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