'Pad'dling to a new shore

If you wanted to allow people to get from one side of a river to the other, you could provide boats, and teach them how to use them or build a bridge, and let them walk across – something they already know how to do. I first heard that arresting analogy at a presentation in 1991 given by one of my favorite Human Interface experts, Professor Bill Buxton. I bring it up now because I want to offer my perspective on one of the most hyped technology stories in the last few years: the arrival of Apple’s iPad.

For us HIF wonks, Apple represents one of the purest interpretations of good interface design done right. If you smile when you see horizontal handles on the side of the door you push, and vertical ones where you pull, then like me, you appreciate it when someone takes some time to think about a problem from the perspective of the user. Apple started doing this way back when they took the amazing work done at Xerox PARC to put a weird little box alongside the keyboard of an Apple Lisa. They called it a mouse. That revolution in interface design led to the Mac in 1984, and all the imitators that have made that relatively clumsy extension of the human hand the norm.

A more recent example is the iPhone. Although Apple would say they rewrote the book on portable music with iTunes and iPods, the iPhone represented a meaty challenge – can you take the PDA to the masses by making the features truly accessible? Let’s face it, the features are not anything flash; under-average camera, not as fast as other devices, and yet so much more popular. The clincher for me was this weekend, at a family gathering. As the family nerd, I’m expected to have the latest and greatest – a year ago, the iPhone was just that. This year, everyone in the family has pretty much got one. Whether they use all the PDA power locked inside doesn’t really matter – it’s that they’re easily able to access more than you can on a phone, and feel natural doing it, that tells me Apple have absolutely succeeded at their goal of changing the game for the PDA industry.

With the iPad, they are not trying to rewrite the game for the Netbook market. They’re just bringing their same interface design brilliance to the problem that Netbooks have failed to solve – truly powerful mobile computing that is greatly more accessible than a laptop. It’s a mistake to think of this as just a good looking ebook device. It will allow many computing tasks to break free from the desktop (and the laptop, since that’s just a desktop you can move around easily, really) and force them to be simplified and distilled down to only what you really need to do.

Because Apple has elegantly delivered a few sorely-needed functions in the one box, I feel that it’ll help a few games change quite quickly: information delivery such as news (see this excellent story for more); bigger and more useful versions of existing iPhone apps (banking, web browsing, email); virtual desktops – since the viewer isn’t that powerful, but very portable; applications in the cloud.

For me, the track record of Apple’s delivery on their vision tells me that while the iPad won’t be the cheapest, or the most powerful, or the most feature-packed device in this space, it will be the most popular because it brings the right mix of function (plus a few gimmicks that make you say ‘cool!’) and design to deliver something where you can get on with the job at hand, rather than always thinking about how to do it.

If you believe the rave reviews that are coming out, we could be in for a big leap forward in how we compute. I’m excited!

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