Hello iPad, Goodbye PC

The New Republic has published my commentary on Apple’s iPad announcement. I reprint it here (with the important second sentence, which was cut from the New Republic version):

The PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time, when Steve Jobs mounted a San Francisco stage to unveil the iPad, Apple’s version of a tablet computer. What made the moment epochal was not so much the gadget itself – an oversized iPod Touch tricked out with an e-reader application and a few other new features – but the clouds of hype that attended its arrival.

Tablet computers have been kicking around for a decade, but consumers have always shunned them. They’ve been viewed as nerdy-looking smudge-magnets, limited by their cumbersome shape and their lack of a keyboard. Tablets were a solution to a problem no one had.

The rapturous anticipation of Apple’s tablet – the buildup to Jobs’s announcement blurred the line between media feeding-frenzy and orgiastic pagan ritual – shows that our attitude to the tablet form has shifted. Tablets suddenly look attractive. Why? Because the nature of personal computing has changed.

Until recently, we mainly used our computers to run software programs (Word, Quicken) installed on our hard drives. Now, we use them mainly to connect to the vast databases of the Internet – to “the cloud,” as the geeks say. And as the Internet has absorbed the traditional products of media – songs, TV shows, movies, games, the printed word – we’ve begun to look to our computers to act as multifunctional media players. They have to do all the work that was once done by specialized technologies – TVs, stereos, telephones, newspapers, books – as well as run a myriad of software apps. The computer business and the media business are now the same business.

The transformation in the nature of computing has turned the old-style PC into a dinosaur. A bulky screen attached to a bulky keyboard no longer fits with the kinds of things we want to do with our computers. The shortcomings of the PC have created, the iPad hype suggests, a yearning for a new kind of device – portable, flexible, always connected – that takes computing into the cloud era.

Suddenly, in other words, the tablet is a solution to a problem everyone has. Or at least it’s one possible solution. The computing market is now filled with all sorts of networked devices, each seeking to fill a lucrative niche. There are dozens of netbooks, the diminutive cousins to traditional laptops, from manufacturers like Acer and Asus. There are e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. There are smartphones like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Nexus One. There are gaming consoles like Nintendo’s Wii and the Microsoft’s Xbox. In some ways, personal computing has returned to the ferment of its earliest days, when the market was fragmented among lots of contending companies, operating systems, and technical standards.

With the iPad, Apple is hoping to bridge all the niches. It wants to deliver the killer device for the cloud era, a machine that will define computing’s new age in the way that the Windows PC defined the old age. The iPad is, as Jobs said today, “something in the middle,” a multipurpose gadget aimed at the sweet spot between the tiny smartphone and the traditional laptop. If it succeeds, we’ll all be using iPads to play iTunes, read iBooks, watch iShows, and engage in iChats. It will be an iWorld.

But will it succeed? The iPad is by no means a sure bet. It still, after all, is a tablet – fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person – two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen – but most of humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

But whether it finds mainstream success or not, the iPad is the clearest sign yet that we’ve entered a new era of computing, in which media and software have merged in the Internet cloud. It’s hardly a surprise that Apple – more than Microsoft, IBM, or even Google – is defining the terms of this new era. Thanks to Steve Jobs, a bohemian geek with the instincts of an impresario, Apple has always been as much about show biz as about data processing. It sees its products as performances and its customers as both audience members and would-be artists.

Apple endured its darkest days during the early 1990s, when the PC had lost its original magic and turned into a drab, utilitarian tool. Buyers flocked to Dell’s cheap, beige boxes. Computing back then was all about the programs. Now, computing is all about the programming – the words and sounds and pictures and conversations that pour out of the Internet’s cloud and onto our screens. Computing, in other words, has moved back closer to the ideal that Steve Jobs had when he founded Apple. Today, Jobs’s ambitions are grander than ever. His overriding goal is to establish his company as the major conduit, and toll collector, between the media cloud and the networked computer.

Jobs doesn’t just want to produce glamorous gizmos. He wants to be the impresario of all media.

23 Comments

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23 Responses to Hello iPad, Goodbye PC

  1. “Jobs’s ambitions are grander than ever. His overriding goal is to establish his company as the major conduit, and toll collector, between the media cloud and the networked computer.”

    I agree. And this is how he will do it: Analysis: iPad Is an iDRM Storefront For Apple Ambitions To Dominate All Digital Media Sales

    (http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2010/01/analysis_ipad_i.php)

  2. Mikewhitehouse1

    Lucid and insightful post. Quick edit: the Wii is Nintendo’s, not Sony’s.

  3. BobSapp

    “Clouds of Hype” accurately describes the above text. You should also be ashamed of the bad grammar and false information it reports.

  4. If a device like the iPad replaces PCs for a sufficient number of users, wouldn’t it also occasion the reinstatement of a slower, more deliberative, more digestible type of content consumption? Hard to picture the same type of frenetic tabbed browsing, commenting, and re-tweeting on the iPad as you might see on a networked PC–if only because the amount of hand motion would be prohibitive.

