There is No Such Thing as Technology. The iPad. Part 1.

The new iPad. Just like something else, or something new?

Apple has put the cat amongst the technology pigeons again with its new iPad. There are diehards for and against everything Apple does. Most technology writers and the majority of IT professionals tend to take the view that Apple produce expensive trinkets, when there are much cheaper and more feature-rich options available.

I think they miss the point completely. Apple understands technology better than any of the other consumer electronics companies. And much better than most IT professionals. The IT industry in general is pretty immature in its outlook, although not in its size. It has taken a long time to get to grips with being a mass-level consumer industry, rather than a specialised cosy group of widget boffins. It's clear that it still has some way to go.

What Apple basically understands is that there is no such thing as technology. Sounds a bit bizarre, but technology isn't (or shouldn't be) a noun. It's not ever a 'thing'. Every piece of technology you see is not just a box of nuts and bolts and transistors and whatever else. Those are just one component of a whole network of things which go together to make that device something that 'works'. A technology that is successful weaves together a vast range of different interests and things, from users to marketing retailers to support people to content providers etc. If any part of this network of things breaks down, the technology literally stops existing. There isn't the 'technical' side of a technology and then everything else. It's all woven together, it's all essential to keeping a technology alive.

This is Apple's genius, and the technology geeks still just don't get it. Apple tie all of those bits and pieces together better than anybody else. And above all they target the group that technology companies have historically either ignored or have really struggled to understand.

The consumer.

By consumer I mean the everyday person who wants to use this sort of technology, but knows nothing much about it and doesn't want to have know much about it. Which in numbers terms is most people. What Apple do brilliantly is understand what the consumer really wants from information technology. That will nearly always be at odds with what IT 'experts' think consumers should want.

If you've worked with IT professionals you'll know that it's pretty common for them to think of people without IT knowledge as morons. Everything they know that non-IT people don't know is used to justify their sense of being the only smart people on the planet. Every other industry on Earth knows that the consumer of their product likely knows not much about how it all works, but that's what they take as their starting point. They build things where that doesn't matter. It would be ridiculous to them to assume that the consumer should understand how things work. But not in IT, although of course there are vast consumer electronics companies now who do get this. But none as much as Apple.

This is the root of the dislike many IT people have for Apple products. For them they seem dumbed-down. They don't do enough, and they don't give you enough ways to tweak how they work, as the user. Actually they do as much as most other technologies in the same area, and they are configurable if that's your thing. But it's not Apple's main focus, just as car manufacturers a long time ago gave up the idea of building cars that the average person can tinker with, and in fact often even mechanics simply order another part rather than trying to fix anything. All consumer products that are sucessful show these same trends. This also makes traditional IT folk think Apple are 'control freaks', because they don't make it easy for the geeks to twiddle with things and interchange hardware and software with other vendors. But that's what consumer products always do, it's amazing that the IT folk can't see how immature their industry still is, to even be thinking in these ways.

(Another prime example of this is their feeling that Apple stuff is pretty, and therefore 'fluff'. They hate design. IT people are traditionally hair-shirters, and proud of it. It's what keeps them separate from the mob, because they know how all the techie stuff works, and the average moron user doesn't. That other consumer products take it as a badge of honour to have brilliant, beautiful design AND functionality passes them by, unsurprisingly. Imagine Ferrari thinking it didn't matter how their cars look, so long as they have great engines.)

You can see this in the reaction of many technology critics to the new iPad. It's nearly all about this or that technical feature that isn't there - no HDMI output, no USB port, no multi-tasking, etc. Thinking of technology again as boxes of bolts and nuts and transistors. Even those among them who do see technology as a network of interwoven interests and entities, i.e. the ones who know that some users do want USB and HDMI, and so on, then somehow miss that this 'group' is tiny next to the vast mass of consumers who won't ever use the technology in those ways, and won't ever want to. For example, take HDMI output. It's apparently appalling that Apple hasn't made it possible for you to plug your iPad into your TV to watch high definition video. But who uses even a laptop to do that? Sure some do, but again the vast mass of people never do. And never want to.

Apple has left all of those things out for very precise reasons. It has precisely targeted and wants to create a particular 'market'. A much, much bigger market than IT geeks. Yes some of those choices will also make them more money, but that's what businesses do. You try and get some generic part for your Peugeot or your washing machine. You'll find that all consumer-level products are the same, they use some generic things, but also force you to go back to them for others. And yes it makes them money, but that's also what keeps them afloat and still in the business of doing what they do. It also gives them control over how their product works, which is an essential part of quality control.

Another thing Apple has always done is refuse to separate hardware from software. Other companies in the computer industry tend to only make either hardware or software. Not Apple, it insists upon doing both, with some components sourced from other companies, but with very strict control exercised by Apple in how it's all put together. Now talk to engineers and you'll see that technically, this is how things should be done. It makes it much easier to build devices that work in an optimum way. And the apparent freedom you get in the PC world from having a plethora of independent sofware and hardware makers is also what has made IT systems increasingly unstable, unreliable and complex to manage.

Next time onto why I think the iPad may be a stroke of genius. There are no guarantees with technology, some of it looks brilliant but never sells. But there's a hint that Apple have put their finger on something new here, with huge potential. Just as they did with music players at a time when there were already so many on the market.


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