfaces that suck because they’re slow. It’s important to remember that the CPUs in our computers today are roughly one hundred times as powerful as the CPUs of just fifteen years ago. Those CPUs managed a GUI that wasn’t that different than the computers of today.

So why are GUIs slow today?

Pervasive Multi-Tasking. Today’s computer is doing many more things than the computer of 1995. Open the Activity Monitor or the Task Manager and take a look. The Mac of 1995 also famously didn’t have pre-emptive multi-tasking. In a way that was a good thing: it meant that the program in front of you had the power to use as much of your 25MHz CPU as it needed to try to keep you happy.

Web Apps. They suck (with rare exceptions) because javascript is interpreted and it’s too easy to add features to web apps. At my last job I used the Zimbra email client. That thing ate my soul one second at a time. I found that I didn’t respond to email as well or as promptly because of the minor inconvenience of repeatedly waiting on Zimbra’s interface.

Eye Candy. It’s nice, and it can even be a usability boon, but the moment it slows you down it should go. It’s important here to distinguish between reality and appearance. Studies have shown that people are happy to wait longer for something that appears to be doing something than they are for something that gives no feedback. So if the eye candy is the zoom out-zoom in of switching applications on the iPhone, even if it makes the actual transition take a bit longer that’s a net win.

Innefficiency. I don’t know this for a fact, but it would seem there’s not enough eye candy in recent OSes to justify the hardware requirements they demand.

An example of instant done right

Back the 90s there was a company called Be that put out the Be Operating System. Initially it ran on custom hardware with two 66MHz CPUs in it (still ten to thirty times slower than what you likely use now). The Be reps did a demo where they would start a dozen or so applications and show that both CPUs were pegged at full utilization. Then they would grab a window and drag it around the display. Everything else slowed to a crawl, but that window would continue happily doing whatever it was doing, because the BeOS knew how to prioritize: it was an end user system, not a server, so whatever you focused on, that got the first shot at the CPUs. The reps would then repeat the demo, but with one of the CPUs disabled. Even with the same tasks that maxed out two CPUs, when they dragged a window around, while everything else nearly froze, that window was still immediately responsive.

That’s the way it was fifteen years ago, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be that way today. Everyone I’ve read who’s had their hands on the iPad says that it gives instant feedback in a way that other devices don’t. If it does, I’m looking forward to it.

Addendum: some things that should be instant but aren’t

  • In the Finder, right clicking a file and selecting Open With. The submenu should be pre-calculated based on file type. For the few hundred most common file types that would take what, a few kb?
  • Clicking Update in the WordPress editor for this post.

Redmond wants into the fight

In The iPad Revolution: It’s 1984 All Over Again I described how with the iPad Apple is attempting to redefine the human/computer interface, doing away with the mouse and windows and replacing it with the iPhone’s multi-touch display. Of course, if Apple is even partially successful you have to ask who will try to eat their lunch. I said Microsoft was unlikely to as , “[they have] shown no talent at producing a compelling portable touch interface.” Well, Redmond seems intent on proving me wrong. Endgadget has a hands-on demo of Windows Phone 7 Series, and they seem pretty impressed.

The demo is short and feature-light, but it definitely looks worlds better than Windows Mobile ever did. Microsoft is also taking a page from Apple’s one-size-fits-all attitude toward hardware: there will be strict specifications for what devices include, standardizing much of what was once a wild west of features. The demo looks more complex than the iPhone, but that’s to be expected; Windows devices have always opted for more options, more features, more…more.

But is it enough? At this point Microsoft is definitely the third player at the table after Apple and Google. That won’t necessarily slow them down; it didn’t in the videogame console business. Still, unlike videogames where the platform OS doesn’t matter much but the controllers are nearly identical (the Wii’s motion-sensing being the notable exception to the uniformity of push buttons and thumbpad/sticks) there is likely to be consolidation in the multi-touch device market. Just as someone who uses Windows these days can switch to a Mac and still understand how to delete a file, it will eventually be the case that someone who uses one multitouch device will have little trouble switching to another.

So who will be the template the others follow or die trying? Apple has the lead, especially now with the iPad. Google at least has several shipping phones, and several other devices either available now or soon. Microsoft has phones on the way, but apparently nothing tablet-sized. Apple once had the lead in GUI-based computers, but lost it. Whether they can hold onto it now depends on their ability to satisfy the broad market as well as keep software — serious software, not just games — flowing.

The iPad Revolution: It’s 1984 All Over Again

Edit: Caleb Elston gets it.

A lot of people have called the iPad revolutionary. Some say it will change media consumption. Some say it’s Kindle Killer; others say it isn’t. Others say that “The iPad itself was something of a yawn, but the implications of [the A4 CPU] are not.” Still others say it’s a laptop replacement. They’re all missing the point: the iPad is the first fundamental change in human/computer interaction since Apple introduced the mouse/pointer/GUI back in 1984.

Media Consumption

People are hailing the iPad (or reviling it) as a media consumption device destined to save the publishing industry — in other words, not a full-blown computer. Although nothing can save the publishing industry, I admit this is what I thought the iPad would be. Before the announcement I envisioned replacing my aging laptop with the new Apple tablet, but having a mac mini tucked away for when I wanted to do “real” computing. But I was wrong.

Apple made that clear by demoing iWork on the iPad. This device is not just for sitting on the couch and surfing while you watch TV. It’s for getting real work done. When Scott Forstall said there would be a new gold rush for application developers he wasn’t kidding, and he wasn’t hyping; he was putting developers on notice: every software niche is now up for grabs. Just as the migration from DOS to Windows and from the Classic Mac OS to OS X changed the software development landscape, so too will the expansion of the App Store, and developers with apps on the iPhone have a head start.

