The iPad Manifesto: Time To Move Beyond the PC

Apple’s announcement of the iPod has revealed a striking fault line within the tech community. In a Guardian article, Bobble Johnson quoted traditionalists such as the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle describing the iPad as “chiling.”  Peter Kirn warns that the iPad “embodies the exact opposite of all the reasons I’ve invested so much time in computing for the last 25 years.”  These critics all mourn the replacement of the open, endlessly mutable personal computer with a system that does what its makers thinks it should do, no more, no less.

I am a tinkerer. On my wall, I have an letter-size plastic sheet labelled “The Apple Card.” It cost $3.98 in 1980 ad it contains such important information that looking at memory location C030 [peek(-16336)] would tweak the Apple ][ speaker and that hires color 1 was green. Thirty years ago, I used this, a lot and even longer ago, I used a similar card for the IBM System/360. Back then, if you wanted to do anything much on a computer, you needed to know this stuff and I sometimes miss it.

But it is time to move on. One fear that has been expressed in the wake of the iPad announcement is that our computers will follow the iPhone and iPad to locked-down land. Fir the computers that most people use, that would probably be a good thing.

We have to recognize is that although personal computers have become much easier to use over the three decades of their existence,  they have never evolved to the point when the great majority of people who use them feel truly comfortable with them. In a modern automobile massive complexity is completely hidden from the operator. With today’s computers, you are still expected to deal with cryptic error messages, the installation of device drivers, and knowing what to  do when your Web browser tells you it needs this or that plug-in. Worse, stuff, mostly software, breaks all the time and good luck to you if you don’t have a friend or relation who can fix it.

Worse, the in recent years the evolution of  computer usability has slowed and perhaps stopped. If Windows 7 seems like a big improvement over vista, that’s largely because Vista was a step backward from Windows XP. In the most recent version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, nearly all of the important changes are under the hood. And desktop Linux continues to struggle for any sort of acceptability among non-programmers.  We haven’t really gone anywhere in a decade.

Yes, the iPad is a closed, locked down device controlled by Apple. But, if as some traditionalists fear, that will stifle creativity, how do we explain the explosion of creative energy that had produced undreamed of iPhone apps and services in the past year and a half? Yes, all of the creative work was done on relatively open Macs, not the iPhones themselves, but so what? It will always be the case that only a tiny minority will do creative work–by which I mean software development, not using a computer to write, or paint, or compose music–and they will have their open tools.

For the rest of us, it maybe time for computers to become a lot more like cars. My Acura is a locked down device. I can change a tire if a get a flat and I can check the fluid levels under the hood. And that’s just fine with me. As long as Honda doesn’t try to tell me where I can drive my car, the fact that I can’t tinker with it is of no consequence. Similarly, if an iPad lets me do the things I want to do and visit the Web sites I want to visit, I don’t care whether it uses Flash and h.264 or HTML 5 and Theora to display video.

If the result is that 90% or more of the people who actually use computers can new what they need to do or want to do better and with less anxiety, that will be a huge gain.

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5 Responses to “The iPad Manifesto: Time To Move Beyond the PC”

  1. Roberto Says:

    Very good! But I would compare iPad with a TV! TV is probably the most simple electronic device now a days

  2. Rusty Smith Says:

    I remember an industry network technology conference in 1992 where the big topic was “information dial tone” and computers as reliable and easy to use as toasters. I agree Steve – the iPad is an important step in fullfilling that vision.

  3. Rich Repplier Says:

    If someone wants to build their own computer, they are free to construct one from available components. If they want to be able to modify code, there is Linux and its apps. I’m not sure what the traditionalists are complaining about.

    For the general public, I think it’s PAST time for time for computers to become a lot more like cars. PCs (not Macs) have targeted geeks for far too long.

  4. Manolo Madrid Says:

    My mum is 70, with a clear mind and lots of spare time. We have long ago given up on trying to make her use a computer to surf the web, which she has never done and could be so enriching for her. The Ipad demo really made me think there is still a chance. Simplicity !!! -I can only think there is a huge crowd out there just like her.

  5. Mike Bauer Says:

    Great piece and I fully support the premise. One of the reasons we went back to Mac’s a few years ago was I wanted to just use the darn things not tinker with them.

    The electrical grid is also a closed system but working with well understood standards has enabled a lot of innovation and a great deal of creativity

    Point to Roberto, yes the TV is relatively simple device to use, but the technology underlying the industry is truly amazing, yet the industry knew long ago that to be successful they had to make these consumer devices.

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