There is No Such Thing as Technology. Part 2. The iPad (continued)

So what's the genius of the iPad? Time will tell if it sells, obviously, but it's a fascinating experiment.

You always know when somebody is onto something new when others struggle to describe it. Specifically the best they can do is describe it as being 'like' other things they know. That's what most of the descriptions of the iPad have been. It's like an oversized iPod Touch, and like an ebook reader, and like a tablet PC, etc. The (always so spectacularly clever) reviewers then jump to what their hamster-cage brains then think must be the logical conclusion, that the new technology is 'nothing but' some variation on these other things. (Art and music reviewers do the same thing, and nearly always miss new talent, for the same reasons.)

Steve Jobs gave an insight into the sort of there-is-no-such-thing-as-technology thinking Apple does in his presentation for the iPad. He described the iPad as fitting between the iPod Touch/iPhone and the Macbook i.e. between a smartphone and a laptop. But what was interesting and crucial was that he wasn't trying to describe something that was 'halfway' between the two, like some mish mash of bits of both - as the reviewers generally tend to think. Jobs and Apple are pitching at a completely different, new space, that the iPhone and laptops have hinted at in the past but which isn't their space. Just as horse-drawn carriages and steam engines sort of hinted at the car, but neither of them is really a car in any way.

What Apple seem to have done here, and Jobs made it pretty clear in his talk, is recognise that there is a growing desire for mobility in the use of information technology. No surprise there, mobile phones, laptops, tablet and netbook computers have become hugely popular in recent years. But what Jobs is saying, for example when he said that netbooks "don't do anything well", is that these other devices have tended to take existing technologies and try to graft some mobility onto them. (Like early attempts to fly, where guys strapped feathers to their arms and flapped.) Laptops have always been fairly crude attempts to make a computer portable. Same type of interface - keyboard and mouse, with trackballs and sensor pads to try to remove the need for a mouse, with the same type of screen, attached to the keyboard. Netbooks just try to make laptops more mobile than they already are, and in the process (in my view) aggravate some of the worst things about laptops - more on that in a second.

What Apple are now trying to do, and in Job's talk he also spoke about this, is focus what they do around mobility. NOT by trying to make other devices mobile, but by trying to invent new devices that have mobility as their central rationale. This is how real technologists think, and there aren't many of them. Nothing about this or that component or part. But a picture of an entire way of living that incorporates both 'technical' and 'social' things. A new way of living, not trying to find a product that only fits the way we already do things, but also imagines and invents a new way of living, based on current and implicit trends.

The iPad does this firstly by taking those aspects of a smartphone and laptops that start to hint at true mobility and refines them. Makes them something for themselves, rather than tacked-on 'features' of something else that itself isn't mobile. So making something light and portable and feature-rich like a smartphone, but with the screen real estate of a laptop. And keeping the on-the-go input friendliness of a smartphone, rather than the find-somewhere-to-sit-down stodginess of a laptop or netbook. (This is the way I think netbooks take the worst aspect of a laptop - its physical layout - and make it worse. A laptop takes the traditional screen and keyboard and joins them, and that's what it feels like happens to your body if you use one - it compresses down. The netbook then compresses your body even further down).

It's the physical relationship with the device and its content that is fundamentally changed when you make mobility your core design principle, rather than something added on later. And mobility can be across the room, it doesn't have to mean 'going' anywhere. Anything that liberates you from the desk or your lap, or even allows you to use your desk and your lap but in any way you like. That's what the iPad will allow, you can lay on the couch and have it in mid-air, or on your lap while reclined, or be walking along with it, etc. Just like a book or writing pad. (And the smirking, we-know-best giggle of people who think the name suggests tampons - do they get the same giggles when they go to the newsagent and buy a writing pad?)

Apple's touchscreens also fundamentally change the way we interact with information. I tried smartphones that had buttons and trackballs and other input devices. They all sucked if you wanted to do anything much more than write emails. But with the iPhone the Net in particular comes alive, you can actually surf for extended periods without wanting to throw the phone away. The haptic connection with what you're viewing and hearing is extremely powerful, not a gimmick but a fundamental change to the way we physically interact with information. You can pinch or expand screens in a second, or skim across the surface of pages in even less time. No scrolling and clicking. And it FEELS different.

