Apple iPad: the computer for the rest of the rest of us

Apple’s iPad will be released next week in the US, and a bit later in the rest of the world, so now is the perfect time to share why I think it will be a massive success, and deserves the attention of anyone who care about User eXperience.

The iPad is Apple’s Wii.

A massive share of the people offering their thoughts on the iPad compare it in term of technical features to today’s laptop, and find the iPad lacking. What they miss is that with the iPad, Apple is doing the same thing Nintendo did with the Wii, and I am not talking about making an unfortunate naming decision. For years, the video game industry plan was to make next year console more powerful in term of processor speed, with better graphics but similar controller and game mechanics. However, they were only addressing a single market of usual suspects who “play video games”. The Wii, which used to be codenamed “Revolution” for a reason, threw all this logic to the wind. It targeted a much larger and untaped audience made of people such as parents and older users who do not used to play video games. As a result of this decision, they created a new, more intuitive and fun way to control the games. But they also decided that processor and graphic capacities did not really matter, and released a console much weaker on those fronts that the competition, but also much cheaper. The Wii is the opposite of what the video game industry has been producing over the years, yet it sold roughly as much unit as both Xbox 360 and PS3 combined.

Computer are hard to use (really!)

Most of us do not realise how difficult to use our everyday computer really are. However, most of us also spend a good share of our days using our Mac or PC, and we are so well trained in using them that their complexity is not an issue for us anymore. I have the “privilege” to be the one who “is good with computers” in my family, meaning every time one of my relative is stuck, they ask for my help. It turns out they need my help quite a lot. My relative are just like yours, just like so many people out there. They are an untapped potential of users who do not use “computers”, or use them as little as they can, simply because they struggle to use it. Today’s computer are just too complex for them. They do no understand what all those folders are for, or can’t remember where they stored their last file. They do not want to spend their time “making windows faster”, installing drivers, defragmenting hard drive or fixing their computer. They are scared they might do a wrong operation and “break” their computer which is why they can be paralysed by the amount of features, menu items and preferences that are presented to them. They want it to “just work”. With the iPad, there are no such things as a file system to manage or drivers to install. Installing software takes only seconds merely require selecting the one you want to install, and clicking ok. This could not be more simple, and there is absolutely no way for the user to go wrong. Thanks to the way applications are sandboxed, one application simply can not mess up the other. This advantage in ease to use, especially compared to netbooks running windows or Linux, can not be overstated.

The iPad is not a WIMP

Roughly 30 years ago the Graphical User Interface revolutionised the way people used computer, making it much more easier to use than the command line interface that was the standard until then. Since that time, all the mainstream computer platforms have been declinations and improvements of the original ideas of the Windows, Icons, Menu and Pointer (WIMP) recipe. The iPad however has neither Windows, Icons, Menus or a Pointer. This alone should make it obvious that the iPad’s interface is a different beast altogether, in itself deserving a very close look, especially if like me you work in the field of designing digital User eXperiences. On the iPad, there are no windows to manage. There are no files to manage either. The traditional single permanent pointer is not there anymore, replaced by many possible simultaneous finger touches that exist only when you use them, and disappear immediately. This multi touch input provide a much better way to interact with content, replicating the real world experience we are already familiar with. The iPad, thanks to its larger size allowing more fingers to come into play, will go further than the iPhone to bring multitouch interactions to the masses. The multi touch experiences of the future have yet to be invented, and I find that incredibly exciting.

When App. stands for Appliance

With today’s computer, even with the most portable laptops, no matter what application you run, you are stuck with something that looks like a computer, with a keyboard and trackpad that are there even when you don’t need them: when you watch a movie on your laptop, you are not using half of it. Having to use a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad puts another distance between you and the content you are interacting with. There is simply no way to forget that you are actually using a computer. By contrast, the iPad’s hardware is pretty much just a screen, providing a clean slate (pun intended) for you application to turn the iPad into whatever you want. Each app open in full screen, and you can make it look like whatever you want including photo realistic Address Book, Calendar, Books, and so many more thing. Each app has the potential to turn you device into a different appliance. The App store is full of crazy idea that no one would have anticipated would be the features of a phone. I can’t wait to see what new things the iPad apps will bring.

A big iPod Touch?

Of course, most of this is not completely new: while many UI concepts are new and specially designed to accommodate the iPad larger screen (see an excellent UI overview here), the OS and the general ideas behind the iPad UI are not seen as very new, for the simple reason that Apple has been bringing those to the public since the introduction of the original iPhone, almost 3 years ago. Yet to dismiss the iPad as a bigger iPod touch is a mistake: the iPod Touch / iPhone and iPad have a lot in common of course, but the larger size of the iPad changes everything. Yes, size and scale matters.

It’s not pocketable!

