iPad: The Microwave Oven That Can’t Pop Corn

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There’s a backlash in the tech community against Apple’s iPad. Perhaps because the geeks and tech-heads are disappointed the iPad didn’t meet their every expectation. I wonder though if it isn’t just the result of a lack of imagination.

Techies moan endlessly about the iPad’s lack of a physical keyboard and how “no one can do real work on that.” I have to wonder what they mean when they say “real work?” Are they suggesting, for example, all computer users regularly commit themselves to Jessica Fletcher-esque writing marathons? Do the vast majority of us really write 10,000 word screeds every week? Of course not. Most everyday computing consists of a few minutes of light email and web surfing. If a 10,000 word essay is the goal, the iPad might not be the ideal platform (though I suspect we’ll see plenty of people doing very lengthy prose with the optional keyboard). However – not being ideal out-of-the-box for essay writing doesn’t invalidate the utility of the iPad. There are a great many other complaints about the iPad, and they all end this same way.

To those techies fond of finding fault with the iPad, I say this; the iPad is not for you. Instead, the iPad is designed for everyone else in the world, the colossal majority of non-techy folk who simply don’t care about cameras, physical keyboards or “closed” operating systems.

Imagine this scenario;

Meet Carol, a busy wife and mother. She just saw her eldest two kids off to bed and the baby is (finally!) asleep in her arms. This is a rare moment of blissful peace and quiet. Carol settles on the couch, baby in arms, and watches those episodes of Modern Family that have been sitting on the Tivo for three weeks. She giggles as Manny and Gloria bully Jay, and then suddenly remembers she must e-mail Mom about the kids’ soccer game this weekend.

A geek would put the baby aside, deploy the dedicated laptop table and boot-up their 17” unibody MacBook Pro. Carol is no geek. She has precisely zero passion for, or interest in, computers. And she definitely doesn’t have the free arm for laptop-deployment strategies.

Here, the iPad shines. Carol checks the baby is comfortable (yep, still sleeping!) and then with a single button-press the iPad is ready to go. She composes a new e-mail to Mom, pausing for a moment to chuckle at the TV (Cameron is flaming). While it’s on her mind, she adds a note to the family’s shared calendar.

The commercials are on, and while she’d normally skip through them, she takes advantage of those three minutes to follow the link cousin Linda sent a few days ago. It’s a photo gallery of her summer vacation. The iPad’s form factor makes it the ideal tool for this, it’s like she’s holding each photo in her hand. There’s even a short video, too, which reminds Carol she really should use her own camera more often…

The commercials are finished. Carol is done with her ‘computer’. At this point a geek would continue surfing (probably checking RSS feeds or leaving withering comments at the end of another infuriating diatribe from Liam “Doesn’t know what he’s talking about” Cassidy) …but not Carol. She switches it off, tosses it onto the nearest chair and forgets about it.

Carol, by the way, is exactly like all the other non-techy people in the world who could benefit enormously from the ease and simplicity baked into the iPad. The “computer as an appliance” solution is, for non-geeks everywhere, a welcome respite from the inherent complexities of more conventional computers.

Careless and Lazy

Tech-heads argue, “We do all those things with our laptops and smartphones already, so the iPad has no utility and is stupid, dumb and pointless and bah! to Apple and their overpriced toys!” Well, maybe so, but a smartphone is often too small and fiddly (particularly for those of us who are getting a bit long in the tooth), while a laptop is almost always overkill for common light tasks. (I haven’t forgotten the netbook; it remains, in my opinion, an exercise in compromise and frustration for anyone but the most patient geek or undemanding road-warrior.)

This backlash often accompanies new appliances. Consider the humble Microwave Oven; when it first appeared it was expensive and, for a great many people, seemingly-pointless; “But, we already have a real oven. Can a microwave oven brown? Can it roast? Can it grill? Can it warm plates and roast a turkey and heat my coffee at the same time? It can’t do even half the things my real oven does. It’s overpriced and unnecessary and I don’t need one. And no one else will, either.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty careless – even lazy – conclusion. Yet, it’s precisely the same argument I’ve seen repeated in comments and articles all over the web.

Of course, the microwave oven isn’t criticized today because its utility has been proven. Indoor plumbing, gas central heating, automobiles and even the personal computer all were criticized for being unnecessary and, as the tired old phrase goes, ‘a solution in search of a problem’. Nor has the microwave oven replaced conventional ovens. In fact, most of us have both appliances in the same room of the house. Having one does not automatically relegate the other into obsolescence. They each have their place, and they each offer their own utility and value in a modern home.

And so it will be with the iPad. Only, you won’t be able to pop corn in it.

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