Watts (chipotle) wrote,

The Next Thing That Comes First

Against my better judgement, I’m going to write about the iPad. It’s been long enough that everyone’s already formed an opinion, I suspect; I’m going to start off by throwing a bit of cold water on some of the opinions I’ve been seeing.

The iPad is software upgradeable. Duh, you say? Well, given how much of the sneering going on is about things that are software-based, apparently this needs to be hammered home. The iPhone didn’t even have downloadable apps when it first shipped. In fact, it’s likely the iPad software demonstrated wasn’t finished yet: the iPad home screen is unusually—some might even say suspiciously—bare, and the keyboard accessory has a mysterious unlabeled white key on it. And while Apple has dissed multitasking on the iPhone because they think it makes phones unstable, the iPad is not a phone.

The iPad is not just a “consumption” device. I understand only Apple nerds probably sat through the whole presentation, but we saw a word processor with style sheets, multi-column layout and text flow around irregular objects; a spreadsheet program with well over a hundred functions, full charting capabilities, a “flat database” functionality that the desktop version doesn’t have, and a really interesting dynamic keyboard; a full-featured presentation program that looks like it’s easily the rival of PowerPoint for creation, not mere playback; and a fairly sophisticated-looking paint program. And OmniGroup has announced they’re porting all five of their major productivity apps to the iPad. If you want to claim that you can’t imagine ever using a device with a virtual keyboard for doing “real” work, fine—but don’t assume that everyone else will come to the same decision.

Policies are like software. One of the recurring complaints is that the iPhone and iPad ecosystems are “closed,” in that you can only install software from Apple’s App Store. And the recurring response to that is to parrot Apple’s line about why that’s not such a bad thing, and to point out that the evils of this are routinely overstated for maximum dramatic effect. Only a fraction of a percentage of apps submitted fail to make it to the storefront. The problem that it’s inconsistent and poorly-defined, and this is because the review model doesn’t scale even to the point it’s at now. This can only get worse. Apple’s corporate culture is certainly one of obsessive control freakishness, but it’s not one of stupidity. There’s no guarantee that this is going to always be Apple’s policy. (It’s also worth mentioning that Mobile Safari on the iPhone supports so many HTML5 features, including local storage, that Google was actually able to re-implement Google Voice as a web app. Just saying, don’t write that power off.)

Data is not like software. I want to violently shake the “information wants to be free!” types who launch into tirades about this. The rights being managed on digital media are the rights of the copyright holders and the copyright holders on music, movies, and books are not Apple. Also, anyone who writes something that implies Apple software and devices only work with Apple-provided media needs to be face-punched. Seriously. Yes, you generally have to work with iTunes to manage content on Apple devices, but iTunes and iPods have always played unprotected MP3 and AAC audio and H.264 and MPEG4 video. Which are open standards. As in not Apple’s. Yes, it’d be great if those DivX files of the current season of “Lost” you no doubt legally acquired from BitTorrent would play on the iPod without conversion, but inconvenience is not lock-in. (They will play in iTunes, since all it needs is a plugin. And if you’d really rather jam a fondue fork up your nose rather than use iTunes, there are alternatives.)

Hatred of Apple is largely irrelevant. If the iPad concept takes off, there will be alternatives, just like there are alternatives to the iPhone. If the iPad concept doesn’t take off, there probably won’t be, but nobody outside Apple will care.

So do I think the iPad concept will take off? Yes, because I don’t think the iPad concept is “iPod Touch with a bigger screen.”

The Mac, back in 1984, was the first mass market computer with a GUI and a mouse, with windows and a desktop metaphor and an insistence on WYSIWYG everywhere. Apple had tried this before with the Apple Lisa, which was more or less just a cheaper version of the Xerox Star—cheaper being very relative, since the Lisa was around $10,000. The Mac reimplemented those ideas from the ground up and slashed the price to… well, merely high. While a few people saw it as revolutionary, a lot of people thought it was frankly nuts.

Except all the metaphors Apple was pushing won. And it did revolutionize not just the computer field, but the publishing and design fields. The Mac never set the world on fire in terms of sales, but the operating system you are using right now—whatever operating system you are using—is the way it is, at least in part, because of Apple.

And love or hate them, Apple has a track record of shoving the industry forward. In addition to all that toy GUI stuff, the Mac did everything else its own way, from using RS-422 (“LocalTalk”) serial ports and SCSI hard drive interfaces to using 3.5” floppies at a time when everybody else was still using 5.25” disks. LocalTalk never left the Mac market, but 3.5” floppies became the standard… and were still the standard when the iMac came out in 1998 and said, “Screw floppies, you don’t need ’em.” That was also met with derision, of course—as was the iMac’s cavalier dismissal of standard RS-232 serial ports, PS/2 connectors and parallel ports, eschewing it all in favor of this crazy thing nobody else was using called USB.

And now Apple is trying to shove the industry forward again. They’ve been talking about “computing appliances” for years, going back to Jef Raskin and through the Knowledge Navigator concept. And now, finally, they’ve got something they think is worth bringing to market.

If you want to write that off as rampant Apple fanboyism, so be it, but read Fraser Spiers’ “Future Shock” piece for a good explanation of why I’m making that assertion. Or to put it in a more nerdly fashion: the iPad demo probably used clips from “Star Trek” for a good reason.

This is, as someone else put it, the first incarnation of the thing in the movies. In 2007 I wrote about ubiquitous presence, a variant on ubiqitous computing—the idea that networked computers will eventually be so much with us that they fade into the background the way electricity and indoor plumbing do for us today. We’ve had “smartphones” for a few years, but the iPhone redefined the category—even if you believe (and you may be right) that the Droid or the Nexus One or something else coming out in the next year is a better smartphone.

The iPad is setting out to establish a category. It may fail; in 1999 there was an awful lot of buzz about “internet appliances” which I chiefly remember as the chimera that killed BeOS. Maybe nobody really wanted computer-as-appliance—but maybe the infrastructure just wasn’t there for that then, and maybe it is now. And in the most insanely optimistic outcome the iPod will still have all the limitations of Things That Come First. The Catch-22 is that while we can see some of the potential limitations now, we won’t really know them until we have the Things That Come Next in our hands.

I was in on the ground floor for the original introduction of microcomputers, the TRS-80s and the Apple IIs and CP/M. And honestly, that was pretty cool. I wasn’t really in on the Mac, though; I didn’t like mice or windows and I was happy with the command line. I missed that inflection point until it was quite obvious it had passed. It looks to me like this may, may, be another inflection point. If this is the next Thing That Comes First since, well, the original Mac—I think I’d like to be in on the ground floor again.

Tags: tech
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