The iPad and the web

Before Apple launched the , I managed to refrain from adding to the deluge of speculation and rumour. Now that the much-anticipated tablet has been unveiled, I can’t resist jotting down my thoughts.

Now, this is just my reaction to a piece of technology. I feel a need to clarify that because discourse on the internet has a strange way of getting warped. Someone says I like Italian food, and someone else responds with Why do you hate Mexican food? Someone says I enjoyed watching Avatar, and someone else hears Everyone should enjoy watching Avatar. So bear in mind that this is just my personal reaction. I’m not saying that everyone should share my feelings. ‘Twould be a very dull world indeed in which we all felt the same.

I didn’t watch Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad—I was busy learning at a Skillswap event—but when I was reading up about it afterwards, I thought to myself I’m probably going to get an iPad…

Actually, at this point I need to take care of something:

Mum, if you’re reading this, could you stop now please? Thanks. Love you.

Anyway, as I was saying, I thought to myself I’m probably going to get an iPad …for my mother.

Honestly, there isn’t much on offer in the iPad that I don’t already have in my Macbook. I don’t think it is the device for me. But it is most definitely the device for my mother. I don’t mean “a theoretical persona such as one’s mother,” I mean my mother.

My mother is currently using a that used to belong to me. When she started using this machine, she had never used a keyboard, much less a computer. I am very, very glad that her first computer was a Mac and that she’s never had to deal with the world of pain that is Windows, but even a Mac has a learning curve for someone who’s never used a computer before.

I remember explaining what the cursor was and how the mouse controlled it. When I said “move it up”, she lifted up the mouse off the table. Thinking about it, the mouse isn’t as straightforward as we think: moving the mouse left and right does map to moving the cursor left and right, but moving the mouse forward and backward maps to moving the cursor up and down. Both the cursor and the mouse move on two-dimensional surfaces but only half the movements of the mouse correspond directly to movements of the cursor.

In computer years, a G3 iMac is ancient. It’s amazing that it still runs at all. I’ve been thinking for a while now about what would make a suitable replacement. A newer iMac would be good but they’re a little pricey for something that’s going to be used for web surfing, email, some digital photography and little else. A laptop would be nice. Now that my mother has WiFi, there’s no need for her to have to remain in one place to use her computer. But laptops are fiddly things with fiddly trackpads.

The iPad strikes me as the Goldilocks solution. It’s just right. If the European pricing follows the general Apple conversion rate, the iPad should be pretty darn affordable. It would be nice if it came with an iSight for iChatting; that might well get added in a later version. Web surfing, email and photo browsing are all not just possible, but likely to be pleasurable. That’s because the multitouch control mechanism is likely to feel far more intuitive than either a mouse or a trackpad. (Caveat: I haven’t used an iPad. Take my opinion, and the opinions of anyone else who hasn’t actually used one, with a heaped tablespoon of salt.)

So I’m probably going to get an iPad, but for someone else. If it came with nothing more than a WiFi connection and a web browser, it would still be a worthwhile device for my mother. In fact, the idea of using a computing device based around a browser is what’s driving the . Google’s vision is one wherein the file system and the hard drive are far less important than the web browser and the web server.

That’s why I’m slightly mystified about the App Store grumblings. Yes, it’s a closed system that Apple controls completely. But the same devices that support the App Store also come with a very advanced web browser. Personally, I think that if a device is capable of running HTML, CSS and JavaScript, I don’t think it can be described as “closed”.

Don’t like the closed nature of the App Store? Don’t use it. Use the web instead. That’s the point that PPK was making, albeit a bit stridently. Admittedly, if you want to make money directly from an app, you might have a harder time of it on the web than on the App Store. Make your app distribution bed and lie in it.

I’ve already seen people on Twitter sharing some ideas for the uses to which the iPad could be put:

  • displaying sheet music on a music stand,
  • showing recipes on a kitchen worktop,
  • playing scrabble, sudoku and crosswords,
  • reading comics,
  • reading magazines a la Mag+,
  • reading books in a way that doesn’t involve the silly page-turning visual metaphor built into the iBooks app.

All of those are great ideas and all of them can be implemented on the web. Remember that Mobile Safari already has excellent support for canvas, audio, video and offline storage. No App Store required. As Simon St. Laurent puts it, web developers can rule the iPad.

I understand the concerns of my fellow geeks who see the read-only nature of the iPad as restrictive compared to the read-write nature of laptop and desktop computers. Rafe Colburn asks Is the iPad the harbinger of doom for personal computing?:

I think that it’s a real possibility that in 10 years, general purpose computers will be seen as being strictly for developers and hobbyists.

Alex Payne foresees a tinkerer’s sunset:

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.

While I understand and to a certain extent, share these forebodings, I’m cautiously optimistic that these fears won’t be realised. The iPad isn’t going to replace laptop or desktop computers; it’s a different kind of machine for a different kind of user.

Frasier Spiers welcomes the glimpse that the iPad offers us of information processing dissolving into behaviour when he writes:

If the iPad and its successor devices free these people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people’s perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. I find it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn’t a price worth paying to have a computer that isn’t frightening anymore.

Nik agrees:

Yes, it’s an entirely prescriptive way of computing - one that the hackers, tinkerers and geeks will find alien and protest about its lack of openness. But here’s the thing: for the people who the iPad is aimed at it really doesn’t matter that this experience is prescriptive.

I think he’s right. The iPad isn’t for geeks but I can foresee geeks, like me, buying iPads for members of their family …if for no other reason than to reverse the trend of the holiday season becoming the tech support season.

I’m not usually one for predictions, but I think I’ll try my hand at one now. The iPad will be the best-selling device to be purchased as a gift for Christmas 2010.

Have you published a response to this? :