The iPad is the iPrius: Your Computer Consumerized

Eugene Shimalsky in his short piece “One Small iPad for Man, One Giant Leap for Apple” declares that the iPad is interesting primarily because it isn’t a computer. As he puts it:

Yesterday, Apple got all of the geeks glued to their screens waiting for the “Jesus Tablet,” iPad. An hour later, they were twittering that it did not come. Or maybe it just wasn’t their Jesus?

It turns out it was his Mom’s.

It’s been a long time since most of us have used our computers to do anything approaching “computing,” but the iPad explicitly leaves the baggage behind, leaps the conceptual gulf, and becomes something else entirely. Something consumery, media’ish, and not in the least bit intimidating.

The automobile went through a similar evolution. From eminently hackable to hood essentially sealed shut. When the automobile was new, you HAD to be a mechanic to own one. Later, being a mechanic gave you the option of tinkering and adapting it to your specific interests. In fact, that’s how most people up until about 1985 learned to be mechanics. The big changes came with the catalytic converter and electronic ignition (and warranty language to match). Now the automobile has reached the point in its development where you don’t even have to know whether it has a motor or an engine to use it, but to tinker at all requires highly specialized skills.

So, in some ways this evolution of the computer to the iPrius seems completely natural. I don’t care all that much if the iPad is hermetically sealed, but I wonder uncomfortably if in a few years the MacBook and the PC will be too. Or, more likely, we’ll just wake up one day to a world without MacBooks or PC’s. As we continue our shift en mass to the mobile device ecosystem and the laptop as we know it goes the way of the desktop, banished to special purpose niches.

In mobile land, closed carrier heritage combined with Apple’s product vectors may leave us with only closed options. A confluence of interests – commercial (get your pure non-pirated content only from me!), governmental (cyber defense!), and user (I want to be safe!) – will find that outcome attractive. Our generative and hacker-friendly world will be replaced by a sterile world of sealed aluminum.

No doubt the iPad will be hacked by someone to prove it is still possible. They’ll run linux on it within a week of launch, but that’s not where they will have learned those skills. They learned them on the highly generative PC they probably bought for something else. Slight differences in approachability and “ease of mastery” (as Zittrain puts it) make a big difference. The curves are steep. And tomorrow the people that buy iPad’s descendants will be less likely to develop those skills. Who’s going to buy a developer’s license just to screw around?

For your phone Apple could make a strong argument that this kind of control was necessary. They needed to make sure it was reliable first and foremost as a phone (rather than reliable as a snooping device or wouldn’t just crash every time you really needed to make a call). The argument is being extended to the iPad more because of Apple’s culture than real need, and if I was Steve Jobs looking at iTunes receipts I would do the same thing. But… directionally this is a vector toward compuserve, not away from it. The iPad is Steve’s Minitel terminal.

Just for the heck of it, imagine for a minute that the MacBookPro was locked up like the iPad. The apps that run on the iPhone have been mostly trivial. One person for a few weeks is probably the average effort. Eugene Lin may be willing to build apps on spec and hope for the best after they are submitted, but will Adobe? Imagine when Adobe invests $X millions building Lightroom for a year only to have it rejected because Apple launches Aperture the same week.

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  • Michael Berman

    I share the same concern – but on the other hand, when I watch a non-technical person use a computer I shudder at the inefficiency and confusion – let’s hope there’s room for both types of product. But in the long run, yeah, the consumerized version will be where the big money is.

  • haroon

    i agree, and see it being driven heavily for “security”. I fear the iPhoneOS desktop edition.. i blogged a quick n dirty post on it here: Is the writing on the wall for general purpose computing ? []

  • Steve W

    The first generation Mac 128 was like that, too. If you wanted to hack it, you had to use a Lisa. To hack an iPod Touch, you use an iMac.

    What we are witnessing is the rise of purpose built appliances, and the decline of general purpose devices. Apple likes that – not because it gives them control; but because it means you buy several devices instead of just one.

    The talking heads proclaimed that the Holy Grail is a convergence device – one device that does it all. The over-burdened travelers agreed.

    Steve Jobs taunts those talking heads by wearing the same outfit everyday – one look that does it all.

    Yeah, right!

