Apple’s New Concept: Easy Computing

So Apple announced its long awaited tablet this week, and many have commented, analysed, cried in despair and praised the oversized iPod. One thing that I have seen yet though is a deeper look at what it means for the computer world and computer users going forward. I’ll take a stab at it.

What Aunt Edna Needs

It seems that at least half the tech world is disappointed that they won’t be able to code C# or run photoshop on their iPad. I humbly believe that this is due to a very deep misunderstanding of the concept that Apple introduced this past Wednesday. Indeed, more than just a new device, they have created a new kind of machine, that many of their competitors will try to replicate in the coming months and years:

The “easy computer”. Or “everyday computer”, or “home computer” or “casual computer”. I chose to call it the former, but this is what it essentially boils down to: in the past 10 to 15 years, many people have begun “needing” computers to do very simple things. Email, photos, the web, etc. They never needed computers before, and the computers we know weren’t designed for them, or even to handle these simple tasks. Computers as we know them were designed for intensive, professional, serious uses. Think of your mom, your uncle, your grand parents… They do not need, nor do they really want a complicated machine to do all these tasks. How long has your aunt Edna been using a computer, and how long has she stubbornly refused to learn how to install a program, how the file system works, or the difference between Internet Explorer and Firefox. More importantly, she doesn’t care about all this. She wants to answer her email, go to that cooking website she likes, and look at the soccer practice pictures you sent her. Remember: your aunt Edna is not you. You might care, but to her these are over complicated and useless headaches.

All these “new users” (who didn’t care about computers until 10 years ago) don’t really use a computer to its fullest. They only came to computers with these uses that have been created recently. Let’s take an arbitrary number: most, if not all of the time, they use 20% of the computer’s capabilities, and the other 80% are in the way. Well, an “easy computer” will provide them with these 20% they need, hassle free.

The Easy Computer

Here’s the best analogy I could find: a PC can do gaming. Some might argue that it’s even the best gaming platform out there. Yet the real gaming industry is on consoles. Why? They are simple. You hook them up to your TV and you start playing. Sure, some games are huge on the PC, but most games will sell more on an Xbox or a PS3. I’m talking about “real” gaming (another argument could be made here about what the Wii is, but it would actually only support the point of this article). This comes to the great despair of the same purists who will belittle the iPad for not being able to achieve the same thing as a “real” computer: “a console isn’t as cool as a PC!” they’d say. That’s not the point. It’s not supposed to be. I’d encourage you to think of the iPad as the equivalent of game consoles, but for “casual computing”.

Don’t get me wrong: it is fair to criticize the iPad itself. No webcam is a disappointment, no Flash support is annoying, no multitask is downright painful. But make no mistake: your aunt Edna won’t care. She’ll see a nice, cute, easy to use tool that will enable her to do all these things she does on her big, clunky computer. And without the fear of messing something up. And guess what: you’ll be happy too, because she won’t have to call you every other week to fix something she did because she refuses to learn how to use that big computer (most of which she doesn’t need anayway).

The Netbook argument

Many people say they wanted something more akin to a netbook. A “real” OS that they can tinker with and use “like a mini computer”. But these netbooks fail: try as they might, they are not a real computer. They are small, they lack power, and their OS isn’t designed for that form factor. Again, I’m certain that some people have a need for them, but they are in the minority.
The point is: netbooks try to do too much, and they do nothing well. An “easy computer” will do less, but it will do it well. And for most people, that “less” is all they need.

The Concept

It might not be obvious, but I’m not really talking about the iPad here. I’m talking about the idea that the iPad introduces. It’s a new idea, that seems obvious once we’ve understood it: computers don’t have to be what we think computers are. They can be more simple, more usable, less capable, and more adapted to the uses that some (most?) people have. Apple isn’t the first company to try and achieve this. In a sense, netbooks were trying this also, and I’m certain many others have tried before. But they have failed, on the large, wide consumer market sense of things. Just like others had failed at MP3 players or smartphones before Apple entered the market. Will the iPad succeed? I think it will (it’s sexy, which is what matters to most), but maybe I’m wrong. What I really don’t think I’m mistaken about though, is this idea that they have  introduced a new concept in the tech world.
Easy Computers are here to stay, and Apple won’t be the only ones to make them…

January 31st, 2010
  • I think one of the biggest hurdles for the IPad will be how easy it is to type on it. Easy computing won’t be easy enough for Aunt Edna if typing is frustrating or a chore, or if you have to dock it onto a keyboard to type well.

