My son Dylan is away at college, and on January 27 — the day of the iPad announcement — I was on my way to visit him when I noticed that I was walking by the campus bookstore. I flashed back to January 24, 1984, when I was a freshman at the same college, and had eagerly hurried into that same bookstore to witness the unveiling of Apple's new Macintosh computer. On both days it felt as if the world of computers was being made anew.
The announcement of the iPad, and the recognition by some (e.g. Steven Frank, Frasier Spiers and Dan Moren) that this represents a new era of computing, gives me a powerful sensation of déjà vu. Like the iPad, the Macintosh that Apple unveiled in 1984 was intended to radically simplify computing. Jef Raskin, who started the Macintosh project at Apple, believed that personal computers should be more like appliances: simple, rather than complicated, focused on specific tasks, rather than general-purpose. Raskin left Apple in 1982, but the idea of computer-as-appliance lived on in the Macintosh. If you wanted to write, you put in your MacWrite floppy disk and it became a word processing machine. If you wanted to draw, you put in your MacPaint disk and it became a digital sketchpad. Every application took over the entire screen, and turned the machine into a specialized device. In that way it was not so different from the iPhone of today (or the iPad of this coming April).
Raskin went on to create an even more appliance-like computer, the Canon Cat, which was a commercial failure. And the Macintosh itself only barely escaped an early demise. While Apple had planned to sell millions, the first year’s sales did not reach 100,000, and it was only the fortuitous emergence of desktop publishing that saved the Mac from cancellation. Over time the Mac acquired new features and capabilities, and new complexity, such that today we can look at it as an example of “Old World” computing that we hope to move beyond.
For the iPad to truly usher in a new age of user-centric computing it needs to succeed commercially, and it needs to avoid the creeping complexity that turned the 128k Mac into the MacBook Pro of today. There are reasons for optimism on both scores. Past efforts — the Mac, the Cat, and the Newton — tried to build a new world from scratch, offering no compatibility with existing platforms. As John Gruber has persuasively argued, it was that incompatibility more than anything else that doomed the Mac to its small market share. It is simply too difficult to sell a computer that forces consumers to throw away everything they have learned and done before. The iPad does not have this weakness: it builds on the iPhone, which in turn built on the iPod and iLife and Safari and Mac OS X, which in turn built on the classic Mac OS and NeXTSTEP. The Mac started with three applications (MacWrite, MacPaint, and Multiplan); the iPad will start with over 100,000. The iPad, like the iPhone, also starts with the web, the most critical and adaptable “application” of all.
The iPad will therefore not succumb to the usual new platform Catch-22 of having neither enough market share to attract software, nor enough software to build market share. But will Apple resist the temptation to add new features until an iPad requires as much training and expertise as a general-purpose personal computer? It’s much too early to tell, but the design decisions Apple has made to date suggest an encouraging restraint. They are helped by the fact that the iPhone and iPad can be huge successes without trying to be all things to all users. Customers who need a more flexible and complicated device can buy one, but most will be perfectly happy with an iPad. As new uses and technologies become mainstream Apple can incorporate them, while ensuring that the simplicity and usability of the platform is protected.
As a developer I have mixed feelings about this incipient new age. I remember when the U.S. telecommunications system was run by a benevolent monopoly, with awesome reliability and ease of use, and equally awesome resistance to change. Ma Bell imposed a narrow bottleneck for technological progress, a bottleneck that was ultimately smashed by the anarchic personal computer market. It was the wide-open personal computer that let hobbyist developers write and sell BBS systems, PPP drivers, and ultimately web browsers — without having to first ask permission. It is not difficult to imagine some great new idea dying because it can’t get through the App Store, or because the developer decides it is not even worth trying.
That said, I fervently hope that the iPad does represent a new world for computers. We developers build things to help people, but it is all too easy to focus on the things rather than the people. Today’s computers are wonderful, but they aren’t good enough for people. The iPad is another chance to do better.