  • Jeff Dickey

    I’ve got the same worries (as I blogged here – ). What worries me is precisely the degree to which Apple is raising the bar for entry into the developer community. The iPad, as a (purported) extension of the iPhone metaphor, continues that platform’s opaque, arbitrary process, with Apple serving as gatekeeper both for the development tools (“pay up! no more Mac-like free tools in the box!”) and for the only authorized distribution outlet (where outcome and schedule can’t be reliably predicted in advance). If apple wants to continue this without being seen as having a conflict of interest, there needs to be a lot more transparency and predictability in the development ecosystem than there is now.

    Think back quite a few years, over on the PC platform, when this little company called Borland brought out Turbo Pascal – and suddenly any junior-high-school kid could learn programming and write interesting/useful software. Could a 201x incarnation of a Borland-like company get that kind of system onto the App Store, perhaps with an App Store-approved “runtime” that let you load up the programs you or your friends had written?

    I’m not holding my breath. Sure, people who want to learn programming using Apple kit can still buy an iMac or a MacBook – which come with the development tools in the box. But, as was said earlier, for how much longer can we expect that to be true?

    The Apple of today may truly not care if they tick off developers and kill off some of the most innovative development that’s ever happened on ANY platform. They’re rolling in all the cash they can conceive of; the shareholders are happy; what’s not to love? The Apple of 202x may very well have a different perspective, when the firehose of innovation that made the Mac (and even iPhone) great platforms to learn about and develop for slows to a muddy trickle. I hope the post-Jobs Apple gets that particular flow moving again.

  • caleb

    It is mom’s, or grandma’s.

    Here’s the problem: it costs too much for mom. Yeah she can afford it, but mom doesn’t prioritize those sort of things for for her $500 seems like a ridiculous amount of money for what the iPad offers.

  • Bill Back

    I don’t see this as a problem. I think SJ made a mistake in positioning this as falling between a smart phone and a full-up general computer. These don’t lie on continuums, they are overlapping device spaces. The iPad is not a replacement for a computer, it’s a separate device for media consumption. While some apps will be productivity focused, such as iWork, most of the focus is on reading, viewing media, web browsing, games and other leisure time activities. As such, I much prefer the form factor of the iPad. This is something I plan to use sitting in front of the fireplace or take with me on vacation. When I want to code or create other content, I’ll do so my iMac.

  • Eugene Shimalsky

    Hello Jim, and thanks for the mention. We went on discussing the iPad with some people, and although many of them sustain that the only technology where Apple excels now is marketing, I still think that “good enough technology” and making otherwise well known things accessible for the masses is a pretty important factor that shall move the industry for the years to come or “re-invent” like Apple puts it.

    I would be afraid of Apple sealing the iPhone/iPad OS if they were the only one around, but they are a large ship that is still sailing in the open sea. And sooner or later they either adapt or drown.


  • Michel Coste

    I don’t think you get it.
    The Mac will be around for years: it’s the workstation for the rest of us.
    The iPad is the computer the the rest of them was waiting for for years.

    @ caleb: so many moms and grandmas still have a Windows PC that cost them more than $ 500 when they bought it! And the iPad offers EVERYTHING a grandma would want…

  • Brent Royal-Gordon

    caleb: “for her $500 seems like a ridiculous amount of money for what the iPad offers”

    You’re thinking like a geek, not like Mom. Mom looks at a desktop computer and sees an intimidating, complicated device that requires lots of work to maintain; she then looks at the iPad and sees something that can do the same things, only it’s simpler, more fun, and takes less work. She doesn’t care that she’s not getting a DVD drive or hundreds of gigabytes of storage or a dozen ports she’ll never use; she will never miss these things.

  • Jim Stogdill

    @ Michel Coste

    Probably right. I’m pretty bad at predicting the future. Lucky for me most everyone else is too.

    But just to be clear, the point I was trying to make has little to do with the iPad specifically. My point is that we are becoming accustomed to more control over our computing environments. We used to take for granted that we owned our cars and could do anything we wanted with them. Law (catalytic converter), warranty terms, and complexity have altered that situation beyond recognition. An analogous thing is happening in computing. Maybe it will be no big deal, or maybe it will quench future innovation.

    The comment about the mbp going closed isn’t because I believe that will happen. It was simply a device to illustrate my point. But… it’s worth asking the question, how many people are writing code today that bought a general device for other purposes, and then learned to code on it because it was possible to do so?

