Opinion: The choice presented by the iPad

The iPad is an attempt by Steve Jobs to replace the PC.

The iPad is an attempt by Steve Jobs to replace the PC.

The Apple iPad represents a fork in the road for not just computing but cultural consumption itself – and both paths are not without their difficulties says Jason Walsh.

Regularly derided as more of a cult than a company (including by at least one forth contributor), Apple Inc has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the PC industry: get rid of PCs or get out of the game.

With the release of the iPad Apple is clearly positioning its iPhone platform as a direct replacement for the personal computer in everyday use, particularly communication and information consumption.

The latest development is the firm’s war with Adobe Systems, developer of Photoshop and Flash. Apple boss Steve Jobs has listed a litany of problems with Adobe’s Flash platform – from its inherent instability and unreliability to Adobe’s tight control of the platform – and he’s right about all of them.

On the other hand, Apple’s vision isn’t exactly pure. Apple is a significant supporter of open standards and even free software but with the iPad/iPhone platform it has total control of the software distribution channel. Building a closed system on top of open software is not what the likes of the Free Software Foundation regard as supporting users’ freedom.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening, and it’s not all about money. Jobs’s vision of a post-personal computer age is worrying for many of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. The iPad threatens the utility of the computer as the universal machine.

On the other hand, the truth is that the computing industry, software in particular, slit its own throat. Computers have evolved tremendously but they remain trapped in the ‘desktop paradigm’ devised in the 1970s and popularised in the 1980s and the conceptual abstraction no longer suits what we expect do do with computers. At the same time software has become bloated and unstable and, as we can clearly see with the plague of security problems, the operating systems themselves are fundamentally insecure and made worse by users’ lack of understanding.

Apple’s iPad is a response to this and is effectively saying ‘Why should a user have to understand the details of network security and countless other arcane issues?’

This is not so different from what Apple did in 1984 when it unveiled the Macintosh computer. In a world dominated by obscure text-based computers operated by invoking virtually incomprehensible commands the Macintosh was a revelation.

Compared to the horror of DOS, CP/M and the host of other gibberish-based and incompatible systems the Macintosh with its mouse and graphical user interface was like a thunderbolt from the heavens. Finally computers could be used by, as Apple famously put it, ’the rest of us’.

The tech priesthood objected – after all, this little machine threatened the power they wielded through obscurity – and, then as now, dismissed Apple’s machine as a ‘mere’ toy. They were wrong then and they are still wrong today. Paired with a laser printer, the Macintosh unleashed a desktop-publishing revolution and though many an unemployed printer may lament the loss of their own priestly power there is no question that the world changed for the better with the adoption of this technology.

Over time things changed, of course. The Macintosh remains significantly easier to use than its competitors but it is not quite correct to actually call it intuitive. Widespread networking, the internet in particular, has added a significant amount of complexity to the computing experience and though many of us don’t realise it, we have been trained to use the machine when, in fact, the promise of the computer is precisely the opposite.

When I interviewed the late Jef Raskin for the Guardian newspaper in 2004 he said the then-new iMac G5 was stylish but lamented that ‘the Mac is now a mess’. What he meant is that even the Mac OS, the easiest to use of all operating systems, was unnecessarily complex. For those who don’t know, Raskin was the founder of the Macintosh project and ran it from 1979 until 1983 when Steve Jobs booted him off. Raskin and Jobs never saw eye-to-eye on anything except a single issue: computers were too complicated and should be more appliance-like.

The original Macintosh was a major step in this direction: it was the first popularly available computer with a graphical user interface, it was (officially, at least) un-upgradeable and it was a simple, stylish single unit. But there were limitations to what was possible with the technology of the day. For a start, the internet was still used only by universities and governments, meaning users had to install software and save documents using floppy disks. Today it is possible to develop a real appliance computer – and that is exactly what Apple has done with the iPad. It also means that today Apple can control the distribution channel in a way that was simply impossible in the 1980s.

The information technology revolution has been worth it. With every step our lives have been improved and the iPad is another leap forward. Today, though, we risk being faced with Hobson’s choice: outmoded and broken computers or modern but restricted devices.

Jason Walsh is a journalist and edits forth daily.

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