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June 28, 2010

Why iPad?

Posted in: Observations

Social media consumption

(photo: seandreilinger)

To most people I’ve encountered (outside the bay area tech scene) the iPad is a mysterious thing. The impression has been one of reluctant acceptance, as if individuals are unable to resist the accelerating march of technology. For instance, in a focus group, when asked about upgrading mobile phones I’ve heard something to the effect of “I don’t know what it does or what I could use it for but everyone’s getting them so I guess I will have to get one eventually.” And technology marches on. (and we keep our jobs).

The same thing is happening right now with the iPad. Despite the herculean efforts of Apple’s advertising, consumers are still asking “What is it for?” They cannot see it in their lives.

As an early adopter of the iPad, I believe it and other tablets will be integral parts of the mainstream computing experience but it’s difficult to explain this to consumers in casual conversations. I have explained that it is good for web browsing, games and watching videos (the same case advertisements are making) but I believe there is more to it than these basic software or feature-based use cases. The most important and valuable part of the iPad is its form. I’ll try to explain this more.

In the beginning there was tv…

(photo: marsdd)

What have I been doing with my iPad?

First of all, let me preface with this statement: I am not a typical consumer. I adopt technology like (and because) it’s my job. However, my activities are the same as most people: I want to stay connected to others and use email, I read news from the internet, I like sharing cool stuff, and I like entertaining movies and games.

Since getting my iPad, I have not sat down at my home desk to check my email or read the internet or do any of the other quotidian tasks typically done at a computer desk. The first thing I do in the morning is reach for my iPad and check the news and a few select blogs (industry stuff). The activity of getting my morning news has been the same for over a decade (reading) but now it’s as easy as picking up a book and as powerful as the internet. At night, I use it to read websites, check email, watch netflix and play some casual games. Throughout the day I use my iPad to check bus schedules, bank online, check Facebook, read recipes (and cook), and do all the things I used to do with my laptop on the couch and at my desk. I would posit that 90% of all my home computing/internet activity is consumption (reading, finding or watching) the rest is work and that happens at my desk. My laptop is stuck at my desk but the internet isn’t.

How to share a funny video with a computer…

(photo: phploveme)

What makes the iPad work is the form its hardware and UI has taken, not “what you can do with it” in terms of software features. What makes it special is that it fits so much better into our physical lives than a laptop or phone ever could. Of course, us nerds have been dreaming up such life-fitting devices for decades and these dreams have been stuck in academia until recently. Here is what I think has changed to make dream digestible for the mainstream.

Why does it fit?

1) Direct Manipulation UI - The user interface removes the mouse and keyboard and moves the interaction away from “learning to do what you want to do” to just “doing what you want to do.” It is starting to remove the interface part of interaction and thereby makes using a computer less technical and more natural. This same technique was used in introducing the iPhone, it certainly is less powerful but was that really what we needed?

2) The Hardware - When you use an iPad, you are holding a screen. You are holding YouTube, your vacation pictures, and the rest of the internet. You are not holding just an iPad. There are very few buttons or levers to manipulate outside of the UI. This helps maintain that lack of interface. In addition to the design of the physical device, its engineering (processor, screen and memory) is relatively state of the art and supports the usage that its physical form suggests. That is, the processor does not gulp energy because the device will not be plugged in most of time, etc. Most importantly, this engineering feat is finally accessible to those of us without M.I.T.-scale University grants thanks largely to Apple’s business savvy.

3) The Connectivity - The network is there. Nearly 99% of Americans are covered by some form of cellular data network (either EV-DO or HSPA) and nearly 95% of all home networks are wireless. We are constantly surrounded by network connectivity and all the magic that is ‘the internet’. To utilized all that connectivity, activities and services are increasingly cloud-based, non-CPU-intensive, distributed and specialized. This means that a computing device doesn’t need to be a workhorse anymore and can spend those resource elsewhere (like lower costs further).

How to share.

(photo: jted)

In Conclusion

The iPad and tablets (along with smart phones and networked TV) exhibit incremental steps towards a ubiquitous computing future. To invoke Alan Kay, we are moving from the 2nd paradigm into the 3rd and the attributes that make the iPad successful are the same that bring ubicomp to the mainstream. I think as designers, technologists and businesspeople involved in the creation of next-gen devices we can investigate these themes and concepts further to help intuit what may work or be a challenge in the future.

In my next post I’ve written about what ubicomp is and why I think the iPad is part of the mainstream adoption of its concepts. I’d also like to explore what other implications a ubicomp future might have for device UI design, product strategy and consumer tastes.

Click here to read Ubicomp Moving Towards Mainstream

George Murray is an Interaction Designer at Punchcut in San Francisco.

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