  • Wilfred Hildonen

    A good article, but I think the ones who worry will be few. I see another analogy with the cars but one which hasn’t come to be yet. Look at all the lives lost the way automobilism is treated today; to drive a car is almost seen as playing around with a toy and every fool can get a driver’s licence, risking their own lives and health and also the health and lives of others. It costs societies enormous amounts of money but driving your own car is considered a basic freedom – but for how long, I wonder?
    Well, I guess cars won’t go away but our control over them might. I guess that is a scary thought for some but we might come there and it might be that some time in the future, people will look back at this era as a weird one where amateurs were allowed to have full control over dangerous vehicles which also resulted in a fulblown massacre on the roads. The cars of the future will have autopilots and we just tell the car where we want to go.

    The same with computers. Or computing devices. Or rather, devices based on computers.

    But don’t worry; there will be room for geeks and nerds. Some people need to manufacture these things, fix them and develop them.

    The rest of us will just use them:)

  • Jeb

    I worry about the lack of privacy when this changeover happens. You won’t be able to run utilities to erase the deleted space on your storage (whatever form that might take). You won’t be able to boot from an external drive. If you “iPrius” breaks, you’ll have to send it in with all the data stuck on it to get it fixed. Next thing you know, your credit card will be showing unauthorized charges (or your sex tape will be uploaded to the internet).

  • MSchwabe

    Good read and great car analogy. Let me offer another analogy – digital cameras. There’s no point in buying a Pro-DSLR-full-control-can-adjust-everything-requires-exchangable-lenses CanoNikon if one has not the slightest clue of photographic basics like focal distance, aperture, shutter speed, you name it. Although Joe Sixpack couldn’t tell a wide angle from a tele lens, one thing he’s sure of that he can’t tell those lenses apart, and that’s exactly why he opts to get by with a point and shoot digicam for $ 199 or less. The next time you find yourself in the middle of a tourist hotspot, do the simple stats and count the number of people shooting with Pro-DSRLs and divide it by those shooting digicams (you may as well include cell phone shooters). You’ll wind up with a fraction in the order of 1/50. The vast majority of human mankind are computer illiterates (by the way, pressing the power-on button, clicking the email icon and typing a text doesn’t qualify for computer literacy). Does anyone really believe those masses of digicam shooters will ever care whether a computer system is open or closed, has Flash or not, can do multitasking ? They wanna get a shot as quick’n’dirty as can. And that’s what the iPad is all about- liberation of the masses- Marxism in it’s purest sense, so to speak.

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    The Mac has specifically been made MORE computery under the new Apple. The core OS is Unix certified and open source, it comes with Apache, PHP, Python, Perl. It has a bash terminal.

    If you go back 10 years, the debate on the Mac was the opposite of iPad: why is Apple making Mac OS so consumer-unfriendly? Why are they no longer pushing Human Interface Guidelines? These NeXT guys think we’re all Unix hackers! This is too much like Linux, people said.

    Now we can see that Mac OS X was deliberately made to be the Apple platform specifically for developers of software, music, movies. Traditional computer users doing traditional work. In your metaphor, Mac OS is the mechanic’s OS, it’s a toolbelt. The complete Web development toolkit which is obvious to Web developers but not to most users simply doesn’t have to be there is the plan is to make Mac OS more iPhone-like, but it does have to be there if you want HTML5 apps for iPhone OS, and Apple clearly does. The iPad is the true heir to classic Mac OS that users were expecting in 2001 from Mac OS X. The iPad is not even out yet and there are Human Interface Guidelnes. There is no terminal, there is minimum complexity.

    But the 140,000 iPhone OS apps were all created on Mac OS. I don’t see why or how Apple would lock it down like iPad. The locked down OS X is iPhone OS.

  • ccap1

    This is an excellent observation but maybe a little off target. Perhaps the metaphor is too vast. While it is possible to draw a line from, let’s call it ‘hands dirty’ learning, and locked down tech, I can tell you that there will always be the motorcycle, techally speaking that is.
    The truth is that you don’t need (and never had) even a 50% greasemonkey ration to attain the mechanic specialization we have/had. I’d think it is closer to 5%. At that level we don’t need sweat the iPad or its iPpliance brethren. Televisions were never hackable but people learned to write great sitcoms. I think the Apple developer tools coupled with the ecosystem of the iPpliances will create innovation enough to drive humanity inventively forward. There will always be linux and motherboards and arduino’s to keep the tinkerers busy. Not to mention the hackers, jailbreakers and pirates who will endeavor for all of us to keep tech alive.
    But, we’ll see.

