A week with the iPad and my family

Normally I spend my time surrounded by people who are completely comfortable with technology. They are – we are – people who work at computers all day long. That’s not a small thing. It changes your perceptions of how you approach problems, how you find information, how you communicate, how you get from A to B and how you shop.

Crucially, I think working with computers teaches you that they’re fun: it’s in those drifty moments at work when someone sends you a video of Dinner Time With The Dog-Man or that you spend time organising drinks for a friend’s birthday or marvelling at The Big Picture that you learn a sense of computers as enjoyable. Modern desk jobs force you to sit and stare at a computer for eight hours a day, so this hardly surprising: any time people are forced to do anything they find a way to have fun, whether it’s doodling in the margins of maths books or inventing games to pass the time at the checkout.

My life is changing, so I recently took a week off and went North to visit various members of my family. I took my bike so I could get out in the countryside, and I took the iPad so I could talk about some of the new things I’m doing at work. The people I visit do lots of different jobs – my Aunt’s a teacher, my cousins are retail managers, mechanics, academics and my Grandfather is rather actively retired. None of these are the 100% desk-and-data jobs my friends and I do, so it was fascinating to see how they got on with the iPad.

Everyone was interested in the iPad and wanted to see it. I didn’t want to walk in and immediately talk about it – there are more important things under the sun – but once I mentioned I had the iPad with me, everyone wanted to see it. This might sound anodyne, but it’s not always the case with technology. They wouldn’t care about a new laptop or camera or iPhone, unless I could explain why, show it doing something cool. People were genuinely interested in the iPad – in and of itself. This attraction is authentic, it’s not just media-created hype. (Although of course, hype could easily have helped stoke the fire).

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When the iPad first came out, there were lots of lot of people saying “it’s great, it really simplifies computers.” At first, I felt this was somehow dishonest, because it’s not as if before the iPad people were blogging about how Mac OS X was too complex.

Regardless of how Damascene the conversions (theirs and mine), it’s true.

Everyone in my family has a computer – but they tend to need reasons to go on it: to fill in a job application, to send an email. Even doing something ‘fun’ – checking Facebook, personal email – is mentally constructed as a task, a to-do list item, the same as ‘call the council’ or ‘post letter.’ The computer takes time to turn on. It’s probably in a cold corner somewhere. If a few days have gone by since it was last used, people aren’t instantly sure what to do. If you don’t work with computers (and lots of people don’t), it’s work to use them.

If you don’t work at a computer all day long, and have it running all the time, taking centre space on your desk, you don’t have the always-on, latent, ambient sense of computing that geeky people, or those who spend their whole working day in front of a computer do.

There’s a huge divide between people who see computing as a noun and a verb, and the iPad has the potential to change this (throughout this post I say iPad, but I mean “iPad and other tablet/smartphone devices”).

Perhaps best way to look at it is that the iPad simplifies computers (in ways good and bad – no USB, no HDMI etc) in order to make it easier to get at what is on the computer. It turns on instantly. You can leave it on all day. It doesn’t get hot or make noise. Things load instantly. There’s no annoying hard disk light and very few crashes or pop-ups. The iPad is a self-negating computer in that it’s about making real the digital stuff that’s in the computer ecosystem. Digital music, digital photos, digital movies. These are virtually inaccessible to a huge number of people who see computers as difficult to work, mysterious, even unpleasant.

My cousin has just had her first baby, and she posted a video of Facebook of little Eva crawling – and my cousin’s Grandparents, who are old and infirm and who live a distance away could really easily get at that with something like an iPad. This is a cheesy advertising scenario, but it is also true. Geeks might say “well you can do that with a laptop,” and you can – but explaining stuff like programs, hard drives, double-clicking to people who have no background in computers, or who have no interest in spending any more time with a computer than is necessary is difficult. Not impossible, just difficult. And I’m not saying these people can’t learn this – just that people have other things to do in their lives, and time is limited, and not everyone is willing to put in hours and hours tinkering and messing with the settings on their computers. Because that’s work.

It’s easier and better to change the tool rather than changing the people.

On What the iPad Says About Us

There are two types of geeks: the first type are really excited by what technology can do, and put up with the difficulty of using it, even to the extent of enjoying figuring out what’s happening. The problem solving and the tinkering, fascinating though it may be, is a necessary part of trying to get at something which is really worthwhile. And so they become an evangelist for computers because they can see what good they can do and they really want people to get it in the way they get it.

The other type of geek is very much of the opinion: I get it, why can’t you? This stance is inherently confrontational, about asserting supremacy.

I like to think of myself of the former – I like saying ‘did you know you can do this with your computer?’ – I’ve set up blogs and Flickr for people, and iGoogle pages and showed them Twitter and Foursquare. I’m fortunate to have a family who are both curious and supportive. It’s a great mix.

