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I’ve quietly been watching all the opinions about the potential impact of the iPad over the past few days, and want to provide a roundup of perspectives. Though my initial reaction was lukewarm, (I believe my tweet was “iWasExpectingToBeMoreImpressed”), I decided that that reaction was completely ignorant. So, after spending some time *thinking* instead of just reacting, an interesting picture is beginning to form. Let’s take a look. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the keynote address or the video released by Apple, you can watch it here.

Naysayers

Many of the thoughts about the iPad are focused around what it’s missing, namely Flash, USB, camera, and multitasking. There are also heated arguments about it being a closed system that will kill creativity. I want to share some views around the web addressing these points:

I checked out a post over on Scoble’s blog, “Can Flash Be Saved?“, to get a sense of the conversation around this one. I found this in the comments section:

Steve Jobs is a genius in deciding which technologies are obsolete and thus should be discarded. He did this first with Floppies (and now the world has no floppies). He did this with serial ports and SCSI ports (and how we have USB). He is now doing the same with Flash. Thus, I predict Flash will be dead to the rest of the world soon. When Google has its HTML-5 YouTube up and running, then there will be no reason for using Flash on YouTube.

I found that rather insightful. According to Jobs, Flash is buggy and causes Mac crashes, and Adobe’s unwillingness/inability to fix it is just ‘lazy.’  So, he’s holding out on Flash in order to maintain the integrity of the user’s experience. The other part of the argument is that video is migrating to a new format, HTML5, and so this conversation will eventually be a non-issue. An article in today’s New York Times  points out that several video sites, like YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.tv, and Flickr are already experimenting with alternatives to Flash, and a recent interview with Hulu implies they’re ready to convert their format if it means they’ll be where the eyeballs are:

“Mobile is a monster – we are very bullish. We will embrace any device.”

Apart from the Flash argument, there’s the issue of camera and multitasking. Well, according to a piece on engadget, there are indications that the platform could very well support video calling, file downloads, multitasking, and a handful of other features — so the foundation is already being laid for added bells and whistles on the second generation model.

And finally, the open system debate. I saw this article, “Are iPad’s Limitations Design Decisions?”, which I thought did a nice job addressing the “limitations” as choices that will ultimately enhance the overall experience of using the device.

Well what’s wrong with personal computing today? Complex operating system interfaces, technical input devices, security issues, and frequent crashes -to name just a few things…

…Closed systems enable companies to do seamless integration without putting the burden on their customers. An open system (like Android on smart phones) enables you to do what you like. It’s like Linux on the phone -with all that entails.

Apple, instead, makes their living by tightly controlling the experience of their customers. It’s why everyone praises their designs. From top to bottom, hardware to software -you get an integrated experience. Without this control, Apple could not be what it is today.

Another well-written post, by Frederic Filloux, echoes this sentiment:

This “limitation” is experienced (not an expressed thought, just a feeling) as a strength.

Over on Fast Company, Jamais Cascio wrote a post titled “iWorry: Does the iPad Signal the End of the Era of Open Computing?,” where he explains his fear that the developer restrictions will ‘narrow the scope of innovation.’  But from things I’ve read, part of the framework for facilitating innovation includes the creation of constraints:

…the interaction between feasibility (what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future); viability (what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model); and desirability (what makes sense to people and for people), with an emphasis on the people for which the product or service is being designed.

Those that are able to grasp this concept seem to be in agreement that a human-centered design approach that gives the user a simple, enjoyable experience is a fair trade for some restrictions.

Michael Coste describes the widget as interface as a new paradigm,

But something really new appears with the Widgets: a new paradigm is then tested by Apple. The widget layer is one level upon the application layer that we know since 1984. At that level you don’t need to know anything that happens under the hood. After all most car drivers never open the hood. They want to do the same with computers. The interface of the iPhone is based on this experiment. A button is an application and you want to do the thing that you know this application is able to do. You just push the button. If necessary a list will be shown to you but you never know where it’s going when it’s closed and you don’t care. That’s the most important new thing that brings this new interface.

software developer Joe Hewitt points out that you still have the ability to tinker with the Internet itself,