  • That might be true, but I think the inconvenience of the software keyboard won’t be enough to hamper the advantages a simple machine. Remember the iPhone? Same complaints were expressed when it first came out. People were coming from the different perspective of only knowing desktops and blackberry or sidekick like smartphones. The iPhone brought something else, and today these same people are applauding the keyboard-less design of the Nexus One.
    Also, the dockable keyboard shouldn’t be dismissed. I’m not saying all “easy computers” will have to be tablets. I personally believe that the iPad will succeed, but for all I know there could be full fledged “desktop simple computers” also. Seems a bit redundant, but Aunt Edna wants what Aunt Edna wants…

  • Excellent thoughts. I do think quite about the same. iPad is the “not-computer” for your aunt or uncle. It’s the “voiture sans permis” of the computers. A sexy and comfy one. Just enough and simple easy for common tasks.

  • PeteWalker74

    I agree with 95% of what you said. The arbitrary 5% revolves around “easy” or more what I’m thinking “trouble free”. I bought an iMac recently for my folks, believing “it just works”. Now I realize nothing is perfect, but the iPad just like any other device, does have its shortcomings, because it uses Safari, and doesn’t have Flash. Two major show-stoppers for my folks (i.e. The Aunt Ednas). So, this may not “just work” for that audience.

  • Greg

    There have been a few articles written about this sort of thing, so never fear! You’re not alone.

    I’ve found most of these from reading John Gruber’s, who’s been making blog entries about who “gets it.” The least of which is not his own take: “Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission.” ( )

    Jim Stogdill also uses an automotive metaphor and compares the iPad to the Prius: “It’s been a long time since most of us have used our computers to do anything approaching ‘computing,’ but the iPad explicitly leaves the baggage behind, leaps the conceptual gulf, and becomes something else entirely. Something consumery, media’ish, and not in the least bit intimidating.” ( )

    Fraser Speirs wrote an excellent item under the heading of Future Shock: “I’m often saddened by the infantilising effect of high technology on adults. From being in control of their world, they’re thrust back to a childish, mediaeval world in which gremlins appear to torment them and disappear at will and against which magic, spells, and the local witch doctor are their only refuges. With the iPhone OS as incarnated in the iPad, Apple proposes to do something about this, and I mean really do something about it instead of just talking about doing something about it, and the world is going mental.” ( )

    My favorite, so far, is Steven Frank’s untitled blog entry. He writes, “The thing is, to talk about specific hardware (like the iPad or iPhone or Nexus One or Droid) is to miss entirely the point I’m about to try to make. … So, I’m going to try to completely avoid talking about those sorts of things. Let’s instead establish some new terminology: Old World and New World computing.” ( )

    I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of these in the next two months, at which time we’ll begin to see if the iPad is successful or not based on sales. Let’s hope so, because if the iPad dies on the vine, other manufacturers might not want to create their own “simple computers” and we’ll be stuck doing our Aunt Edna’s tech support for another decade, at least.

  • Thanks for the links Greg. I’ll take a look at them tonight, but it feels good to hear that I’m not alone! 🙂

  • Hey there,

    Glad to read this kind of analysis. I would add another type of customers interested in the Ipad: ourselves. Aunt Edna is definitely the first target, but let’s look at what we do as an heavy user.

    I consider myself as a heavy user: I play games, do some editing (photos and videos) and at work, I have at least 10-15 docs open all the time (–> multi tasking). So you would think the Ipad is not for me.

    However, I think it is. When I am at home, i realized that 80% of the time, what i do is “easy / light computer” as you say: browsing the web, going on facebook / twitter, listening to music, etc…

    If apple can provide me a device that will improve my user experience 80% of my time, I will buy the Ipad. Of course, it won’t replace my main computer i use for heavy computing, but I will buy the Ipad and will enjoy a better experience than using my desktop computer (use it in bed, on balcony, better battery life than my laptop, i can take it in the plane easily, etc…) for 80% of my time.

    This creates a new market segment, and that’s what apple intends to do

  • hey patrick, when’s the next phileas club?

  • Should be this Saturday, as seen in the schedule. 🙂

  • Sylvain

    Totally agree with Nicolo! as a heavy user, i will really enjoy to do the 80% of my time with light computing comfortably installed on a couch or bed or wathever situation in mobility or at home 😉

  • Pingback: mugg » Le nouveau concept d’Apple : l’informatique facile()