iPad is a Big Deal GuysJanuary 28, 2010
As I work in UX design for a fairly excitable Mac and iPhone software company, most of my thoughts over the past 40 hours have been about iPad. It took me a while to realize why I think it is such a big deal.
It’s easy to miss what the big deal is, especially if you’re the sort of person who already has an iPhone and a Mac and you are perfectly happy with the way they fit into your life. @benaar said that they should have just called it iPod Big, and on the face of it, he’s right. It is just a fricken huge iPod touch. But something subtly momentous happens when an iPod touch gets fricken huge.
At first, iPhone just seemed like a very attractive, very expensive, touch-screen smart phone. After using it for a while, though, people realized that what they had was a tiny computer. A huge chunk of the stuff they used to use their lappys for was getting done on the phone instead: tweeting, browsing, checking when your dang video game is going to arrive come on show upppp.
When iPhone OS just ran on handheld devices, it offered a lot of computer-like functionality, simplified to make more sense on a tiny device. Anything that wasn’t possible within a few taps across a couple of screens was not worth bothering with. A lot of the simplifications made in order to cram a computer into a little phone seem obvious: don’t mess around with file management, make software installation dead-simple, don’t worry about running multiple applications at once. As made clear by Windows CE, offering all of the complexity of a desktop OS on a tiny tiny screen is sub-fantastic. (This is also why netbooks are not the phenomenon they were made out to be.) To say that the reason iPhone succeeded is because it did fewer things, but did them realllly smoothly, is almost banal now.
But when you take one step away from Tiny Device Land and toward Full-Fledged Computer Land, all of the necessary simplifications of the iPhone OS become strikingly fresh.
Think about this. iPad is a subcompact computer of which all of the following are true:
File management is all but nonexistent. Documents live in an unordered soup just like on the Newton. Don’t worry about it.
Everything you make is saved every time you edit it. There is no concept of saving at all, let alone the compulsive “manual autosave” practiced by longtime Office users after each edit.
Finding and installing software is as simple as any other interaction on the system. No readme files, instructions cleverly pasted into disk image backgrounds, installers, wizards, or anything. See thingy; tap thingy; use thingy.
Window management, and indeed multitasking management, are nonexistent. Every application you use is precisely the size of the screen, and there is never any need for you to worry about what is or is not open, or where it is.
At all times, the thing you are doing is the only thing that the computer appears to care about. There is no fullscreen mode, presentation mode, Hide Others, or any other fussing around to hide the administrative chrome and plainly see your content.
There are no secret settings, preferences, hacks, permissions, ACLs, PRAM, extensions, registry, corrupt resources, or any other rubbish just waiting to totally silently and inexplicably ruin your system.
There are no viruses, resource-hogging invisible background processes, crapware, or other crufty cruft crufting up your system over time.
There are no mysterious icons in the corners of the screen, intrusive alerts, or other self-important clutter, haunting you and giving you the feeling that what’s going on in your system is complicated and out of your control.
The interface is as intuitive as can be, with the primary interaction being touch the thing you want. A two-year-old child can operate it handily. And when you need it, more multier multi-touch is there.
The “select an object, then choose a command” pattern of the last 26 years is almost nonexistent; selection exists only for copying text, and nearly every action takes place as a single tap or drag.
There are 140,000 applications available for this computer on day one, and an eager, talented multitude of developers already designing a new generation of more powerful and more expressive applications.
Are you getting it? All of those things are neat but fairly unsurprising when we think of them as attributes of a handheld device. But abandoning the compromise of a pocket-sized screen transforms the device into a computer. And this approach is unheard of for a computer of significant reach.
Desktop OS developers have done a great job of hiding complexity and power from average users, while still exposing it to advanced users. But after decades of desktops, we take a lot of silly things for granted. The weird way some Mac apps stick around when you close their last window and others don’t. The need to check the menu bar to find out what app you’re in. The difficulty of focusing on what you’re doing, and getting rid of stuff you don’t care about. The way your ~/Library gets clogged up with residue over time. The necessity to know what the hecks a ~/Library is in the first place. The unfortunate fact that sometimes, your system is just hosed for some unknown reason and you need to start over.
All of that stuff comes with the territory of the all-powerful modern personal computer. We compy people live with it because we love the thrilling stuff we can do once we learn the quirks. Everyone else lives with it because they have no choice but to do the counterintuitive stuff we tell them to in order to get to their goal. So many times, while helping family or friends, I’ve had to apologize on behalf of the Mac, “I’m sorry, it really shouldn’t be this dumb.”
A favorite conversation for my technical and creative friends is the one about where technological interfaces will end up, and how much longer we can live with the mouse-and-keyboard, filesystem-hierarchy, command-center approach. Surely there is something better, more practical for ordinary use. This is its beginning. Certainly the pointing device and keyboard will not disappear, especially for pro users doing our pro user kinda stuff. But for amateurs, and for pro users in their off-time, here is a beautiful glass-and-aluminum slab with all of the annoying bits of computing stripped away.
A rectangle in your hand that contains the thing you want to read or watch or make right now, and nothing else.