27 January 2010


I've been remiss in my duties as an interaction designer to make predictions about the Apple iTablet which everyone presumes will be announced in a few hours. Fortunately, John Gruber has said exactly what I think in two posts. So: what he said.

I'm excited.

I have said for many years that there are only five fundamental form factors for personal computing, yet we have only colonized three of them, and one of them only recently: the Desk, the Clamshell, the Tablet, the Pocket Thing, and the Wrist Thing. Barring some kind of categorical VR breakthrough, the Desk is not going to go away in our lifetimes, though we can expect many of the details to change; even in a world that looks more like 10/GUI or Tog's Starfire demo or Apple's old Knowledge Navigator video, you need a place to sit comfortably, a big display, a way to input text, and a way to point to and act on virtual objects on your display. The Clamshell is basically the laptop we have now; it's a small portable Desk, its minimum size defined by the keyboard; barring the Singluarity, I expect that fifty years from now people will still have devices basically indistinguishable in form factor, much as the software running on them will likely change beyond recognition.

I had an epiphany about the Pocket Thing about a decade ago, when I read that in Southeast Asia cellphones had better market penetration than in the US but a majority of phone users there never used their phones for voice. Never! Instead, they used SMS, and games, and electronic calendars, and so forth. At that time I was an early adopter of both the cellphone and of the Palm Pilot, and I was already resenting having two electronic devices in my pocket. So I prophesied that a hundred years from now, everybody would have a powerful computer in their pocket which they would call a “phone” despite telephony being the least of its functions. Only ten years later, that has come true ... if you consider the knowledge workers of the industrialized world “everybody.”

My thinking about the need for a Tablet has always been informed by the one person I've ever met who used the old Apple Newton the way it was intended. He always had it with him, and he wrote everything in it. His secret: he was a paraplegic who always had a lap to set it on, and kept it in a case strapped to his wheelchair right next to his knee. Aside from arriving before silicon was powerful enough to make it work as well as you would want, the Newton was just a little too bulky; unless you were a paraplegic there was always the temptation to leave it behind. But it wouldn't have to be that much smaller to always go in your bag or your hand. Part of the magic of the Moleskine notebook is that it's precisely the right size for that, and what do you know ... that's the exact same size as the Apple iTablet is rumored to be.

Do you doubt that Apple's designers are Moleskine maniacs?

Some skeptics have said that this in-between form will never survive when you can get “the same thing” from either a laptop or a phone. These people have obviously never been in an office full of people precariously running to meetings with a laptop in one hand and a cup of coffee in another, only to discover that they guessed wrong about whether they needed to lug their laptop to that meeting.

Tablet skeptics have also said that the phone is enough as the device that is always with you. You can already get the web from it, they say. But I think that smartphone web surfing is the gateway drug that will make people understand the desirability of a tablet. Having experienced the value of anywhere, any time access to internet resources, which literally changes your life, you come to be frustrated with accessing it through the tiny window of the phone. When I go out for a solo lunch, I have my iPhone in my pocket and a book in my bag, and because the book may not suit my mood while the web is a bottomless ocean of content, I wind up reading from my squinty little phone about as often as I do from the beautiful trade paperback I have at hand. After a year of that, damn straight I'm willing to pay several hundred dollars for an iTablet that's just a bigger version of the same thing.

Especially if it means I can leave that book at home, because my entire library is available to me in one little device. I commented a couple of years ago about the absurdity of shlepping around data in book form. My movers have informed me that I own over three tons of books; that's more than the mass of all of my other possessions put together, including my motorcycle. I now have vivid fantasies about the time, only a few years away, when I can reduce my book collection to a single shelf of beautiful ornamental relics and have my entire library ... and eventually, every book ever published ... with me anywhere, any time.

The question I wonder about with Apple's expected effort is text entry. Just as I want to stop carrying around books, I want to stop using paper notebooks: what I write on paper isn't backed up, isn't searchable, and isn't easily transcribed into other electronic forms like this blog post. The big surprise of the iPhone was its surprisingly effective soft keyboard and I'm expecting that the iTablet is going to have some equally cunning and surprising text input mechanism, linked to some kind of notetaking tool. I cannot believe that Apple has missed that OneNote is the interesting thing about Microsoft's efforts toward a Tablet.

We'll know soon.


d a r k c h i l d e said...

I'm anxiously awaiting the announcement too. As much as I love the feel of 100% rag cotton under my nib-penned hand, I'm also a sucker for the IX of the iPhone and my beloved Droid. (Which if the relationship continues to progress I may be sending out engagement announcements before too long.) You give me something that can consolidate my design sensibilities with my IX demands for usability and I'll have my $$$ in a envelope in Steve Jobs back pocket before you can say "abracadabra".

You think there is any possibility that Kenneth Grant will be an author in their iStore?

Jonathan Korman said...

Considering that my paper library, despite its volume, is actually the distillation after several purges down to the things I love and the things I know would be hard to find again, there is precious little chance right off the bat Apple will be able to replace the much of it with an electronic version right away. But it's only a matter of time.

And once that thing comes out, I'm never buying a paper magazine again.

Rhett Aultman said...

I'm definitely not a tablet skeptic. I'd be in the wrong line of work if I was. I do, however, have to take a moment to say that there is a certain level of tablet exuberance out there that needs tempering.

Within minutes of the iPad announcement, I had friends saying that "the laptop is dead" and "suddenly, keyboard and trackpad input seems...antiquated." Both couldn't be farther from the truth. I actually own a tablet already, and I'm glad it's the sort that switches to a clamshell as needed, because as far as Doing Everything goes, there are some things that tablets are great at and some things they do very poorly.

I actually feel like I have no real opinion on the iPad. The one point of penetration it could have into my life is as a live notebook, but IIRC, it lacks a stylus. Something that is truly book-like, uses a stylus plus multitouch, and has an organization and publishing system is likely to win the day for the "tablet" in my life. I get excited for Microsoft Courier as a result, even if I suspect Microsoft is going to blow it.

Another interesting question...I think Book may be a fundamental form factor that gets overlooked. It's not really a Clamshell and not really a Tablet, and the page-to-page interaction potential seems very useful.

Al said...

People are completely missing the negative effect of having to have someone at Apple personally and whimsically approve any program that you want to run on the device and any updates to the program.

As the many horror stories with the iPhone app store have shown, Apple is more than happy to randomly not allow people to have useful applications (or bug fixes to existing ones), especially if Apple doesn't like the company making it (Google) or makes their own version of an app (which is why we can't put Firefox on the iPhone).

I wouldn't give the government (or my spouse) that much control over my computer so I don't know why I would allow Steve Jobs and minions to determine every program I am allowed to run on a computer that I buy. Of course, he'll be happy to sell me lots of things as long as I buy them through iTunes, thus guaranteeing his geld.