More Thoughts on the Future of Computing

Jan 30, 06:16 PM

There’s a lot of talk about what the iPad means for the future of computing. Fraser Speirs suggests that it may help people to do what they do best with the aid of a computer instead of being afraid of it. Steven Frank talks about a paradigm shift to computers that are incredibly easy to use, although they have lost some of the general purpose freedom that computers used to have. My friend Nathan Vander Wilt is concerned about the future of Apple and what it means for him as an indie developer.

After having some discussions about this, I don’t have any answers, but I have a collection of thoughts. Here they are, as coherently as I am able.

  • After helping many people with computers, from individual help to Computer Services at Dordt College to the class I currently teach at Heritage College, I agree a lot with Fraser. People are confused with multiple applications on the Mac; people are confused with files and folders and organization; people aren’t very good at understanding the tie between a file and the program that created it; people are confused with all the buttons and menus and key combinations. People don’t understand computers. I think the iPad and similar devices has the possibility to make people comfortable with computers.
  • Continuing with that thought, I want people to be able to use computers and not be afraid. I want them to be able to use computers correctly without hours of instruction from technologists like ourselves who make mock them behind doors because they don’t know how to avoid viruses. I don’t want computers to get in the way of a person’s work because they don’t have a plugin or a software update; I want them to “just work.”
  • We have a nasty habit of wanting everyone to be able to use computers (and mocking them when they do it wrong), but not helping everyone achieve that, either by teaching or by changing paradigms. Yes, it’s closed. What if a closed system is the only way to achieve this goal of everyone understand computing? I don’t think it is, but what if?
  • Those of us who want or need more or a computer won’t lose out. We still need more computer in order to program for something like the iPad or even the web. Not every computer is going to be like the iPad. If every computer does go the route of the iPad, they’ll have figured out how to give power users more of what they need. In the meantime, we can just buy Macs and be content. Granted, we won’t have all the niceties of a touchscreen, but you need an interface built for that.
  • I showed a video of the iPad to my classes a couple of days ago. It probably wasn’t the right video to show off the device and what it was capable of. Many of them didn’t seem to be interested. So it is possible that I’m wrong when I think it can be great for a lot of people. On the other hand, they may have become accustomed enough to the current system that the iPad doesn’t seem like anything significant (and it seems like just a large iPod Touch). Could that perception change if they tried one out in person? I think it’s possible.
  • I can see myself liking an iPad or similar device. At least when I’m traveling, the first few things I care about are email, Twitter, and other information I get via the web. While I am in the act of traveling, sitting in the airport, etc. I want something quick and easy. The iPad could be perfect for that, and better for reading than my iPhone because of the larger screen.
  • An iPad is also perfect for casual computing, as Craig Hockenberry points out. Yes, I’m a geek. I like to fiddle with gadgets. I like doing a lot of things at once. But I also appreciate the liberation of doing one thing at a time on a device that I don’t have to think about updating, backing up files, etc.
  • I’m positive there are designers out there who are capable of equaling or besting Apple. Where are they? Why aren’t they competing with Apple? Why aren’t developers going to the Palm Pre and Android and showing us that the iPhone isn’t the only platform with good taste (not that everything on the iPhone is good taste…)? Right now the impression is that a closed system is the only way to get good design. Not that it always breeds good design, of course.
  • What if we look at the situation from the point of view of a novice user? They don’t know where to find new programs. They don’t have a clue about MacUpdate, VerstionTracker, or even Apple’s Downloads page (even though there is a handy link in the Apple menu). Something like the App Store looks just amazing to them. “Look! I can just search for something and it’s right there!” I’m sure they would care about rejections to some degree, but a lot of them are probably thrilled that they can install software now and uninstall it and know what they’re doing. So much so that the closed natured may be off their radar.
  • Continuing that thought again, the main reason people can install and uninstall is simply the underlying mechanism of the App Store. Could Apple open it up and give that benefit to every developer? Sure. If they were to do that, people will blame them for apps that don’t work, for apps than are distasteful, etc. Yes, there are already apps like that. But again, your everyday user doesn’t understand software that’s coming from many different developers.
  • Continuing again. The App Store at least gives the appearance of narrowing down the choices. Geeks have no problem weeding through lots of choices, avoiding the bad ones, finding the good ones, etc. How would an everyday user do that? How are they going to know if an app is a credit card logger? The platform does have limitations in that regard, so they’re never going to know. To those users, apps with a “blessing” are a “blessing.”
  • Continuing again. Geeks know what they’re doing when installing a program or testing it or uninstalling it. There are some people that really should not be installing programs willy-nilly because they have no idea what they’re doing. For all it’s imperfections, the iPhone/iPad/App Store gives them some protection.
  • You can still tinker. Yes, it’s $99. Yes, that’s per-year. Are we so old that we’ve forgotten that we used to have to pay for developer tools? Yes, it feels like a step backwards to pay for them again. Yes, we have restrictions. How about gaming consoles? Why does there seem to be no complaints about the closed nature of gaming consoles? I am speaking out of severe ignorance on this part, but I’m not sure I understand the difference.
  • A closed review environment may be too risky for businesses to enter. Is the low market share of Android a better choice? For ideals, yes. For business? Maybe, maybe not.
  • Yes, Apple has different priorities than developers do. Developers want power and options and the freedom to do what they want. Apple appears to want to bring computing to the common person. Isn’t that what a lot of us want, too?

Bottom line: I think the iPad (and similar devices) can be a really good thing for a lot of people. I don’t want a working knowledge of computers to become an expectation that few can actually achieve. I do hope it can open up in a manner that doesn’t exclude the common person. Nevertheless, I’ll try to keep my files and other information in a format conducive to a quick switch to Linux.

Jon Hjelle
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Comment

  1. “For ideals, yes. For business? Maybe, maybe not.”

    Who, me?! :-)

    natevw · 1535 days ago · #

  2. Bang on with the comparison to consoles.

    I often compare Apple’s hardware strategy to consoles in that the developers have to develop inside the defined box.

    With software on an Apple you typically have the same user experience.

    On the PC you could have customers running it on a new $300 PC they bought at Walmart or a $2000 gaming PC. They’ll have vastly different user experiences.

    For the iPad, I think there is definitely a small niche market for it, but I doubt it will be a huge success.

    Jon Doble · 1535 days ago · #

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