Apple iPad and a Paradigm Shift: Personal Technology 3.0

Since the Apple iPad was announced on 27 January 2010, there has been a flurry of posts, opinions, and downright weird commentary about the yet-to-market device, Apple’s thinking, and whether or not this piece of technology is actually worth the wait. I’ve watched, listened to, and read a whole lot of viewpoints and the thing I’ve noticed is that we’re staring at a paradigm shift we can’t see. Forget tablet computing and smart phones. This paradigm is about application-focused and user-centered technology not  one-computer-to-do-it-all, or an ultra-connected communication device. By definition, this new paradigm means personalized technology that will be used by some and ignored by others because it is specific to an individual’s needs and desires. It also means providing what users need for defined tasks and foregoing the frivolous – less is more. Call it “Personal Technology 3.0” or “person tech” for short.

First, let me get this question out of the way: yes, I will buy an iPad. I will not buy one because it is an Apple product. I will buy one because it is one step closer to what I think is the right direction for “personal computing” and as such I know it will fill a niche in my daily life. It is a piece of a personal technology paradigm, now in its third generation, that is defined by task and need rather than hardware, software, and connectivity.

To me, person tech means technology focused and tuned to me and not what what market research, spec hype, feature-itis, and technology bloat brings to my doorstep. It also means making choices regarding flexibility, utility and usability based on the tasks I want to accomplish rather than the hardware I can afford. This idea is definitely not new and has been at the center of Apple’s ethos for nearly its entire corporate life. For example, the Macintosh was an attempt to make personal computing more approachable and “human.” People wrote off the technology as frivolous but look where we’ve ended up – technical complexity reduced to some kind of graphical representation of function and utility. Command-line computing that was commonplace in 1984 is today akin to FORTRAN programming; there’s still a place for it but not for the masses.

People give John Sculley a bad rap, but we need to remember that it was under his watch that Newton came to market. Apple’s focus on making personal computing about people and not hardware, speeds, and specs was alive and well. As a MessagePad owner, I can personally say that Apple made the critical mistake in thinking it was a mainstream product. It wasn’t. The price was simply too high, the technology too new, and the hype too great. The Newton was doomed to fail because Apple tried to transform it into too many things based on market pressures. It started as a PDA but then morphed into some bizarre elementary education machine in the eMate, some weird vertical market system with dongles galore, and a bloated platform with a completely unique and niche developer environment (based on Lisp-like Dylan) with no real distribution opportunities to speak of. When Jobs took over from Amelio (who nearly killed Apple’s ethos), I doubt he killed Newton because it was a Sculley project (although there may have been some of that); I think he really killed it because Newton had lost its way (as it did with Pippin).

The paradigm and supporting human interaction research behind Newton was sound, but the timing and approach was wrong. Was Newton the first? No. EO in 1993 came to market with the EO 440, a mobile device that was a wireless tablet-based “personal communicator” for, yes, AT&T customers. Although it may be hard to believe, AT&T (good old Ma’ Bell, not the current SBC incarnation) understood mobility and was nearly two decades ahead of the curve. The problem was that the technology cost too much, cellular data simply didn’t exist (mobile phones were “new” after all), and pen computing just required too much horsepower. It was impossible for EO to achieve its vision of a personal communications device. The EO team, however, did understand the new paradigm of personal computing: make devices that do a handful of things extremely well to solve people’s problems.

After Newton disappeared and PDAs emerged, why did Palm succeed where Windows CE could not? From my vantage point, the answer is clear and simple: the Palm folks understood personal computing, Microsoft did not. Palm, with its Newton experience, learned how to make devices that did core things well and allowed a certain degree of customization to match individual user’s needs and tastes. Palm also kept the software development paradigm simple and made it easy to distribute software. That said as a Newton user, using a Palm device was a step backward and I never got used to my Handspring. I wanted something equal or better than my Newton experience.

Microsoft, on the other hand, tried to apply the Windows desktop experience to mobile devices and do everything that a Newton could do but in a Windows way. Since Palm didn’t work form me I became an early Windows CE user on the hardware of choice for the time, a Philips Nino. I can wholeheartedly say that it was a miserable experience, despite the good Philips hardware and my later experience with an HP Windows CE PDA. I found that multitasking was simply unnecessary and an absolute nightmare from performance, memory management, and battery life standpoints; the user experience confused and unworkable as the desktop PC model simply didn’t work on a tiny screen; and data management turned out to be an absolute mess. What Microsoft demonstrated to the world is that a generic computing paradigm does not work when applied to the most personal of personal technology.

Parts of Microsoft figured out the paradigm shift in personal technology not through handheld devices (at first), but through something rather unlikely for it, gaming. When the Xbox was developed, the company strayed away from the corporate pull of Windows and came up with a user experience that matched hardware, software and connectivity with users’ needs and desires. In short, Xbox did something that Sony and Nintendo couldn’t: develop a wide-area social platform. Microsoft’s team understood that gaming could be a deeply social activity (as PC-based gaming showed) provided one could connect with others in an easy and personal way. The connection model couldn’t drop out of the Xbox world and simply use any of the existing desktop metaphors; it had to be something that tied directly into the gaming experience. The Xbox team kept the pull of Windows away from the gaming platform, but leveraged the best and most mature technologies to create a winning technology combination. On top of that, Microsoft blended the social capabilities of the Internet with a familiar console gaming experience, thus turning a gaming console from a toy and into a personal entertainment device. Microsoft made its first personal technology.

