Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Computer Is Dead, Long Live the iPad?

There's something I've never really understood about computers: Processors speed up, memory grows, software evolves ... and yet, where's the real benefit of all this breathless, constant development to the vast majority of end users? All we seem to be getting is added complications. Sure, computers these days are marginally cheaper than they used to be, and there are tasks you can perform with today's machines that you simply couldn't in years past for want of power or memory. But most people don't use their home laptops to edit video or design three-dimensional models. Plus, many of my elderly machine's most impressive capabilities, such as video streaming, rely more on external factors like fast internet and WiFi than internal ones.

In fact, the majority of users generally only need a computer for a limited list of relatively simple tasks -- surf the web, send emails, play MP3s, write a letter, store some pictures -- none of which require much raw power. And yet, year after year, it seems that computers must increase in speed to cope with the increasingly bloated operating systems and expanding software suites that few of us know how to use properly because they're so complicated and change so frequently.

Which is why I've been so excited about the idea of netbook-style computers. None has yet delivered the right mix of usability, price, battery life, and size, but the general movement toward simplicity and value seems like a shift in the right direction. Why should you have to buy the computing equivalent of a powerful, temperamental sports car when all you need is a cheap, reliable runabout to get you to the shops?

And this, of course, is the hole that Apple is hoping to fill with the iPad. Lots of tech-focused commentators have been quick to point out its various perceived flaws: it doesn't multitask, the software is closed, it has a silly name. But the reality is there's an army of people who simply don't care about the first points, and will quickly get over the third as long as the thing works as intuitively and reliably as promised (and, judging by the iPhone, it probably will). If it does what you want it to, who cares what's going on inside?

Which is not to say that the iPad is perfect (a front-facing webcam wouldn't go amiss, for example), but I don't think Steven Frank's talk of it heralding a new age of computing is too far off the mark, either. This is the machine that is getting Rob Foster's grandma and technophobic friend excited, people who don't like computers as they are right now. And it's this huge untapped market of non-technically minded end users, not tinkering enthusiasts and experts, that Apple is aiming for.

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