By Scott Nicholas • 02/04/2010
Apple iPad Brings 3rd Generation User Interface to the Masses
The iPad seems to be exactly what we need to move computing forward. But the internet verdict is in: iPad will be a flop. All these complaints sound just like “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” comment made about the iPod when it debuted eight years ago.
The internet is always quick to lampoon new Apple products because those who are vocal on the internet are big nerds. The nerds are focused on the technical limitations of the device (no Flash, no access to the filesystem, no multitasking, no webcam) while completely missing it’s strengths, and therefore, the big picture.
The big picture here is that iPad, like iPhone before it, is a massive step forward in usability. It brings us closer to computers as appliances and therefore makes them easier to integrate into our everyday lives.
The Third Generation of Computer Interfaces
A touch interface is fundamentally easier to use than a point-and-click interface, or even a stylus-driven interface. We interact with the world by using our fingers, why wouldn’t we want to interact with our computers in the same way? A touch interface, because of the size of our fingers compared to a pointer, forces everything to be bigger and therefore easier to find and manipulate. An infant can use an iPhone. Think about the first time you used an iPhone or an iPod touch. Did you have to read the manual? You probably didn’t. The way the interface worked with your fingers made everything easier to find, and reaction to your inputs made the experience seamless and intuitive.
A touch interface sacrifices the precision and power of a point-and-click interface for intuitiveness and flexibility. In nerd terms, it’s a new level of abstraction. Abstraction hides the details of how something works in order to make it easier to use.
Years of failed Windows tablets have taught us that trying to paste a touch interface over what is meant to be point-and-click interface is a recipe for disaster. Your fingers are far too cumbersome to replace the precision of a mouse and keyboard which are required to interact with a traditional desktop operating system.
iPad is a reinvention of personal computing, designed to make “computing” so easy that it isn’t even really computing anymore. You can pick it up and use it without all the headaches of using a “proper” computer.
With iPhone OS, many things have been abstracted away from the user, much like an automatic transmission abstracts the need to shift gears away from the driver. This means less power, but it also means that the entire thing is easier to use and gives you less headaches. There are many people (myself included) who prefer a manual transmission because it provides more power and control than an automatic, but most cars sold these days are automatics. Most people aren’t interested in the filesystem, multitasking, etc, just like most people aren’t interested in clutching and shifting. They want their car or computer to just work and more often than not, the things that enthusiasts want to give them more control over a device add unwanted complexity for the average user.
The nerds, of course, don’t get it, because they are so adept at dealing with the headaches brought on by complexity that they don’t even register anymore. (This is also why engineers make horrible UI designers.) But this doesn’t mean the snags created by complexity aren’t significant. They are very significant and tend to get ignored by the very people who have the power to fix them.
iPhone OS excels at abstraction. It gets the computer bits out of the way so you can use it as a phone, web browser, game device, or more than a hundred thousand other things.
Why It Matters in the World of New Media Trends
iPad is the computer so easy to use that it can do anything. And although iPad appears to be lacking in some places, it’s much, much better to add features to a product in the future than it is to pack them in too early and risk making the product too complex.
iPad (which builds upon iPhone, of course) is nothing short of the third generation of computer interfaces. First we had text interfaces, which were really only suitable for nerds; users who truly grokked what was going on underneath the hood of their computer. Then Apple popularized the GUI interface which brought computers to the masses, but not quite everyone. Even a GUI requires training, experience, troubleshooting and maintenance.
The touch interface is an entirely different beast. Almost anyone can use a well-designed touch interface because it requires you to be familiar with nothing more than your fingers.
The original Mac was considered to be nothing but a toy by power users in 1984. Today, I don’t know a single person who doesn’t use a GUI as their primary interface. Even users like myself who are comfortable using a command line interface prefer the GUI because it is easier to interact with on a day-to-day basis. It does a better job at getting out of your way when you need to do something. A point-and-click interface makes the same tradeoffs over a text-based interface that a touch-based interface makes over a point-and-click interface: precision and power for intuitiveness and flexibility.
For this third generation of interfaces, the leap forward is less extreme. The point-and-click interface has almost completely replaced the text interface; only programmers still need to use a command line. In contrast, touch interfaces and point-and-click interfaces will live side-by-side.
But, if the task you are trying to accomplish doesn’t require the power and precision of a point-and-click interface, there is no need to deal with the associated overhead of the point-and-click interface. You don’t need a mouse to read a book. You don’t need a mouse to watch a movie. You don’t need a mouse to look at a map. Hell, you don’t even need a mouse to surf the web. Why deal with the additional complexity when you don’t have to?
The portability and connectivity of iPad is the other piece of the puzzle. You will use iPad to do things you would never use a computer to do because a proper computer would be too cumbersome. Read a book or watch a movie on the go. Use it as a map in an unfamiliar city. Use it to draw with nothing but your fingers. Use it on the couch, the classroom, or the meeting room. With the App Store, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Why You’ll Want One
iPad is the “magical” third device that finally moves our consumption of all media types”written, spoken, and watched” into the digital realm, and will even begin to blur the lines between the different ways of consuming media. (Imagine an issue of Sports Illustrated with pictures that, when tapped, become videos.) Some people argue that there’s no room for such a device, and the failure of Windows tablets proved this. I argue that the key to success for a device such as this is simplicity. A device designed for simple tasks needs to be simple. It needs to do what you want it to do, it needs to do it fast, and it needs to do it without you having to put any thought into how you are going to do it. iPad is this device.
Removing this complexity means we finally have the device we need to move away from dead trees for good. The only options we had until yesterday morning are inadequate. The laptop computer is too cumbersome. The smartphone is too small. The netbook is small, awkward, and slow. The Tablet PC is too complex. The eInk reader doesn’t do color or video. The iPad, however, is perfect.
iPhone, of course, can do these things already. But iPhone is and always will be hindered by a small screen and slow processor. A bigger screen and a faster processor makes for a better experience, but even if the next-gen iPhone has a bigger screen and faster processor, it won’t be on the same level as iPad simply because iPhone needs to be pocketable. These two enhancements make the device more intuitive and flexible than even an iPhone, and that’s the entire point of this third generation of interfaces.
As we march forward into the future, iPad will become both cheaper and more capable, and other players will enter the market. iPad computing is computing for the 21st century. It will integrate technology with our daily lives like science fiction has been predicting it would for decades.
iPad will be huge because the abstraction it provides simplifies the computing experience in a way that allows it to be integrated with our daily lives. At $499, this thing is going to fly off the shelves.
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