Kindle Killer

The iPad isn’t a Kindle killer but the notion is silly on the face of it: the Kindle is a single-purpose device and the iPad is a general purpose computer. It’s like saying the iPhone is a Motorola Razr killer. The Razr has a very limited set of functions, where the iPhone can accurately be described as a computer that makes phone calls.

Amazon doesn’t release sales figures, but estimates are that the Kindle so far has sold a total of a half million Kindles in 2009. All up they have perhaps sold “millions” since the introduction in 2007. Compare that to estimates for the iPad of four million in the first year, and it’s obvious that Steve Jobs isn’t targeting the Kindle with the iPad.

Which isn’t to say that the iPad won’t have an impact on the Kindle. The trend over time is obviously toward a single device that does everything, and the Kindle is no exception. The iPad will marginalize the Kindle, but the reader will likely hold out until display technologies converge, possibly with the Mirasol display.

The A4 CPU

Certainly it’s amazing. Consider that the iPad has a 25 watt-hour battery and is rated for ten hours of continuous use. That means that in practice the iPad on average uses only 2.5 watts of power for everything: CPU, storage, and display. That’s an amazing achievement, but it’s not going to change the world. Good hardware lives in service to good software.

Laptop Replacement

Close, but misses the point. The iPad isn’t a laptop replacement, it’s a computer replacement. Every computer designed for human interaction is in the iPad’s sights. But it’s not just a question of hardware, as so many want to make it. Just as the mouse demanded a new interface to make it useful, so does a touchscreen. That’s why tablets have failed again and again through the last ten years: bolting a touchscreen onto standard Windows (or OS X) interface makes about as much sense as adding a mouse to MS-DOS.

At the bottom of every Apple press release is the statement: “Apple…reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh.”  In a very real sense that’s true: nearly every computer in use today has a user experience that a Macintosh user from 1984 would understand immediately. Menus, a desktop metaphor, windows, all of these things have been in place for over twenty-five years. Apple hasn’t said it out loud, but the iPad is intended to be the next 1984: it will replace every computer that isn’t a server.

Don’t Believe the Infographics

During the presentation, Steve Jobs showed a graphic that asked, is there room for something between a laptop and a smartphone? That implies that there will be some way in which each is better than the other two. Of course that’s true, otherwise why have a separate category?

For the iPhone it’s obvious: it’s a phone. Second, it’s pocket-able.

For the iPad it’s a combination of portability, affordability, the app store and the touch interface when compared to the laptop, and the fact that it will be a “real” comupter compared to the iPhone/iPod Touch.

But what is it for the laptop? At least initially there will be a need for the laptop (or a desktop): the iPad syncs to iTunes on another computer, for example. But does it have to be that way? Of course not. There is no reason the iPad needs to depend on its aging brethren. As the iPad progresses, the dependency will shrink, both because Apple wants it to and because users will demand it. Many people won’t own both an iPad and another computer, so any way in which those people are at a disadvantage initially will be a huge incentive for Apple to make the iPad independent.

Initially there will be whole categories of software not represented in the app store. But as the iPad gains traction, the software gap will shrink as developers leap to satisfy a market that within a few years will number in the tens of millions.

But, But…

There can be objections to this idea:

Every computer needs a physical keyboard. No, they don’t, and anyway, the iPad has one if you want it.

Every computer needs USB. Maybe, but there was a time when every computer needed a floppy drive. There was a significant outcry when the first iMac shipped without one, but it worked out. In addition, it’s important to remember that the iPad won’t replace regular computers overnight.

It doesn’t multitask. Well, it does, but only in limited ways. And the point is that, apart from playing music, how often are the apps on your computer actually doing something in the background other than waiting for you to bring them back to the foreground? Unless you’re applying complex transformations in Photoshop, or compiling code, or processing log files, or <fill in your special task here> you don’t need multi-tasking. Okay, maybe you do, but you’re special, and as the iPad matures there will likely be ways to meet your multi-tasking needs.

Any real computer needs a way for us savvy types to dig in to the tech. So do you perform your own tune-ups on your car? Do you drive a stick shift? Bringing it back to computers, do you program? In assembly? If so, good for you. Likely the iPad will adapt to meet your needs; if the iPad really is successful at replacing the current user experience, then sooner or later people will need to be able to create iPad applications using the iPad. Remember that when the Mac was first released, you couldn’t program on it.

The app store is evil. Maybe, maybe not, but that won’t stop the iPad from being successful. And as its market share grows, so will the pressure on Apple to give up some control.

So if Apple is Playing the Part of Apple in this Re-enactment of 1984, Who’s Playing the Part of Microsoft?

It’s arguable whether it’s a good or bad thing that Microsoft ate Apple’s lunch through the 80s, 90s, and 00s. But they’re not likely to do it again; Microsoft has shown no talent at producing a compelling portable touch interface. Google/Android is the obvious candidate. There’s plenty of time for iPad competitors to arrive, although it has none at present. It remains to be seen whether Apple can avoid the mistakes that led to them not owning the desktop market in the 90s.

How Long Will It Take?

The mouse/desktop interface took somewhere around ten years to fully assert its dominance over the command-line. With replacement cycles being what they are, and the current lack of a full software catalog, it might take almost that long for the multi-touch interface to replace the mouse and desktop. It certainly isn’t going to happen overnight. There will be people for whom the iPad is their first computer. There will be others for whom it’s a replacement device; that will take several years to move through the marketplace. Still others will buy it as a supplemental machine, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take those people to give up their mouse.

But make no mistake: the mouse is an endangered tech species: