The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 04 April 2010]

We’ve been doing it wrong

The iPad is finally out and Nic is wicked excited.

The iPad is finally here, and yes, it lives up to the hype. Gorgeous and mesmerizing, it really does feel like an artifact from the future—a future from cyberspace. I named mine Ono-Sendai in honor of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the first novel to imagine the future from which the iPad hails. (Well, minus some dystopia.)

The big take-away when you first use an iPad is the same as when the iPhone first came out and punished all other cell phone manufacturers: Of course! This is exactly how it should be! It’s the computer equivalent of a very high-class English Butler: There to anticipate your needs and help you out when appropriate then to get out of your way, using only a discreet wink to get your attention as needed.

Which is where a whole generation of nerds have gone astray: It was never about the device; it was never about the technology; it was always about what a person could do with the technology. The vast majority of humans don’t give a rat’s ass about the innards of the device. They picked up a computer to do something they couldn’t without a computer. If they could do that—like send an e-mail—they were happy. If they couldn’t, they were upset. Whatever it was that made the e-mail go or not did not matter. The vast majority of humans pick up their computer to accomplish a task, not to dink around with the machine.

If you’re building a new technology, remember that and you’ll find success.

The Ono-Sendai is a whole new platform and one that will go far. It’s worth thinking about the way Apple accomplished this: Being utterly willing to cannibalize their own sales and looking at the tablet as a new experience instead of pulling a Microsoft and releasing the hardware with just a tweaked version of OS X. Which would have relegated it to the niche of nerd toys instead of what it is now: The machine I’m telling everybody to buy for their grandma and their kids and themselves. Anything you do with your laptop on the couch, you can do with the Ono-Sendai (or iPad, if you insist on being pedestrian). But you can’t do all the things you do with your laptop at work. And that’s the trade-off.

The reality is that the Ono-Sendai succeeds by removing complexity. As with the iPhone, this is what Apple does best. As an example, both my wife and I had cell phones with the ability to text message before we had iPhones. How often did we send SMSs to each other? That would be never. Why? Because it was a pain in ass. Easier to just call. With the iPhones, we almost never talk, just SMS. Why? Because it’s easier than calling. It’s not a checklist. It’s not about whether it can be done. It’s about, is it easy enough that you want to do it? And that’s where both the iPhone and the iPad succeed: The device disappears. It enables you to do what you want and gets out of the way.

But gushing aside, there are some nits to pick. The most obvious one is how horriffic iPhone apps look on the iPad—either as sad, forlorn little rectangles on a vast space of black emptiness or as jagged monstrosities with pixel doubling. When I first loaded an iPhone app, it was a kick in the teeth—wow, this looks horrible; how on Earth did Steve Jobs approve this? But of course, this a classic Apple move: When developers see their apps in tattered rags on the iPad, they’ll have no choice but to get their iPad development in gear. This is the same strategy the company used in the OS 9 to OS X transition. Oh, your application will scare-quote work, but it’ll look like hell until you get your act together. For myself, I’ve banned all classic iPhone apps from my Ono-Sendai and am checking the App Store for updates like a lab rat going for a pellet. Come on, Simplenote, come on!

The other nit is that the Ono-Sendai has enough screen resolution (1024 by 768) that Web sites are often enough. So you end up in a kind of uncanny valley: On the iPhone, most Web sites were unmanageable—you can only pinch and double-click so much—that it made all kinds of sense for companies to create iPhone apps to access the data. But with the iPad, sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it does not. If you’re Facebook, and you want to be on the iPad, you need to think really hard about why you want to create an application and not just rejigger your Web site for the benefit of all.

As a case in point, both The New York Times and NPR have iPad apps that are gorgeous, but using them, I don’t really see anything that couldn’t be done with HTML 5. So why not make custom URLs that everybody can view?

Which just illustrates the vast difference between a tiny screen and a small screen. All the difference in the world. If nothing else, things are going to get very, very interesting for a while.

As a postscript, I tapped out most of this post on my iPhone while watching my daughter play at the park. The boundaries are not clear…

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