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Fear of a Pad Planet

There’s been a certain reaction to the iPad from some quarters of the tech-inclined community, inspired by the belief that the device signals a shift towards a new form of computing that old people can finally understand. That reaction has been fear and apprehension.

It begins by looking at the iPad as a better personal computer for the majority of people. After all, it surfs the web, does email, plays games, and that’s what most people do with their computers most of the time, right? Better yet, it does all of those things without a long boot-up sequence, viruses, and confusing computery concepts like a filesystem, administrator rights, directories (recently renamed ‘Folders’ for these same users), registries, multi-step installation procedures, and the list goes on. Parents will finally stop calling us for help with strange error messages, and we will forget that it was ever hard.

But if people start to prefer the iPad and its descendants to ‘real’ computers, so the argument goes, then we will have robbed the next generation of a basic foundational understanding of computers. Because there will be no tinkering in Apple’s clinical workshop, they will never see the crucial workings of a program beneath its simplified user interface, and we will not have people to build the next Google, YouTube, or Bittorrent. The iPad/iPhone were built to enable end-users to consume content, and so it must be that creativity stands to suffer.

As I wrote yesterday, I currently see the iPad as a great way to access information and interact with media, freed from the physical contraints of an iPhone’s smaller screen and shorter battery life. Apple sees it, quite necessarily, as something more*. Which is why they built iWork productivity apps and demonstrated Brushes, an application that lets the large screen be used as a drawing surface for artists.

Offering a new breed of computer to an older person and seeing them take to it with joy and wonderment, as opposed to frustration and confusion, is a wonderful image and what the industry should work towards, but just because a filesystem is obscured doesn’t mean the curious can’t get to it. One might argue that jailbreaking an iPad is no different from the things people did to their computers in the past. There will always be unauthorized tools for messing around, and one day you may even be able to write, compile, and test code for an iPad on the thing itself. I wouldn’t worry about the younger generation of hackers.

My parents online
I want to talk about two tasks I’ve observed my parents and people their age doing on their computers.

1 – My mother mainly works with email. She receives documents relating to her church activities, which she must save locally before editing and sending them out again to other members of her group. She organizes these files in folders, which are really good metaphors that she understands, and often keeps multiple dated versions.

Of course, the iPad of today can’t save email attachments for working on in the Pages word processor. One day it will. But that sort of management is bound to increase the level of complexity. Lists of documents, tags or folders, deleting and renaming, and so on. I thought of introducing her to Google Docs, which would let her work with live documents in the cloud, and even collaborate in real-time with her friends. When changes are made, instead of emailing a copy of a document to other people, she would only have to send invites to view the document online. The iPad would work well with that approach – no local storage necessary. The responsibility and blame for any complexity is passed off onto the web service provider, in this case Google, leaving the iPad’s reputation to remain spotless.

2 – My father (and other fathers I hear about) likes to download videos off YouTube for later viewing, both on the desktop and on his iPhone. These are usually music videos and funny but horrifying accidents. This requires using a program or website like KeepVid to save them locally, and then often another program to re-encode the clips for use on the iPhone.

I believe saving videos off Youtube is a copyright gray area that Apple will never touch by sanctioning an app that exists to do it. Music videos are often removed from Youtube when found to be unauthorized uploads, which might explain the compulsion to save them. But even if they stayed online, is streaming instead of saving an ideal solution? That’s a lot of wasted bandwidth, and what if they want a Taylor Swift video or two while traveling by air? Apple will never allow the Youtube app to save video and compete with iTunes sales.

Both of these scenarios and their cloud-based natures highlight the need for increased openness and cooperation on the web. If we can’t have open computing systems, then we need an open internet to take its place. My mother’s friends shouldn’t all have to have Google accounts to access her shared documents, and Youtube shouldn’t have a monopoly on streaming video just because the iPad comes with an app built-in. The widespread adoption of HTML5 video in lieu of Flash would be fantastic, and remove the need for a native Youtube viewer. Likewise, online storage accounts like the ones offered by Dropbox and Microsoft Live Mesh should be able to trade files and work together. Productivity and content creation services should have a way of talking to each other across networks.

I like Google Wave’s implementation of federated servers. You can run your own private Wave system, really make it your own for whatever purposes, but the underlying protocol can communicate with every other Wave server if/when you need it to.

If that kind of openness were applied to all other services, companies would stand to lose their ‘stickiness’, but they’d surely find other ways to retain users. Should a landscape of interoperability and sharing ever come to pass in every corner of the web, it would be to the benefit of us all. How fitting, then, if we were steered in that direction by the threat of having to work on oversimplified computers.

—-

With apologies to Public Enemy for the title.

* When Nintendo first launched the DS in 2004, they called it a “third pillar” to allay fears that the company was going mad and replacing its popular and very profitable Game Boy Advance series with a risky touchscreen experiment. The DS went on to become a huge hit, accelerating the GBA’s demise and eventually becoming their main handheld product. You may wish to see Apple’s positioning of the iPad as a similar play: someday it may overtake the MacBook completely.

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