The iPad placed a clear bet on simplicity -- and was criticized for it. The bet won. But now, can the iPad evolve toward more business applications without sacrificing its simplicity, without becoming a "fridge-toaster"?
Three years ago, the iPad came out. The device was an immediate hit with customers and (most) critics. Steve Jobs' latest -- and, unfortunately, last -- creation truly deserved the oft-abused game changer moniker.
But, as always, there were grumblings up in the cheap seats. As Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design observed:
"Following along on Twitter I was seeing things like 'underwhelming', 'meh' , 'it's not open', 'it's just a big iPhone', etc. And most of this stuff was coming from people who design and build interactive experiences."
Monteiro penned a sharp, relevant response to the naysayers. Titled "The Failure of Empathy", his post is summarized by this picture:
A generation ago, geeks were the arbiters of taste in the world of personal computing. Programmers, designers, hobbyists and tinkerers...these were the inhabitants of "user space", and we built computers with them in mind. By designing the Apple ][ for himself (and his fellow travelers) Steve Wozniak hit the bull's eye of a large, untapped target.
Today, geeks are but a smallish subset of computer users. Their (typically exaggerated) negative comments may have some sting if you're responsible for engineering the "brain dead" backing store for a windowing system, but in the real world, no one cares about "byte sex" or "loop unrolling". What counts is how non-technical users think, feel, and respond. Again, from Monteiro's post:
"As an industry, we need to understand that not wanting root access doesn't make you stupid. It simply means you do not want root access. Failing to comprehend this is not only a failure of empathy, but a failure of service."
This was written in February 2010; I doubt that anyone at the time thought the iPad would ascend to such heights so quickly: 65.7M sold in 2012, 121M since the 2010 debut, rising even faster than the iPhone.
This is all well and good, but with success comes side effects. As the iPad gets used in ways its progenitors didn't anticipate, another failure of empathy looms: Ignoring the needs of people who want to perform "complicated" tasks on their iPads.
When the iPad was introduced, even the most obliging reviewers saw the device as a vehicle for consumption, not creation. David Pogue in the New York Times:
"...the iPad is not a laptop. It's not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it's infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on."
This is still true...but that hasn't stopped users from trying -- struggling -- to use their iPads for more ambitious tasks: Building rich media presentations and product brochures, preparing course material, even running a business. Conventional wisdom tells us that these are tasks that fall into the province of "true" personal computers, but these driven users can't help themselves, they want to do it all on their iPads. They want the best of both worlds: The power of a PC but without its size, weight, (relative) unresponsiveness, and, certainly, price.
The evidence is all around us. Look at how many people in cafés, offices and airport lounges use a keyboard with their iPad, such as this Origami combo:
Or the Logitech Keyboard Cover:
Both keyboards are prominently displayed in the Apple Store. We'll assume that shelf space isn't doled out by lottery (or philanthropically), so these devices must be selling briskly.
Of course, this could just be anecdotal evidence. What isn't anecdotal is that Apple itself claims that the iPad has penetrated a large proportion of Fortune 500 companies. In some of its stores, the company conducts sessions to promote the use of iPads in business applications.
I attended one such gathering last year. There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad's presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can't the iPad access all the documents -- not just iWork files -- that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.
This brings us to a major iPad obstacle: On a "real" PC the file system is visible, accessible; on the iPad, it's hidden. The act of creating, arranging, accessing files on a PC is trivial and natural. We know how to use Finder on the Mac and Explorer on Windows. We're not perplexed by folder hierarchies: The MyGreatNovel folder might contain a lengthy set of "MGN-1", "MGN-2", "MGN-3" drafts, as well as subfolders such as ArtWork, Reference, and RejectionLetters, each of which contain further subfolder refinements (RejectedByGrove, RejectedByPenguin, RejectedByRandomHouse...).
On an iPad you don't navigate a file system but, instead, you launch an app that has it's own trove of documents that it understands -- but it can't "see" anything else.
For example: Keynote doesn't let you see the graphics, videos, and PDFs that you want to assemble into your presentation. Unlike on the Mac, there's no Finder, no place where you can see "everything" at one glance. Even more important, there's no natural way to combine heterogeneous documents into one.
On the other hand, we all know users who love the iPad for its simplicity. They can download and play music, read books, respond to email and tweets, view photos, and stream movies without having to navigate a file hierarchy. For them, the notion of a "file system" is neither natural nor trivial -- it's foreign and geeky. Why throw them into a maze of folders and files?
Apple's decision to hide the iOS file system from iPad (and iPhone) users comforts the non-geek and is consistent with Steve Jobs' idea that applications such as Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iCal, and Contacts shouldn't reveal their files and folders. Under the hood, the application stores its data in the Mac's file system but, on the surface, the user sees appointments, photo albums and events, mailboxes and messages.
Still, some of us see this as the storage equivalent of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi: No File System For You!
App developers and customers keep trying. iOS apps such as GoodReader and File Manager Pro valiantly attempt to work around the iPad strictures. PhoneView will expose and manipulate your iPad's file system (not recommended). But success with any of these apps is limited and comes at a price: The iPad's simplicity and fluidity is long gone by the time you achieve the desired result, the multimedia brochure or HR tutorial.
This places Apple at a fork on the road. On the left is the current path: more/better/lighter/faster of the same. Only evolutionary changes to the simple and successful worldview. This is today's trajectory, validated by history (think of the evolution of the MacBook) and strong revenue numbers.
On the right, Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft's PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.
The easiest decision is no decision. Let's have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers. Such dual-mode systems haven't been very popular so far, it's been tried without success on PCs and Macs. (Re-reading this, I realize the Mac itself could be considered such a dual-mode machine: Fire up the Terminal app and you have access to a certified Unix engine living inside…)
The drive to "pervert" the iPad is unmistakable. I think it will prove irresistible in the end. But I have trouble forming a coherent picture of an evolution that would let Apple open the iPad to more demanding users -- without sacrificing its great simplicity and falling into the fridge + toaster trap.
It's a delicate balancing act.