January 29, 2010

Simplify Computing: iPad

Every Mac-fan already probably knows that the next innovation from Apple was recently announced: the iPad. For many critics, it's not new, which is mostly right. What I see is a blending of all the design work Apple has done over the last five years into one simple package.

But why would I post a title saying "simplify computing" and the iPad in the same sentence. I cut my baby teeth on the first IBM PCs way back, well, a long time ago. My first program was XYWrite that was stored on a floppy disk. I was an engineering student and started to write my own programs. Then Windows upgraded to Windows 3.2, and all software I had written wouldn't work. Even then, technology was moving fast.

I tell you all this because, to be utterly honest, the computer needs of most people haven't changed much since those early days. Yes, we added email along with surfing the net, but otherwise, computing hasn't changed much in intent, only in complexity.

For many years, software design was always ahead of the hardware capabilities. Every Christmas, friends would ask me to come over and load the newest PC games on their home computer for the kids, but most of the time I would say "your computer needs more (you fill in the blank) to run this game." But, now it seems that hardware is way out ahead of software, so many people have much more computing power than they really need.

That is why I think something like the iPad can give us a glimpse into a future of simple computing. For most of us, we only need to write a bit, check the news on the web, send an email to mom, check out the latest vacation pics, relax watching a movie or listening to the latest 'hot' musical group, or play a game or two. Really, won't 99% of most people's computing needs fall into that category.

Right now, the iPad is an computer accessory. But I see a future where it will be a stand-alone computer in its own right. Add an external hard drive and maybe a full-size keyboard and what else do you need. Hopefully the next generation iPad will include a webcam for calling home, but really. That's it. Again, for most people, something like this will be perfect. And if they can keep the price as low as it is now, then the whole computer market is in for a drastic change I think.

Again, let's get back to my simplifying our computing idea. As a very poor teaching working in a developing country, I can't justify buying something like the current iPad. But I can clearly see the writing on the future of computing, at least as far as Apple computers goes, and I an looking at how I can simplify to be ready for the change when it does come.

How many programs do I have on my computer that I don't use? How many programs do I have that duplicate what other programs do? How many things do I 'collect' and never get around to listening to, reading or watching? How many programs have features I'll never use?


Recently, another innovation hit the internet that was much more low-key. It was the introduction of OmmWriter, a text editor to simply write in a simple environment. Sorry my Windows friends, it's only available for Macs. It begs the question "What do we really need (in a computer)?". Yes, for business and maybe school, there is a need for all the power and capability of things like the whole host of office suites out there. But do I need that at home writing a few notes or sending a letter to the editor of my local paper?

What I like about the iPad is it puts so many things into a small, simple, durable package. I can sit it in my lap, lay sprawled out on a blanket in the park, or sit it down to get something to drink or play frisbee with the dog. Personal computing should be that 'personal' and I think the iPad is the first real break in that direction.

Some say there are serious 'omissions' in this 1st iPad. Yes, a webcam would be nice for Skyping my mom back in the States, but not essential. Others complain that it can't multitask, running several programs at once - but sometimes I think we multitask so much it is an overload to our senses. How much more could we accomplish if we focused on one thing at a time instead of listening to our iTunes, while typing out a report with my messenger alerting me of incoming small talk and email pending. One thing at a time. What a concept. I think my mom tried to teach me that as a child.

So, as much as I want to, I won't be getting an iPad anytime soon (but if you send me one, I will thank you profusely) and I don't really advocate anyone else buying one (although I might be a bit jealous). What I would ask everyone to do as I ask myself the same thing, "What do I really need?" In this case, it's computers. But what of other areas in our lives: car, clothing, vacation plans, eating, etc. Maybe we all need to be more aware of that line between 'need' and what our consumer society tells us is 'essential'. We probably are so far away from that line, it's scary.

A simple life is not any gaurantee for a good life, but it gives you more opportunities to really live life and see it for what it really is. And a perfect place to start is with your computer and how you use it. Just taking a look at the issue will bring benefits. What have you got to loose?