  5. The iPad is great but does it fit into the palm of your hand? In mythology, the human interface to the magical (digital) has always been hand held: the magic wand, the philosopher’s stone or Excalibur. When Moses parted the Red Sea, he didn’t run back to the temple and log into the Arc of the Covenant through a terminal emulator on the PC; he raised his staff in his hand!

    The focal point of where mind meets matter has been the hand. Is it mere coincidence that the buzz word that defined the 21st century – “digital” – refers to the fingers of the hand and, the common word for useful is “handy”?

    If you want to know the trend of modern computing, go into any trendy bar where the under 30 somethings hang out, you will see that the hand held smart phone predominated human interaction with the digital(magical) – it fits in your palm and you can carry it in your pocket.

    Sorry, I just don’t see the iPad creating the kind of massive change in social/technology interaction that the wireless Smartphone has. For most people, could it end up like the original Palm – an expensive paper weight?

  6. Laurent

    Jobs definitely wants (among others) to swipe the rug from under Microsoft’s feet. He got his ass kicked by the PC, but was smart enough to jump on the next generation of devices that might make the PC obsolete. And because he got to be there early, he gets to get a cut of each song, book / … as well as each and every app purchased on this new platform (Microsoft would *so* love to do this on Windows)

    Will the iPad be a success? I must say I’m *very* tempted to buy one next year (I don’t buy first generation products anymore). Finally something with a large screen that behaves like an appliance and not a computer! Time will tell.

    Worst case scenario, the iPad might have a “Gmail effect”, that is, force the competition to compete by raising the bar.

  7. Tobias Bray

    This is a consumer media player, not a tablet.

  8. KiltBear

    It is the bridge.

    For the consumer, one nice Mac or Windows Media Center for the whole family. Family members get iPads. Cheaper than everyone having a laptop, and better than everyone fighting to use the “desktop”.

  9. The big question is what will be Google’s response: Google And The iPad . Its crusade to put all printed material in digital format seems to make a similar competeing product much more useful and powerful than a just a trendy Kindle that play video.

  10. Richard Rydge

    Congratulations on a really great piece. I’ve been browsing around looking at a lot of coverage of Apple’s new iPad.

    Your piece was truly insightful and informative, going well beyond where most writers are looking. I think you’re right. The whole personal computer area is transforming and the iPad will link a bunch of different needs.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I think the iPad is a great achievement, but a pity it doesn’t incorporate a phone. No doubt a handwriting app will only be a few months away.

  11. It is interesting to see how consumer/home computing computing is diverging from business computing. For so long they have been basically the same – the beige box with standard office suite on it. The business computer hasn’t changed much except maybe to become a laptop with the same office suite but the consumer computer is becoming a Wii or a smartphone or an internet HDTV or now a tablet with facebook, twitter, etc.

    Business computing looks so 20th-century all of a sudden.

  12. Thanks Nick. Nice article: good summary of the timeline, and I like the faintly ironic start about the ‘end of the PC era’.

    Just as Apple made smartphones cool (which even Sony didn’t manage with Ericsson), they may well now make tablets acceptable to the mainstream. So, on the devices side a big plus, if only because of the increased awareness/acceptance.

    In terms of media distribution this is scary. When apple started the iTunes store, they politely asked/begged the record companies to contribute. 2 years later they effectively informed the same companies that they’d maintain/reduce prices and remove DRM on music, and if they didn’t like it they could back out. The movies and TV have been tougher to crack, but the music already provided the ‘in’ for many users. And now books… At least in traditional media you could pick any record/tape/cd player to play your music on. And imagine if you needed special Apple Glasses to read books & magazines…?

  13. KiltBear

    The problem with all the “doom and gloom” over “paying for what was once free” is:

    - the free options are still out there. Web pages, ebook readers reading an open format.

    - nothing is really free. Traditional media is hemorrhaging. It ain’t free if it disappears because nobody could maintain anymore.

    Additionally, this doesn’t quash “for pay” competition either. Kindle app on iP(hone|ad) will be killer. I wish Steve had the balls to demo the Kindle app at 2x on the iPad.

    I still want a way to rip directly to the iPad and have it back itself up to a TimeMachine though. The home PC won’t be dead until we don’t need it to tether to for content and backup or archive storage.

  14. Thoughtbasket

    Taking Irishdba’s comment a step further, business computing may be boring, or last century, but it’s still what most people do at the their job. Write documents, create spreadsheets, compose presentations, use business analytics software. All of which is easiest with a big keyboard and a big screen, and most of which happens at a desk. If everyone in the world hung out at coffee shops using Twitter all the time, then the iPad would change the nature of computing. But as long as people spend 8 hours a day in an office, doing boring business work, the PC is still the everyday platform of choice.

  15. Nick, I liked your use of the term “smudge magnet” and not sure who coined it, you or someone else earlier, but it has now been accepted at the UrbanDictionary website as a new post-Kindle/post-iPad term. The submitter appears to be “Steve Jobs” spelled backwards:

    smudge magnet

    (n.) — A hi-tech tablet gadget like the iPad or the Kindle which whether nerdy-looking or sleek nevertheless becomes a smudge magnet during use at home or office.