Yes, at this size, it is too big to fit in a pocket, and as such is not as portable as an iPhone. This is by design, and I’m sure Apple will not mind continuing to sell iPhones. But have you ever found yourself using your phone at home or at work to do task you could have done on a “proper” computer nearby? You are not alone: most of the time spend on mobile devices is actually spent either at home or at work. A couple of reasons explains why the mobile wins: you can use it wherever you are, sitting more conformably than when using a laptop, you don’t have to wait for it to boot, and you can quickly do what you need with perfectly focused apps. The iPad is designed to improve precisely those experiences. And since this device was meant not to be portable, they made it much larger making it much more comfortable to read a book or browse the web.

When more is more

Technically, a tweet and a book are the same thing: just a succession of letters forming words to convey meaning. Yet I don’t think anyone will deny that a book can offer a depth that a tweet do not offer, which make it possible to handle a much bigger level of depth and complexity. While an iPhone app must really focus on small task given the small size of the display / input surface, the iPad has much more space to play with. Apple is releasing new versions of its word processor / page layout, spreadsheet, and presentation applications especially for the iPad, and the message couldn’t be clearer: the iPad is ready for large and powerful apps that could not have been handled by its smaller relatives.

But wait, the iPad is doomed!!! It does not have…

Multi task!

Despite what has been written times and times again the iPad OS technically supports multitask, and the iPhone has been doing it since day one, for example when it continue to send a heavy email when you switched to read a webpage. What the iPhone OS does not provide is a way for non-system application to run in the background. In effect, every time you press the home button or you receive a phone call, the application you were using quits. However good iPhone apps are designed to save their state when quitting, and to restore it when reopened, and in effect to the user it’s like the app never quitted. Keep in mind also that in 2007, the system resources were so limited that this was necessary to avoid turning your phone in a sluggish mess. The user interface implication of allowing concurrent app also bring a new layer of problem to solve: you need to manage “hide” on top of “quit”, and provide a way to switch between applications. Running too many apps at the same time has a very negative impact on performance and battery life, so how do you help uninformed users to avoid having too many open? The last thing you want is to force the user to spend time managing his running applications. Those are non-trivial design challenges that deserve attention, and I’m glad Apple is not rushing a bad implementation, but taking as much time as needed to provide a great solution, just like they did with copy and paste. But eventually, Apple will come up with such an implementation, and with the iPad and the next iPhones, the hardware will probably be able to handle two or more non-system app running at the same time. My guess is that this will appear in the next revision of iPhone OS, due around june. I do not think however that this has been a big issue hurting the sales of the iPhone.

A Camera!

Another “disappointment” is that the iPad does not have a camera. I do not find it personally to be an issue, as I got tired of the novelty of video calls after a couple of Skype calls on my laptop. I do think iChat on the iPad can have an audience. My guess (supported by the presence of UI code implying a camera is the iPad SDK) is that a camera was originally included, but was cut out in order to keep the price under the $500 psychological barrier. It will probably be added somewhere down the line, maybe next year.

Adobe Flash!

To me, not having flash is actually a feature! I even disabled it on my main laptop browser. The reason is simple: most Flash content on the web is more annoying that helping. “Skip intro” useless animation before a web site open. Blinking video adds everywhere, some with sound. I don’t want any of that, yet it consume vast amount of system resources on my Mac. Having those on the iPhone or iPad, with their much more limited system resources, would be a nightmare making everything sluggish and draining the battery really fast. There is the reason why the Mozilla team working on Firefox mobile also disabled it. Additionally, most of the Flash content I do care about can be better implemented with HTML 5’s <video> tag, or even better by a native iPhone app. I believe that most websites will do one or the other (or both, as YouTube as done). Another type of desirable flash content are the many games written in Flash, but they very often rely on keyboard presses, mouse over event and drag and drop, which do not translate easily to a touchscreen only interface. Just “running” the flash plugin would not solve these input issue, and those game would probably need to be rewritten. A sweet solution for me would be something like ClickToFlash ported on the iPhone: flash content is not loaded by default, but can be displayed on demand. But this would introduce an additional level of complexity that is contrary to Apple’s ethos, so I am pretty sure this will never happen.

Conclusion

If you’ve read it this far (than you!) it should be clear to you that I think the iPad has an incredible potential. It offer a brand new, easier, and more enjoyable way to accomplish most of our daily computer tasks that will make it a hit among people who never tough they would ever use a computer so much. In 2007, someone reacted to the iPhone by saying to Steve Jobs “Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.” These happen to be the dimensions of the iPad, which is no coincidence. That person was Alan Kay, arguably the main force behind the invention of the GUI all those years ago. He might know a thing or two about computers. Remember also how Slashdot, the self-titled “news for nerds” site and king of the tech-savy blogs, first reacted to the iPod in 2001: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” The geeks weren’t impressed, but we all know what happened next.

 

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