Now the Xbox is not a portable device and a bit astray from the iPad, so in contrast to the iPad, some may argue that Tablet PCs are the way to go. I’ve used both IBM and a Mobile Computing tablets and I can honestly say that the thing that kills them is the operating system. Again, the desktop model simply doesn’t work in a mobile environment. The operating system gets in way of the most basic of tasks, rendering the devices burdensome for most things that involve anything more than simple pointing. Having said that, tablets are wonderful task-specific devices if configured as such. Using a pen to draw things, for example, is a dream. Surfing the web can be pretty good too, and filling out forms is an ideal fit. Of course, software isn’t the only part of the picture and hardware is also an issue. Driving all of the input devices, enabling the breadth of connectivity options, and providing adequate overall performance requires a lot of power which equals bigger batteries, more weight, and therefore, more cost and bulk. If one wants to do power management, then one needs to move into a world of device-level control and a morass of potential confusion. At that point people give up and we’re back to personal computing rather than personal technology.

“Smart” devices entered into the market a while ago when battery life, size, and performance took greater priority over flexibility and configurability. Nokia has considerable experience in making small, portable communication devices and gave up on trying to make these devices into micro PCs. Early on, however, even these devices forced users to adapt their work patterns to the technology rather than the technology adapting to the users. Like Tablet PCs, operating systems on smart devices got in the way of functionality.Today, that’s largely changed, but it was a tough road for device manufacturers, especially those coming from the mobile phone sector. Apple, on the other hand, worked steadily toward pushing the operating system into the background to make devices more appliance-like. The greatest example of this, of course, is the iPod. People tend to forget that the iPod is a powerful personal computer hidden behind a slick user interface and simple operating system and that the operating system was developed by folks from the Newton team. A wheel, button and simple menu system did what countless mouse clicks, menus, and sound drivers couldn’t: access music on demand quickly and easily. iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player and arguably it wasn’t the best, but paired with iTunes it did get the user interface and distribution right. Apple quickly learned that creating a seamless buying experience from the user of the device and distributor makes people happy. We simply don’t have the time to hack our way to making things work. We like convenience when it comes to our personal devices.

When the iPhone was released, I was a serious skeptic. I simply didn’t believe that Apple could push the operating system into the background and make a device that adapted to me. They tried with Newton and that failed, so what made iPhone any different? That all changed when my mom picked up one in the local Apple store and immediately started using it to surf the web. She had never seen an iPhone before, rarely worked with touch screens, and didn’t surf the web, and yet she used this device like she had owned it for years. Seeing this, I purchased an iPhone a few days later. The thing about the iPhone is that it gets the technology part out of the way and lets an individual dive into what they need to do at the moment the need to do it. If the right application doesn’t exist on the device, one can quickly find an application and download it on-the-fly and “get on with it.” iPhone, like the Xbox, got technology out of the way of what people want to do. It is a personal technology.

Back to iPad

Is iPad revolutionary? No. iPad is evolutionary and a logical next step in march toward increasingly personal technology. Yes, it does define a new kind of paradigm of personal mobile technology that is neither single-application nor fully-flexible and generic. It changes the paradigm where the computing part isn’t important.

Will iPad eliminate eBook readers? No. eBook readers fill a niche and the world is big enough for that niche to exist and needs to in the personal technology 3.0 paradigm. I do think, however, that the Kindle is more like the Newton, an important trailblazer in this area. The next-generation eBook readers will be like the Palm devices that followed Newton a decade ago.

Will iPad eliminate Tablet PCs? No. Tablet PCs have a place and will continue to evolve as our general computing needs change. I do think iPad will cause some hardware manufacturers to rethink the relationship between the hardware, operating system, and applications. There is a need for an artist-oriented tablet as is a need for a healthcare one. In the end, generic tablet hardware may fall by the wayside.

Will iPad eliminate Netbooks? No. I sincerely think that Netbooks will be the undoing of mid-range notebook PCs and will transform notebook computers in good ways. The trend of bulky, heavy, full-desktop replacing notebooks will come to an end as people realize all of those ports, expansion capabilities, etc. are essentially worthless. Good graphics, reasonable processor performance, lots of RAM, and great network connectivity are the elements one needs in a notebook; the rest is simply a drain on battery and markup.

Will iPad meet everyones’ needs? No. In fact, if it did Apple would have done something wrong. It tried that with Newton and failed.

What is iPad, then? iPad is an information device firmly rooted in the personal technology 3.0 paradigm. As I see it Apple covers four classes of devices with its current lineup (and the lines between them are very blurry and probably more like a Venn diagram):

  1. general-purpose computing devices such as MacBooks, iMacs, and MacPros,
  2. entertainment devices such as the iPod family and Apple TV,
  3. communication devices such as iPhone, and
  4. information devices such as  iPad.

The last three classes push the operating system into the background and put human interaction at the forefront of activity, thus driving a paradigm shift in how technology fits into our everyday lives. It makes me wonder about the future of Macintosh and Mac OS in general. I think it is safe to say that Mac OS XI is going to be a very different animal if and when it comes out.

Apple has maintained its ethos of putting people ahead of technology and with that, iPad firmly pushes the paradigm shift even further. Maybe in five years I will wonder why I used a notebook computer at all. At that point, we should be thinking about the next shift.

iPad image courtesy Apple, Inc. Nokia N900 image courtesy Nokia.