Tag Archives: revolution

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:

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