Is The iPad Too Easy To Use?

First of all… No, I don’t own one. While I’m a techie, I try very hard to limit my gadget addiction. I try to make sure that when I’m buying a gadget, I’m buying something I’ll actually use, instead of something I’ll use for a few weeks and then let gather dust. For me, I think the iPad is a pretty cool gadget. But at the moment, I have a BlackBerry, I have a laptop, and I quite often have books.

When the iPad was first announced, I pooh-poohed it. I said it was too big to replace a phone, too limited to replace a laptop, too expensive to replace a Kindle (which I think is a bit too expensive to replace a book, at least for me), and that it won’t fulfill any of those functions better than dedicated devices. Essentially, my beef with the iPad is that it’s not functional enough to replace everything else, which means it is something you have to carry in addition to everything else.

But I’m walking back from that point for a moment. I think the iPad has potential to be much more. My mental picture of the iPad was how it might fulfill the functions of several existing individual devices. What I didn’t see is the possibility that it might open up a lot of new uses for which existing devices just aren’t well-suited. My wife uses her iPhone for more than I’d have originally thought, and yet she’s still an iPhone newbie. The iPad has the potential, with its larger size, to open up whole new game.

But it’s not without its detractors. Cory Doctorow, for one, thinks it’s a little too sterile, safe, and — above all — proprietary. He doesn’t much like a device that doesn’t let you get in and mess with its guts:

Then there’s the device itself: clearly there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there’s also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe — really believe — in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

But with the iPad, it seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

I gotta say, this angle resonates with me. I’ve been using computers since I was 5 years old (the old Commodore 64). By the age of 7 we were on PC’s, and by the time I turned 13 I’d become the sysadmin for the household, writing batch file menu systems so my family could navigate to their programs without actually dealing with a command line more complex than hitting a number and the enter key. I then progressed through various operating systems (Win 3.1, OS/2 2.1, Win 95, OS/2 Warp, etc) — conveniently changing the OS as soon as my father learned how to use the one on the PC. This was in the heyday of the BBS world, and for a couple years I had an extra phone line into the house to cover incoming calls to my BBS (and my daily scheduled call into Fidonet to send/receive message board material). A few years ago I built my one homebrew MythTV DVR out of an old PC, and today I have a fully networked house between Windows and Linux machines, including a NAS and a dedicated HD media player to connect between the two.

As an old-school (for my young age) geek, the angle resonates — but it’s wrong.

As a geek, I used to think that other people wanted to know about the nuts and bolts. I used to think that other people actually were willing to put in effort to set up technology that would — once configured — make their lives easier. But they don’t. The average user wants one, and only one, thing: they want technology to work, easily.

I’ve often said that no technology can truly achieve mass acceptance until it doesn’t need a sysadmin to operate. As an example, I mentioned a dedicated HD media player that I own. It’s a very simple product, with an easy remote, network port, and really simple interface to go out looking for and connecting to network shares. I was pretty easily able to use my linux box to rip all my son’s movies (a 2 1/2 year old is not kind to DVDs), transfer them to the NAS, and give my wife an easy way to pull them up on demand. Simple as 1-2-432-pi-38484-3. One of my coworkers has the same device. He’s also an engineer, but a few decades senior to me and several sales positions removed from nuts & bolts engineering. He’s found a way to rip all of his families’ movies to a desktop machine, but has not been able to get everything on the network talking to each other to actually watch them without transferring them to a USB HDD. These are devices that are designed to be easy-to-use (I was amazed at how plug-and-play it was), but the prerequisite knowledge to use them effectively is beyond the grasp of most average home users. Fundamentally, it’s a geek toy, not a device that my mom would be able to set up, much less operate without written instructions.

The iPad and the iPhone, on the other hand, are easy to use. Much like the original iPods, they’re simply intuitive. The app store is easy to navigate. The OS, while locked up for most end users, is pretty well stable and won’t break. The downside, as Cory well points out, is that Apple becomes the gatekeeper. I’m a geek, and like Cory, I fundamentally don’t like that. But neither he nor I are average users, and to project our prejudices onto those average users misses the point.

The iPhone and the iPad are not intended to be geek toys and gadgets; they’re intended to be tools. As tools, they are built to be useful for as many jobs as they can meet but at the same time to be accessible to a very wide range of the public.

Is it the tool I’d choose? No, I’d prefer a more open Android-based platform than a closed Apple-based platform. Just like I prefer the control and configurability of Linux to Windows, and like I prefer the configurability and add-ons of Firefox to the vanilla of IE. But I’m not the average user.

The iPhone and iPad open up mobile computing platforms and a wide range of applications to a user base that otherwise probably would go without. There is downside to that approach, but the upside outweighs it by far.

Hat Tip: Economist Free Exchange Blog

  • Justin Bowen

    I gotta say, this angle resonates with me. I’ve been using computers since I was 5 years old (the old Commodore 64). By the age of 7 we were on PC’s

    For some reason I always figured you as being a bit older than this…

  • Brad Warbiany


    I believe I’ll take that as a compliment :-)

  • Aaron Ross Powell

    This is excellent and nails the problems with Cory’s arguments.

    I can imagine photography geeks lamenting the explosion in amateur photography cheap point-and-shoot digital cameras has brought about. Flickr is filled with people who take pictures with cameras that (gasp!) are closed systems. You can’t swap lenses, can adjust the film stock, can’t even, in most cases, adjust the focus. According to Cory, because you can’t go into the guts of these cameras and mess around to “improve” them, you don’t really own them. Which is silly.

    So it’s good to see posts like yours, which approach the “closedness” of the iPod from a tech geek perspective, while recognizing the boon such simple computing is for most everybody.