Thoughts on thoughts on iPads

January 29, 2020

They say that if you force a regular habit of writing, good things happen. In that sense I should have posted this on Monday; damn you, life and your sudden obstacles.

Last year was the tenth anniversary of the iPad, and a lot of people wrote about it. A lot of it was purely reflective, but some folks evaluated whether the iPad was a success in those ten years. It’s undeniably a success from a sales perspective, but lots of people seem focused on the question of whether it was transformative: to the way we do computing, to the landscape of technology businesses, to the way people live their lives. There are a lot of ways in which a technology can be transformative, but much of the more critical chatter has been on whether it’s been transformative to the way we work.

John Gruber suggests that the iPad has drastically failed to significantly change industries like the Mac did ten years into its existence, largely due to weaknesses in software interaction design, specifically multitasking. This didn’t sit well with me, and it took me a few days sitting with my iPad Pro to figure out why: mainly that comparing the trajectory of iPad in the 2010s to Mac in the 80s/early 90s feels like a fundamentally fraught, apples-to-oranges comparison.

  1. There is no mention of the fact that Apple computers in the 80s and 90s had no obvious device competition in the market at the time and thus the 10-year anniversary is an unfair comparison to give to the iPad. Solutions for designers effectively did not exist like they did once Adobe’s products for the Mac started coming out, and the iPad needed to compete with two other major ecosystems made by Apple itself: the Mac and the iPhone. We’re still seeing how the iPad fits into the larger ecosystem, but it’s already clear that it’s part of a larger picture, one where all types of work can be done on a suite of devices, each perfectly suited to the task at hand, rather than on a computing device at all. If anything, the type of transformation the iPad begat is different than that of the Mac: where the Mac redefined industries, the iPad helped to redefine the consumer technology ecosystem as being universal and multi-device.

  2. We could talk about work & industry changes, but there is little discussion about the changes iPad is bring to how creators make things and how students learn. I believe that iPad’s contribution in these areas are massive, even if not single-handedly, because they (and netbooks) have made full-on computing affordable to more people. There are countless examples showcasing and communities built around the iPad for photography, music production, live music performance, writing. Sure, these may be more incremental in terms of technological changes, but the iPad has put those capabilities in the hands of more people, without professional training or large budgets, and enabling them to do those things anywhere. Sure, Chromebooks are probably used more widely in schools, but without iPads, would there have been the same competitive push for Google to develop an extremely-low-cost netbook for students?

  3. While multi-tasking on iPad does have issues, I disagree that it is fundamentally broken and I consider it a distraction from the main goals the iPad intends to achieve. I personally believe these interactions quite close and the issues I’ve experienced feel more like bugs and solvable with small improvements. I use multi-tasking almost every day on my iPad and, thanks likely to a bit of muscle memory and self-education. Ten years into the Mac, designers were using Macs for work, but it’s 2020 and I know hundreds of people who still struggle with their Macs and PCs but live and die by their iPads because of how much more intuitive it is for them (again, likely due to the learning curve being lessened by iPhones, but that should not diminish the importance of iPads).

  4. Not really directly relevant, but something I think about a lot: since social media took over most discourse about technology, it seems that most people’s opinions on virtually anything is perceived as more extreme (especially in the negative) than it was in the 90s. We could very well be dinging the iPad and feeling nostalgic about the impact of previous technological innvations because everyone’s senses are being numbed all the time by vitriol nowadays.

Laying all this out, I still do feel like the iPad has a long way to go. But this feels empirically exciting to me in a way that Macs won’t ever feel anymore. It seems unfair — almost unsafe — to hold technologies created nearly 30 years apart to the same rubric, as it runs the risk of dismissing technologies that could be changing the lives of many.

These days, I use my iPad for virtually every bit of computing in my life with three exceptions:

I distinctly use it for the following things:

Sure, I could be doing all these things on a Mac (or even an iPhone if I wanted to destroy my hands), but I don’t have to. I can do these things anywhere thanks to a cellular connection, hyperportability, perfectly-tailored apps, and a beautifully designed interface whose quirks are no more problematic than those of any other computing device. And to me, that’s transformative.

See y’all next week!

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