Growing up I was (still am) a huge Sci-Fi nerd, I loved watching Star Trek: The Next Generation – particularly because of all the amazing looking technology that was in the show. My two absolute favorite pieces of technology on that show are the Replicator and the PADD.
The ability to have something made, when I wanted it and how I wanted it, really spoke to me with the replicator. The PADD though, well I couldn’t tell you why I wanted one so badly, as a young boy one would expect me to covet a Phaser or a Warp Engine, but no for me it was the PADD. Specifically this version of the PADD – I even made some out of tape and cardboard (and you thought I was new to doing that).
Now fast forward to last April when I got my iPad, it was only then that I truly felt like I had my own PADD. There is even a iPad app called ‘Captain’s Blog’ which replicates the PADD/Star Trek interface. I have to say the app is almost worthless, but it sure does make me smile every time I try using it. The question that keeps bouncing around in my head is: is the iPad the PADD, or more generally, is the iPad a glimpse at the way we will compute in the future?
The iPad Blueprint
I don’t think that the iPad is anything more than a foundation or blueprint that we can/should use moving forward. What is evident though (just take a look at the iPad Life interviews I am doing) is that the iPad is radically redefining how people interact with computers and it is doing so at a staggering pace.
This is hard for some people to think about and harder still for me to explain – but the fundamental way that we interact and think about computing is undergoing a radical transformation. We started with computers that took up entire buildings, then rooms, then corners of rooms, then corners of desks, then corners of couches, then pockets. What I am saying is that for years now computers have been getting smaller – a lot smaller – all the while getting faster and generally better. The one constant through all modern computers though has been the interaction between the computer and human.
That interaction is defined by a person using a keyboard and mouse/trackpad/trackball while looking at a screen and up until the iPad that interaction never changed1, now though the iPad is pushing that boundary.
Yes the keyboard is still present, but that is mostly out of not wanting to hear other people dictating tweets to their iPads – gone though is the mouse. Now the mouse and screen have become one. The even larger leap that people are making for the first time that I can remember is that no longer are hardware specs important to people.
Skip back a few years and ask yourself if you would have ever considered replacing your 2.16ghz Core Duo laptop with a 1ghz Single core tablet that you cannot upgrade in any way. There isn’t a geek among us that would have taken that – but that was then and this is now.
Today people are using iPads as their main machines, albeit a small group right now, but there exists a mass of people using iPads as a laptop replacement. How long before you think that mass decides that they can suffice with just an iPad?
Not long it would seem.
The Network Computer
A decade or so ago there existed this idea that in the future all computers would become this dumb terminal – essentially low powered machines that stored very little – using networks/internet these machines would interface with much larger server farms that would handle all the real computing. This was an idea far too ahead of it’s time, now though – today – that is essentially how most of use our using our data. We have yet to move the CPU cycles from our local machines to what we now call ‘the cloud’ but the day for that will come – and I suspect it is coming sooner rather than later.
To me the iPad is the epitome of the networked computer concept, it is underpowered with very little storage. In fact if you only had the iPad and you did not have the Internet, or even if you did not have access to just ‘cloud services’ the iPad would be very underwhelming – much like my original Palm Pilot was. What makes the iPad great is less about the hardware or the OS and more about the connectivity of the device. The fact that I can sync with my other services (e.g. Calendar, Contacts, Email, Files, etc) truly makes the iPad useful in a real world, everyday setting.
Take away the network aspect of the iPad and you essentially have an oversized version of the Palm Pilot – and while that was a revolutionary device at the time, it still got old really fast. You can’t do much on those old Palm Pilots because they were never designed for cloud syncing, they were never designed to be a connected device. The original idea of the Palm Pilot was to be the best PDA2 that one could buy, designed to replace a paper notebook, not a a computer.
The iPad doesn’t feel at all like it was designed to replace paper, it feels like it was designed to do what ever you want it do to. Which that in itself makes it a very powerful concept, let alone an actual device that one can use.
I don’t know what the future holds, nobody really does. What I do know though is that back in 2001 I started college with a Dell 15” notebook that weighed as much as a half-case of beer, and I lugged that machine everywhere. Now 9 years later I carry a svelte 1.5lbs device that I can do more with than I ever could with that Dell.
I can’t imagine going back any more than I can imagine what computing will be like in another 9 years. Change is on the horizon and it both excites me and scares all of us.3
I am excluding smart phones here, because while they have a different interaction model, in fact one similar to the iPad, they have yet to be considered by the masses as a replacement for people’s computers. ↩
Personal digital assistant for those of you born after 1990 ↩