    “I love the entire concept of the iPad, but I am just worried it’s going to become just another smudge magnet in my home.”

    – overheard at a watercooler in a San Francisco office building

    by sbojevets101

  16. Nick, I don’t know if I can say this here or not, but someone needs to say it: these screens in our lives are introducing a new mode of reading, and it is not reading per se, not the old reading we do on paper surfaces, in terms of brain reception. It is a new kind of reading, and I feel we need a new word for this new kind of reading and I call it simply “screening”. Alex Beam wrote about this on June 19 in a good column titled “I screen, you screen, we all screen.” The final word we adopt for this might not be “screening” — although for me it works fine! and I am an early adopter of it — and a better word might come down the ingo highway too, and I am all for that too. Which ever word fits, let it ring out! Thing is, I feel we need a new word for screen reading in order to differentiate the two modes, paper surface reading and screen reading. Why? The better to study the differences and call them by different names. Good idea? Kevin Kelly and Paul Saffo agree with me.

  17. Techhead

    Just as our teenage kids and their many Apple-using friends never saw their iPods as being replacements for their PCs or Macs or cell phones, they’re not looking to iPads that way either. At their schools, there’s a buzz about iPad, not a letdown. They’re planning on buying them (or we’ll be ponying up for them) as portable devise for movies, plus larger versions of the stuff that came with their iPods. We old fogies will be stealing them to read books and emails while traveling. Those who are severely disappointed were either delusional with their own pre-hype or are constitutionally hateful of Apple. Suit yourself. For us, the price of the iPad is better than expected and as it gets stuffed full of more things with future iterations, it will be even better. I’m not captive to the Jobs reality distortion field. I do enjoy Apple’s expanding and reliable ecosystem of products going back to the first one I bought in the 80s.

  18. shivraj

    It is hard to think that a tablet replacing PC any sooner because the tablet has not yet evolved into a gadget that could perform functions of a PC.

    It may be 5 yrs or even 10 yrs that the PC may be out of picture. Until then the tablet may not be the ‘tablet’ itself…

  19. Matthew

    “It’s hardly a surprise that Apple – more than Microsoft, IBM, or even Google – is defining the terms of this new era.”

    Hmmmm…

    Imagine an iPad without YouTube.

    The new era is being defined by those who put programming in the cloud: Google, Yahoo (Flickr) and Amazon.

    I suppose that the iTunes store is cloud-based programming. But does it -does- it define this new age?

  20. Joe

    Most people, and most of the media including technology bloggers are missing an important feature built into the iPad … it’s called the App Store … as in applications, as in thousands upon thousands of programs finely crafted to to this new device; including apps that Apple is delivering as with Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheets) and Keynote (presentations).

    iPad will be a much larger success than people think because of the access to applications.

  21. Hunter Brumfield

    This piece on the Apple iPad is the best I have come across.

    Through the years I have loved my Mac desktops, then laptops, then iPhones (and Apple TV).

    The one thing I eventually understood is each takes the digital experience up to a totally new level. The iPad will of course do that.

    They all have a certain redundancy, but that is a positive thing, with features that take advantage of, and build upon, earlier ones. I for one hope it WILL be “a big iTouch.” I look forward to leaving my MacBook Pro at home, but will certainly use both, AND my 3GS iPhone. (However, my Macintosh Plus is a great conversation piece!)

  22. Bart Whitebook

    Remember the ‘battle for the living room’? The iPad is it’s spearhead.

  23. Hunter Brumfield

    It’s been fun reading these pre-release comments and seeing how they now square up against the rave reviews once people had the iPad in their hands. We’re now in the fourth week PiP (post-iPad).

    Something I HAVE seen is a lot of comment about how easy it it is to use, and therein is the “secret” to the Apple success.

    I am a semi-retired technical writer living in Japan. I have written and edited both cell phone manuals and computer manuals. I have used a range of both devices from various manufacturers.

    I know from professional and personal experience that there is just so much you can expect the average person to understand and remember, but also to TOLERATE, when it comes to using a new gadget. Case in point: the last cell phone before my iPhone had three different manuals. The iPhone, I seem to recall, either had none or a teensy start-up guide. In any case, the iPhone didn’t need instructions because everything it does is intuitive. The other cell phone had a gazillion features, but hardly any I ever learned to use. Those I tried I would forget after a bit. So for all those features it could have been just another black Ma Bell rotary dialer.

    The iPhone quickly became indispensable and loved, as opposed to the loathing and frustration I had for its predecessor.

    The iPad inherits all the iPhone’s best features and provides a long list of its own. And now, in PiP, we see that there has been so much delight over the iPad in its first few weeks on the market, how can it possible lose? And what company out there has a similar rep for terrific, easy-to-use products?

    I do have one huge frustration, though, over “my” iPad — I still don’t have one. That’s because all my fellow Americans swallowed the roll-out inventory, forcing those of us living elsewhere to wait another month. Sigh.