The iPad is just a big iPhone. Isn’t it?

When Apple officially introduced the iPad in January after months (years?) of speculation of a tablet-based computer, I heard and read more complaints about what it couldn’t do than what it could.   “Where is the file system?” “I can’t have multiple windows open at once?”  “It doesn’t multitask?” Clearly Apple blew it by not providing a standard operating system on this new device.  A laptop replacement seemed to have been assumed.  And most of the arguments about the limitations of the iPad are true – it doesn’t run a full OS, and it’s not a replacement for your laptop. So isn’t the iPad just a big iPhone?

In January it was. At its unveiling we only had glimpses into what the iPad could do, including demonstrations of a handful of new apps and the ability to run all your favorite iPhone apps. But it didn’t seem to do anything really new, anything different from what the iPhone could already do.  And it was bigger and more expensive, and it couldn’t even make calls. Even the shape of the device looked like an iPhone. But when the iPad is released in two days, it will stop being compared to an iPhone or a tablet computer or a laptop – it will stand on its own. Here’s why:

Over the holidays my dad said he wanted to buy his wife a netbook so she could browse the web and share pictures with her friends and listen to music. He saw an inexpensive one at Costco –  a cheap option for the handful of tasks she needed to do. “Don’t worry,” my dad reassured me, “I have a friend at the office that will help install software and help with any issues.”  And last month my wife’s dad, a farmer in Central Oregon, recently decided it was finally time to dust off the used mac we gave him a few years back and give it another go. He was looking into taking a class at the local JC so he could learn (as he calls it) the “basics”, and then teach his wife how to use it.  These are not uncommon scenarios I’ve encountered over the years as the family IT guy. In many cases what they often needed was something that could do what they needed simply and easily, without the overhead, the viruses, or the steep learning curve.

I think the iPad ushers in a new way for us to think about computing, pushing us past the mental model of the file system, window and memory management, and other administrative elements. A recent post by Steven Frank sums this up well. For the majority of us that have grown up with computers, how we think about a computer now seems hardwired. But what about the new generation – the kids under say 7 or 8 –  that have played with a touch-based device like the iPhone and simply “got it”.  What is a computer to them? What is their model of how it works?  Similarly, how about the many people, my dad’s wife and father-in-law included, that have never taken an interest in computers or have decided the effort to learn and maintain them is often too great – what is a computer to them?

I’d argue that Apple’s big statement with the iPad, aside from it being lightweight and multitouch, it that they’ve pushed the OS further into the background and brought the content front and center.  In many ways they established this with the iPhone, but now they are taking it to a much bigger device, one that falls somewhere between a phone and a laptop. They have effectively hidden much of the OS from the user – users interact directly with the content – so that the majority of people that use it will never think about what is missing.

At ZAAZ, as we’ve been building for the iPhone and iPad, content as the interface has been a guiding principle.  When the iPhone came out, Tufte underscored the importance of removing administrative debris from the screen. On a mobile device, you don’t have the freedom to include multiple persistent navigation elements, controls, and menus. You focus on the content and you act on the content as directly as possible. This holds true for larger-screen touch devices like the iPad.

A recent Computerworld article speculates on the high interest in the iPad by the under-12 demographic.  The post was written more from a “will you get your kids one?” angle, but I think it points to a much larger fact – kids are going to grow up using more and more of these types of devices.  They already gravitate to the iPhone and it’s touch interface.  They are naturally going to jump to the iPad and other similar interfaces. Again, kids don’t care about multitasking or file systems.  What they care about is content.  And ultimately, that’s what we all care about too.

[cross-posted at ZAAZ Blogs]

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