As a developer, it’s a bit sad losing the ability to come up with crazy plugins and daemons and system-level utilities, but I believe it’s a tradeoff worth making. What people are overlooking is that the Internet is an integral part of the iPhone OS, and it is the part of the OS you can tinker with to your heart’s delight. If you want to invent a new scripting language or background service or something, you’re still totally free to do that, but you’re going to have to run it on a web server. If you want total freedom on the client side, then write a web app. You’re simply no longer going to be able to tempt users into installing software that corrupts their computer.

and Steven Frank draw a comparison between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ devices, and points out the highlights and features we’d expect for the future of computing:

For as frustrated as I was with the restrictions, those exact same restrictions made the New World device a high-performance, high-reliability, absolute workhorse of a machine that got out of my way and just let me get things accomplished.

The bet is roughly that the future of computing:

  • has a UI model based on direct manipulation of data objects
  • completely hides the filesystem from the user
  • favors ease of use and reduction of complexity over absolute flexibility
  • favors benefit to the end-user rather than the developer or other vendors
  • lives atop built-to-specific-purpose native applications and universally available web apps

The iPad as a particular device is not necessarily the future of computing. But as an ideology, I think it just might be.

Once you start looking past the device, and think about the behavior it enables, a new understanding emerges. I’ll wrap up this section with the sentiments by Fraser Speirs, which captures the essence of the human-centered design perspective:

I’m often saddened by the infantilising effect of high technology on adults. From being in control of their world, they’re thrust back to a childish, mediaeval world in which gremlins appear to torment them and disappear at will and against which magic, spells, and the local witch doctor are their only refuges.
With the iPhone OS as incarnated in the iPad, Apple proposes to do something about this, and I meanreally 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”.

It’s not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

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.

Potential Benefits

OK, so let’s take the focus off what the iPad is missing, and look at the areas in which it was designed to excel. In the keynote, Jobs says “Apple is a mobile devices company,” and that in order for the iPad to create a new product category, located somewhere between phones and laptops, it has to be “far better at some key tasks,” which he listed as follows:

- Browsing
– Email
– Photos
– Video
– Music
– Games
– eBooks

A quick review of the list shows that the fundamental idea is to provide a fun, simple, seamless media consumption experience more than anything else. What’s being provided is the platform. What app developers do with it will be up to them, and we really don’t know what the manifestations will look like. As David Pogue put it:

Like the iPhone, the iPad is really a vessel, a tool, a 1.5-pound sack of potential. It may become many things. It may change an industry or two, or it may not. It may introduce a new category — something between phone and laptop — or it may not. And anyone who claims to know what will happen will wind up looking like a fool.

Some things to consider:

Cost

Do you remember when the iPod came out, and was starting at $399 with 5GB of storage?  Or when the iPhone launched at $599 with 8GB storage?  To have a 0.5 inch thin device with an almost 10″ multitouch display and 16GB of storage starting at $499 seems pretty impressive. (OK, the *actual* impact on your wallet will be higher, but we’ve come a long way.)

Business

How might this device boost efficiency for businesses? A brief review of the iWork app on PopSci  is making it seem like a touch-based interface will restructure the way we think about tasks and productivity altogether.

I was personally curious about which apps people were using on their iPhones/iPods, and if there might be an indication that the iPad would be a preferred tool at work. I sent out a tweet yesterday asking as much. From the responses I’ve gotten, the favorite/most used apps were Tweetie/Echofon/other Twitter client, Facebook, Google Earth & Maps, and a news outlet (NYTimes, CNN, etc). Now, I only got a small response from a specific audience, so this is in no way a representative sample of what most people may be using from the app store. But I do see that social networking and (trying to) keep up with information is important to people. I’ve written before about  Twitter being a powerful informal learning environment, so even though we may not associate Twitter with “work,” it actually has become an important communications platform for people within an industry to exchange ideas and information. Will those factors justify purchasing another device to access it? We’ll see.

Education

There’s been a lot of anticipation among educators about the uses of the iPad in the classroom, as well as its potential to transform the textbook industry.  (CourseSmart, the country’s largest provider of electronic textbooks, has already developed an iPhone app in order to provide access to it’s library of over 87,000 textbooks.) I think of the 1:1 laptop initiative, combined with a collaborative creation tool like Sophie, and I can imagine so many ways that the learning experience could be enhanced. But even forget the classroom – an intuitive touch-based interface will be appealing to children for interactive learning in general.