In short: the more you’ve worked with computers, and the more time you’ve spent having fun with computers, learning about them, the harder it is to get the iPad.

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Everyone who used the iPad enjoyed it. Some loved it so much that I felt bad that I’d introduced them to it and I was going to take it away from them. If I had the money I would definitely get them for my family. Well, maybe I’d wait for the next one with the Facetime camera in it. Everyone was convinced it was great – but not necessarily to the point they’d run out and get one themselves – the big thing Apple has to overcome is that unless you like the Internet, then the reasons to buy one are less. It’s quite clearly not a computer for working on, and so people tended to say it needed to be more educational, or more serious – the implication was that it needed to have more of a moral purpose to fit into their lives.

Apple stores will be key in selling it to people, as will seeing other people with it – unlike the iPhone, it doesn’t have the ‘what is it for’, practical nature to sell it. At the moment, the iPad lacks a killer app. Instapaper is really close, but it’s quite technical (something Marco Arment, the developer, is well aware of, as this blog post shows). I’m not necessarily convinced games are the killer app, either. There isn’t an iPad-only game that you’d buy the iPad for (though of course, there are great games for it). It’s great for browsing the web, for reading, but is that enough of a reason to buy it? I can certainly see parents buying it to use with their children – encourage them to learn about facts, numbers, to read. Alice for iPad really impressed people – stories are a great way to connect, and the iPad is a computer that’s good for telling stories on.

When we were using it, the fun stuff was what people responded to – the fun stuff and the stuff that was an interesting way of looking at things, of experiencing data (incidentally, this is why I think Gourmet Live and the Times’ Eureka are the two strongest non-Dennis editorial apps I’ve seen). Google Streetview wowed everyone who saw it, because it’s really clear how it speaks to your own experience, your world, the things you know. It’s the first computer that’s an enjoyable computer.

You can have it anywhere in the house, you can pass it around between people, it doesn’t have the keyboard and the fans a laptop does so it’s not as intrusive, and it doesn’t force the same seriousness of purpose. You can look at it for a little bit, and then drift off, have a conversation, a cup of tea, the screen will dim, and you don’t need to remember to turn it off or anything, or give it special treatment. In that respect, it really is very like TV and close to being ‘just another screen.’ And that’s great, because at heart what computers do – or what they can do – is deeply wonderful.

We’re moving towards a world where a computer is just a screen and a wireless network connection – and of course ‘just’ implies the huge cloud/websites/web services/app store architecture that lurks behind that. Add in RFID/NFC/Everyware and most things in our lives will be computers.

While computers have definitely played a role in changing modern life, they’ve clearly also changed things for the worse: the fact it’s all too easy to be constantly contactable by work, the fact they require people to adapt to them and frequently make people feel stupid, awkward, foolish and scared. And we have PowerPoint to sit through.

And yet I think they can make up for that. There are so many positives to what computers do: free, easy access to information and opinions. It’s such a prosaic phrase and yet it’s an impulse people have spent their lives dedicated too, have died for, have founded countries for. And now we have a tool which makes it so much easier. And it’s not just the big, high flown stuff: computers make it easier to find that phone number, figure out where you’re going, find a nice restaurant, learn what happened at the end of The Wire, get music instantly. And it’s now easier for more people to get at more of these positives with something like the iPad.

At the end of my trip, after I’d been playing Marble Madness Mixer on the iPad with my seven year old Goddaughter, she asked “is this a computer?” And I didn’t know how to answer.

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2 thoughts on “A week with the iPad and my family

  1. Very interesting article. Things are indeed changing when it comes to ‘computers’ and just what that phase actually means. Until the past year or so they have always need quite a niche item, something many only came across at work, or just had to as you say doing very specific tasks. I think the growth of Social Networks has gone some way to changing the none-geek world to think, instead of the technology, of the services on offer via that technology. The vast number of ways one can get onto Facebook or Twitter removes, to some extent, that barrier that has always existed before. It’s something the whole IT industry is facing, a shift from the hard sciences of technology to the softer of those of services.
    For those of use who have grown up buried in circuit boards and knowledge of clock cycles and voltages it seems a strange and mysterious world. One where you do’t care what’s behind the interface, just how well the interface itself works. Of course that has always really been Apples approach, it just seems times have actually caught up with them. Which hurts me to say 😀 Some say the fragmentation of the Android technology will hurt it, perhaps it us we who fail to see that to the none geek they don’t see that, they just know that the friend got a ‘Android’ and it was cool. They see these devices like a DVD player, lots of manufacturers, but they all play DVDs and so a £49.99 ASDA bought player is just the same as a top of the line Sony device. Just because we geeks know ‘better’ doesn’t actually mean we are ‘better’ off.
    Nice piece.

  2. Pingback: Recently: September – December 2010 « Alex Watson

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