Opinion: iPad critics are as dull as its fanatics

Steve Jobs showcasing Apple's new iPad

Steve Jobs showcasing Apple's new iPad

The anti-iPad backlash is as tedious as Apple worship, says Jason Walsh.

The internet has spoken: Apple’s new product, the iPad, is ‘lame’. It doesn’t have this or that feature and… well, you know the story. Anti-Apple whining is as dull and predictable as the absurd worship of the Californian computer company.

Here’s the actual reality: the iPad is an appliance and will prove ideal for some people and less so for others. The whinging about the iPad is actually just the hysterical cultural response of people who see themselves in opposition to the company, just as Ireland’s Labour party moans about the ‘civil war’ politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael despite the fact that it is as much an outgrowth of the same historical conditions.

From the release of the original Macintosh, the first computer available to the public with a graphical user interface, in 1984 Apple immediately became the preserve of the creative professions: unlike the PCs of the day, Macs provided support for high-resolution bitmap and vector images as well as fine-grained support of complex typography. The release of Pagemaker by Aldus and Apple’s pairing of the Mac with a cheap LaserWriter laser printer meant that the Mac launched a desktop-publishing revolution and became the computing platform of choice for graphic designers, illustrators and publishers the world over. It remains so today.

It is important to remember this. Apple’s ‘cool’ image is not simply a result of its increasingly irritating branding, it follows directly from the fact that the Macintosh was used in what are now called the creative industries while PCs were used by bean counters.

The Mac was the first computer ever to be was designed with the needs of non-computer users in mind. Without Apple there would, quite simply, be no Windows today. The iPad, for all its limitations, follows on from the model the Mac pioneered.

So, is the iPad a ‘game changer’? It depends what game you are playing.

As a working journalist I will not be buying an iPad – it’s simply not a useful device for me. Despite the fact that being a journalist is an increasingly sedentary occupation, I do find myself out and about quite a lot and have been sick of carrying around a full-sized laptop computer for some time. I needed a small, secondary machine. My MacBook was rather the worse for wear, cosmetically at least, while my MacBook Pro is just too large to carry around.

In the end I bought a Dell Mini 10v, an ideal ‘Hackintosh’ netbook, and installed Mac OS X on it. I am not sorry I didn’t wait for the iPad – but I do find the anti-Apple sniping unbearably irritating and ahistorical.

But then, just as the Macintosh of 1984 didn’t meet the needs of unrepentant hardware geeks, the fact that the iPad doesn’t meet mine is an irrelevance. In order to understand this you need to know the history of the Mac.

The Mac was the pet project of the late computing legend Jef Raskin. When I interviewed Raskin for the Guardian newspaper in 2004, his last interview before his death, he lamented the fact that the Mac was now “a mess”. Raskin’s original vision had been for a machine that was closer to being an appliance than a traditional computer. While the Mac was, and still is, the easiest computer to use it still suffers from complexities that are, for many users, unnecessary.

Raskin and Steve Jobs never got on. This didn’t matter until Jobs was kicked-off the Apple Lisa business computer project and decided to turn his attention to Raskin’s tiny Macintosh project. While they fought about just about every other issue, the pair agreed that the Mac should be simple to use – simple enough for a five year old child or a businessperson.

Raskin left the project to go on permanent holiday – Apple didn’t fire people in those days – and the Mac as released in 1984 was more Jobs’s vision than his. It was a tiny portable computer that could be used by anyone without any prior experience of computers, it came with application software designed to get people up and running immediately and it – literally – made history, changing the face of several industries including journalism, publishing, design and printing within just three years.

How many of today’s journalists could really work on a typewriter? How many graphic designers know what a waxer is used for these days? How would the publishing industry fair without CtP? When was the last time anyone used paste-up or hot metal?

The iPad is very different from the original Mac. Back in the mid-1980s very few people had computers at home and those that did mostly used them to play primitive games. The iPad, however, has been designed with home users in mind, particularly so-called ‘second screeners’ who want a data device to use on the sofa.

Despite this key difference, in spirit the iPad is what both Raskin and Jobs wanted back in 1984 but were unable to deliver because the technology simply did not exist. It is an information appliance, not the ‘greatest product ever’ nor the pile of ‘fail’ that anti-Apple anoraks want it to be.

Jason Walsh is a journalist and the editor of the Irish current affairs magazine forth.


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