Books & Magazines

It will be interesting to see what magazines will do to customize the experience. I saw this video by Sports Illustrated that shows what they plan to do. I’ve seen some ideas for new business models based around in-app purchasing , and new possibilities for creating contextual interactive graphics, woven narratives, and communal reading:

Now imagine if you could annotate a book–and have those annotations shared with a virtual book club. Or imagine if you could buy a textbook annotated by a commenter you trust, who could function basically as a tutor. And even wackier: Imagine if Oprah actually sold book editions where she’s offered her personal commentary or responses. Of it you could buy obscure books that Neil Gaiman loves but that you’ve never heard of–complete with Gaiman’s own critical responses.

As an aside, I think it’s interesting that when the Mag+ concept video came out a few months ago, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Now Apple has essentially released that product, and people seem disappointed. You can’t win.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

Games

I don’t have much to say about games beyond that playing them on a 10″ screen seems like it would be fun. I’ve seen a few ideas utilizing an iPad combined with your iPhone/iPod, like for board games or poker.  The possibilities seem vast.

Wrap-Up

So, there’s the overview of what people are saying. I’m going to end this will two thoughts, the first a summary of everything so far, and the second the piece that puts it all into perspective:

1. People want a simple, intuitive, pleasant experience, with the technology hidden in the background.

A lengthy review by Freddy Snijder summed it up like this:

Many early adopting digital savvies often forget that most people don’t care about technology: they just want to get a job done, be productive, be social and have fun. In the past there was a strong need for more storage, (graphical) computing power, better hardware interfaces, better (wireless) Internet connections and a lot of other basic technologies to make computing more useful, even for the more technically skilled.

However, now we have entered a phase where technology can, in principle, already cater many of our computing needs. So, in this decade it is not about improving technological capabilities, it’s about developing & utilizing technology in ‘computing products’ to make them truly useful, effective and fun for consumers in more focused application areas.

2. We don’t know how this will play out.

Probably the most insightful post I’ve seen came from Tim Kastelle. He references a little piece, “What people said about the iPod 9 years ago when it launched…,” which has a collection of sentiments that were expressed back then that sound strikingly similar to what’s being said today. He goes on to say that no, the iPod itself was not a game-changing innovation. Then he looks at the iPod sales chart. What caused the sudden jump in market share by 2005?

The first iPod was introduced at the end of 2001, and you can see that sales figures for the first three years were not good at all. By the middle of 2004, the iPod’s market share had been sitting in the 20-30% range for a while. By the end of 2005, that had shot up to over 70%. What happened?

iTunes happened.

Because the iPod and iTunes are so closely interconnected now, it is easy to forget that iTunes didn’t exist for the first years of the iPod. At the time, the iPod was just another mp3 player. The innovation with the iPod was not in the product – it was the innovation in the product’s value network.

Aha. So all of the debate about the tool itself, and the features it does or does not have, may actually be less relevant than we think. Have we been asking the wrong question?

iTunes is what “made” the iPod (and the iPhone), not the devices in and of themselves. Of course we love the interface, but it’s what the interface gives us access to that we really love. So what’s Jobs got up his sleeve? Perhaps we should be focusing on the innovations that will come via the app store. Or a new model that’ll be born from the iBook store? Something else we don’t know about yet?

Jobs is not a fool. If he’s calling this “the most important thing I’ve ever done” (according to Arrington), do you think the culmination of his career is “an oversized iPod?” He’s probably been thinking about this device for decades, and has already thought about what it will be in decades to come. He’s been training us to consume music in a new way, then get familiar with a touch-based interface, and now wants to transform the way we consume media altogether. You’ve seen Pranav Mistry’s demonstration of SixthSense on TED by now, right?  That is the future of technology, where the interface is haptic, and then ultimately becomes invisible. As many people have stated above, we don’t want to be encumbered by technology – we want it to improve our lives, to make things easier, and to not get in the way. Jobs gets this, and the iPad is a stepping stone.

In the end, Apple’s success isn’t just in satisfying current unmet needs, but to anticipate needs you don’t know you have and to beat you to the punch by creating a solution upfront. The iPad will be the platform. What are you going to do with it?