  • Israel Alvarez

    Seems to me that there is little question the iPad is a device for consumption. And while your car analogy is apt, it only goes so far, as the car isn’t a device for media consumption, and few if any people ever created new cars. On the other hand, more and more people are creating media (of one form or another) to be consumed by others. I’d say the Macintosh has done more for the democratization of media creation than possibly any other device, bringing the barrier of entry far far down from where it used to be, requiring specialized hardware and software costing upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Put it this way – if more and more people are able to consume media, it only benefits Apple if they also provide people with the tools to create that media. Seems to me there will always be two classes of product, even in the brave new world you envision: media consumption devices and media creation devices. The creation devices will be the same general-purpose computing devices we’re used to. The big difference is that everyone who wants access to the world of computing will be forced to buy a general-purpose device and deal with the complexities that come with it.

    Apple’s genius is that they recognized that one size doesn’t fit all in computing, and made the leap of faith to not only envision such a device, but to make it a reality. Will it be a primary device for anyone reading these words? Unlikely. But then again – that’s it’s very reason for being.

  • Israel Alvarez

    The above should read:

    “The big difference is that NOT everyone who wants access to the world of computing…”

  • Brian Mastenbrook

    Here’s where the analogy goes off the rails: Toyota doesn’t make it a felony to work on your own Prius, difficult and complex though it may be. Sure, federal law regulates what you can do within the bounds of how it affects others, but nobody would seriously propose making it criminal to reupholster your seats in purple vinyl.

    Apple, thanks to the DMCA, has already done this with the iPhone, iPod touch, and now the iPad. Somebody may indeed hack it, but to do so they will break federal law.

    There’s no reason this needs to be. An inexperienced iPad user would not suffer if, through an appropriately convoluted and support-disclaiming procedure, I was able to install any software of my choosing on my own iPad. That Apple does not choose to allow this speaks clearly to what their vision of the future of computing is.

  • Robert Welbourn

    By making the iPad a closed ecosystem, Apple may be cutting themselves off from enterprise developers. I can imagine plenty of applications for the iPad in the medical and retail fields — to name just two — where connectivity and portability are important features.

    Still, it might just happen. Perhaps Apple will create private versions of the App Store for corporate customers to stage their proprietary apps.

    Or perhaps they will leave the enterprise market to the other tablet makers who are poised to enter the fray.

  • bowerbird

    i am slightly amused here…

    do you consider yourself to be geek-sophisticated?

    ok, fine. do a view-source on this very page, and
    write up a full explanation of everything you find…

    it’s 4:40 pacific time, monday; you are being timed.

    the problem is not simple machinery that hides us
    from the underlying technology. the problem is that
    the underlying technology has become too complicated,
    due to technocrats who use complexity to pay their rent.


  • Simon Hibbs

    We’re all doomed, the iPad will end all innovation in computing. Within a few years, it will be impossible for anyone to learn how to program a computer.

    Apple are taking this opportunity to re-build their computing stack from the ground up incrementaly. They will most likely add further features such as background tasks, applescript and then perhaps alternaive runtime support step by step in a controlled and deliberate manner, but only if these features add value and are appropriate for the market. That’s fine by me. There will always be alternatives, and full-on MacOS X is’t going to disappear any time soon.

  • lolcopter

    @MSchwabe [2010-01-31 02:54 PM] said
    “And that’s what the iPad is all about- liberation of the masses- Marxism in it’s purest sense, so to speak.”

    lol wut

    i guess there is one thing marxism and apple have in common — conformity

  • Marc Zeedar

    The real question is whether iPad will take over traditional computing in the long run, or whether there’ll will always be room for both. Only time will answer that.

    Currently there are two obstacles that lock iPad to niche status:

    – You can’t make iPad/iPhone apps on an iPad
    – iPad requires a “real” computer as a parent (for syncing, backup, updates, etc.)

    We will know the iPad has taken over when these change and you can use your iPad as the parent computer for your iPhone.

    (Until then, we don’t need to worry that the traditional computer is going away.)

  • DB

    Oh, I’m sure there will be room for both types of computing devices. After all, to use the inevitable automotive comparison, there’s a difference between a minivan and a delivery truck.