This is what's behind the Apple staff who developed the iPad saying that the Net for example feels qualitatively different, when you use an iPad. You literally feel like you have the Web 'in your hands', a much different experience to 'seeing' it. This is information technology rediscovering the body, and even the body in movement (mobility). What I think the iPad is designed to do is make you feel like the huge world of information is literally part of your body. Not in some box you have to stare at. It's 'at your fingertips', but that's a literal thing. The world of information is now going to revolve around our bodies as they function in everyday life, rather than us having to rigidify ourselves in fixed poses to make allowances for the device (usually a computer or laptop/netbook, and information and multimedia are in fact not intrinsic to those technologies at all, they more piggybacked off them as a 'platform'. Apple are now trying to remove the necessary link between the two).

There are other aspects of the iPad which Apple developed through iPods and iPhones. For example the restricted connection options that come out of the box (e.g. no USB) I suspect have much more to do with getting the publishers of most of the world's most wanted content onto the device, just as Apple had to do with the recording industry to get them to offer their wares to consumers through online delivery. So what to a techie looks like an abominable restriction is actually what enables a huge amount of content for consumers. The IT world struggles with any sort of restrictions or controls, but again this is partly what has marginalised it, because open slather is not a business model anybody can make money with. Every other industry has some form of controls over what they provide, it's just a matter of getting the balance right. (It's also important to note that it was Steve Jobs who was instrumental in then getting recording companies to relax digital rights management requirements even more extensively.)

Add to that Apple's user-friendly design and the way they make it possible for you to ignore all of the 'supply chain' behind the scenes, and I find you don't even feel a twinge forking out money for stuff. The urge to steal lessens. The consumer is being looked after. It's a consumer device, and that doesn't mean dumbed-down, it means a device for everyday people that they can easily slot into their everyday activities without needing two years' of training.

Then there's gaming. Having a large touch display and accelerometer will change gaming again, just as the iPhone has done. It will make it a more physical act, which Nintendo cleverly realised was a big thing when developing their Wii.

There have also been unfavourable comparisons to ebook readers, which utilise "e-ink", much easier on the eyes and more like the page of a real book. Now that's a plus if you do lots of reading, no doubt, but what if your newspaper for example utilises multimedia on its website? Good luck with your ebook reader with that. Online magazines are the same, online publishing in general is becoming more digitally rich, and you need something like the iPad's LCD display to take advantage of it (would be nice if Adobe's version of Flash for Mac wasn't apparently rubbish, which is why it isn't included.) And when you look and see that ebook readers with the screen size of an iPad and in colour cost about the same as an iPad (or even more for some models), you'd question why you'd spend the money on the former, given how many other things you can also do on the iPad.

Of course there will be omissions on the iPad, for example why not include a camera? But that may still come. Nothing's perfect. But as above, I think it's inventing a new way of living with information, of all sorts. A new, PHYSICAL way of interacting with the information world, one that respects the physicality and movement of the body, and therefore the variety of ways we go about things in our lives. Top that off with a wealth of different 'content' options on the device, and you have one seriously interesting widget.

Of course if you want the option to keep doing all the things you were already doing on computers, then just stick with them. I'll still have a computer too. Doesn't seem much of a criticism of an iPad that it isn't a computer, smartphone, ebook reader, laptop or netbook. It isn't.

It's a friggin' iPad.


  1. Experts have talked about this before. How many times have you read about the importance of ‘adding value’ for your audience? How many times have you read about ‘building trust’ with your readers/prospects?

    Many, many times. You know it well. Every marketing guru has spoken about this topic. I’m sick of hearing it. But it STILL bears repeating.

  2. And the genius is weaving the marketing into the 'technology', getting all the tech people talking to the marketing people, and working together as a coordinated whole. And the designers. Etc. One of the interesting topics would be how Apple actually structures its own organisation to make this all happen.


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