The single most notable phenomenological residue of spending a few hours with the iPad is what it does to my perception of the iPhone. The minute I picked up an iPhone back in 2007, other smartphones that had seemed remarkably capable (Treos, Blackberries) suddenly felt dated and limited. To my great surprise, the iPad does, for me, the same thing to the iPhone. Whereas before today the iPhone felt like a capable, if diminutive, computer, suitable for web browsing, email, composing text, and running all sorts of applications, it now seems more like, well, a phone. A phone that can do lots of cool things, to be sure, but nonetheless, my perception of its primary identity is no longer “computer that also makes calls” but simply “phone that runs some handy utilities.” As of today, when I picture the “thing from the future that I take with me to do almost everything I can do with a laptop except write code,” I picture an iPad, not an iPhone — until, of course, the inevitable release of the device that changes my perception of the iPad.
Fraser Speirs’ analysis of tech insiders’ negative reactions to the iPad is the best I’ve read so far.
The visigoths are at the gate of the city. They’re demanding access to software. they’re demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.
While Alex Payne is absolutely right that the iPad is not a tinkerer’s machine, I think it’s not only reasonable but long overdue that users who don’t want to have to tinker won’t be required to, or, more often, as Speirs notes, rely on regular visits from a technological shaman to keep their machines working.
Yes, the iPad is optimized for consuming media, but it’s no more of a sinister inducement to consumption than a book is. The idea that a single, complex, general-purpose tool (the “computer”) has to serve so many different purposes and audiences through a single hardware interface is merely an artifact of the history of computing. It’s crazy to insist that in 2010 my mother should use the exact same tool to send email and view photos that I use to develop software.
That said, as a tinkerer myself, the prospect of a future where someone who does want to tinker is actually prohibited from doing so worries me as much as it does Payne. The fight for greater openness on the platform is justified. It feels to me like this decade’s analog to the battle over DRM in music, except in this case Apple is the RIAA. They’ll eventually open the platform, or they’ll be routed around. And I’ll be happy to tinker for the cause.
UPDATE: See Roger’s comment below for a reference to Steven Frank’s excellent piece on this very issue.
Fellow Old Worlders, I hate to tell you this: we are a minority. The question is not “will the desktop metaphor go away?” The question is “why has it taken this long for the desktop metaphor to go away?”