When Steve Jobs took to the stage at the beginning of 2010, he brilliantly illustrated the current conundrum of our computing landscape: on the screen behind him was a picture of an iPhone and a MacBook, separated by a significant gap. He posed a question to the audience: was there room, between these two well-established devices – the mobile phone and the laptop computer – for another device? The answer, according to the technological visionary, was a resounding “yes!”
The introduction of the original iPad in 2010 cased, as usual, a plethora of copies – the Samsung Galaxy Tab and BlackBerry Playbook being two significant attempts – and led to another paradox amongst consumers: the uncertainty about what exactly “tablet computing” was all about. For some, it served as a fancy new accessory, something to go along with their iPod or mobile phone. Others lambasted it as a larger, “squashed” iPod touch. And still, more were left confused: was there really a need for yet another technological gadget? Surly a netbook computer (a smaller, less-powerful but ultra-portable notebook computer) would be more than necessary; surely that was the obvious direction in mobile personal computing?
So what, then , is the true purpose of the iPad? There must be some reason, seeing as it’s been heralded as one of the most significant advances in technology… I believe that in order to understand the iPad’s raison d’être, one needs to adopt a shift in the perception of the personal computer; one needs to re-think the very definition of where it stands, in today’s cloud-focussed era.
In the early 2000s, Steve Jobs described the personal computer as a “hub” for your digital lifestyle: your photos, video and music would “live” on the computer, and other devices would plug-in to this system to sync with it. Think of the iPod + iTunes – where the iPod “fed-off” what was in your iTunes library. But the problem, as the technological river flowed on, was that it became quite untidy and rather tedious to plug various devices into the hub. Enter cloud computing: all your files stored in “the cloud” (actually, some discreet warehouse storing row upon row of servers), and you would access these files through that lovely invention called the Internet. In essence, you wouldn’t need a single computer for your own – you could sign in to any Internet-connected computer, retrieve a document, work on it, then sync it to the cloud, ready to be pulled down from another machine whenever you needed it.
Within the context of the cloud fits the iPad. It becomes your mobile leech to the cloud. It’s intuitive interface and plethora of apps makes it a cinch to connect, edit, and sync. This is what Apple envisions the future of personal computing to be – the “post-PC” era. It is, perhaps, the last great legacy of Jobs: he gave us the PC, the digital lifestyle hub, and now: post-PC with the iPad.
I write in terms of the iPad, seeing as it’s the first to bravely foray into this new territory. But in time, as has already happened, more copies will emerge: the fledgling (and perhaps already failing) BlackBerry Playbook, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and other Android devices. They will also attempt to do what the iPad is doing: offer a seamless integration to the cloud.
But whilst cloud-computing is foremost on the iPad’s agenda, it also enables users to create and consume dynamic content through innovative apps – it can transform at the tap of an icon into a piano, drum kit, guitar, paint canvas, sketchpad, word processor, database, and even a book. In Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography, Steve Jobs, Jobs talks of wanting to transform the textbook industry next: offering excellent school textbooks for free on the iPad. Think about it: students would no longer need to lug backpacks crammed with heavy tomes from class-to-class (a chiropractor’s nightmare…). Instead, all they’d need is a sleek, thin, light iPad containing all their textbooks, annotations and notes. Intuitive, just the way Jobs liked things to be.
In short: a tablet computer IS NOT a mobile phone, laptop computer, or personal computer. It represents our transition into what’s being lauded as the “post-PC” era – where cloud computing (storing and retrieving files, updating them, and synchronizing with all devices under your account) is emphasized through the user experience.
We’re entering the next age of the digital experience. Be wary of which brand you trust – in choosing a cloud-computing partner (from Amazon’s SkyDrive to Microsoft’s Azure, or even Apple’s very own iCloud) and the devices that connect to that service. It becomes very similar to choosing your next computer: it needs to be secure, reliable, and meet the requirements of what you want to get out of it.