While I’m a fairly hardcore tech geek, AAW isn’t (currently) that kind of site at all. Still, I wanted to put some thoughts down in writing mainly so I can refer back to a publicly published opinion in a few years as proof that I either accurately predicted things, or was spectacularly wrong. On account of the thematic mismatch, I’ve intentionally backdated this post so it doesn’t get in the way of the anime goodness.
I also note that nothing here is original—it’s all been said by other people many times. I’m just reiterating the opinions I think are right.
Anyway: The iPad, iPhone, and where computing is heading.
First, just to note (and I had this opinion back when I bought my father an iPad a week after it launched), the people who were saying that it’s just a big iPod/iPhone and the ones who were saying it was revolutionary and was going to change everything were, of course, both right. It is just a big iPod, and that’s exactly why it’s revolutionary—Apple decided, I believe correctly, that the iPhone/iPod Touch is all the computer a substantial majority of everyday folk need or want. Its only limitation was the tiny screen, which inherently limits what you can do with it, so they put exactly the same device behind a bigger screen, and bingo, you have the portable computer for the proverbial everyman.
I’m a geek. I do tech support for a lot of people. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people do not know how to use their computer. Not because they’re stupid, it just takes a lot more thinking and understanding of the thing than they’re willing to put in, because it’s a tool, not a goal in and of itself. To use the long-since-beaten-to-death car analogy, I don’t know how to rebuild the engine of my car, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid or shouldn’t be driving it. It just means that it’s a complicated thing with a simple user interface. So is the inside of your TV—you don’t know how it works, but you know how to turn it on, change the channel, and adjust the volume.
Computers aren’t like that. They’re supposed to be easy, but they’re not. They’re complicated things designed to give far more options and freedom than the average user needs—or, more importantly, wants.
The iPad strips away the unnecessary options and complexity and interface abstractions to let the average person do what they want—check their email, surf the web, watch some stuff on YouTube, play some games, and download some special purpose apps for whatever it is they personally want their computer to do. It doesn’t require understanding much of anything, and—very importantly—it doesn’t break (in the software sense). I get paid good money to go to people’s houses and un-screw-up their computers, because keeping a modern all-purpose computer running smoothly is a dark art. I don’t care what you say about how easy or dumbed-down the OS is, or how bulletproof the software is, it just barely works, and people are afraid of breaking it by looking at it wrong. The iPad takes some of that away.
The real analogy is console gaming versus PC gaming. Leaving aside the update-creep in recent-generation console games, it breaks down pretty clearly, and has for the past roughly two and a half decades: If you buy a console, it does nothing but play games, and it isn’t going to look as fancy as an expensive gaming computer, but you’re pretty sure that when you stick the cartridge/card/disc into the thing and push the on button, the game will work. It doesn’t cost all that much, gives a good experience, and is bulletproof. To top it off, most software is heavily vetted (Nintendo Seal of Approval, anyone?), so while there is less of it than in a free-for-all, you’re pretty sure what is there will do more or less what it claims to.
Doesn’t mean that console games are better or worse than PC games, just that there are legitimate tradeoffs, tradeoffs that many—the large majority, depending on how you count—people are willing to make. Like me—I’d much rather spend a couple hundred bucks on a console that I know will be good for several years, and that will just work when I stuff a game in it than a couple of grand on a gaming rig that will be outdated in six months and will require regular updates, patches, driver adjustment, etc to keep in tip-top shape. Other people go for that, and more power to them. Just like other people go for turbocharged, tricked-out Honda Civics instead of reliable, un-tricked-out Civics or even stock, “easy” sports cars like a Corvette or Eclipse .
The point here is that, to date, the only option has been the equivalent of gaming computers—they do far more and are drastically more powerful than the average person cares about. The problem was that there wasn’t a general purpose console computer as an alternative. Until now.
Case in point: My dad. He’s in his mid-80s, and is a very smart guy. He taught me to use a computer, and is quite capable with his desktop computer. But when I got him an iPad—to use as a large-type e-reader only—he took to it immediately, and uses it more than his desktop. I don’t get asked technical questions or to fix things anymore, because it just works. Almost no learning curve at all, to boot.
Does this mean that “traditional” computing is dead? No. It just means that what we’ve treated as a “real” computer to date is, in fact, the souped-up, professional-grade monster that, fact of the matter is, the average person doesn’t actually need. Apple sees this, and that’s why they’re ahead of the curve and Microsoft—who as a company seems to still be convinced that the average user actually wants Windows—is flailing.
My prediction: Apple will, within a year or two probably, release a desktop iMac style computer that runs iOS. People will mock it as a toy, just like they did with everything else Apple has released in the last several years, but it will sell increasingly well. Within ten years—2020, which is a nice convenient Cyberpunk number—the majority of computing devices sold, desktop or portable, will run iOS, Android, or a similarly simplified, console-style OS.
Windows, MacOS, and Linux in their traditional form will still be around, but as “pro” machines for professionals, geeks, hobbyists, and people who actually need that kind of horsepower and flexibility. Photoshop jockeys, gamers, number crunchers, me. But everybody else—including “pros” when they’re not working—will use a console computer. Car analogy, “real” computers (which is a stupid term—“traditional” is what they really are) are big trucks, construction vehicles, and exotic sports cars; console computers are everything else you see on the way to work.
Second prediction: Nobody “wins.” I’m sick and tired of reading how Android or iPhone are “winning” or “losing” the smartphone war. It’s a war, yes, but only in that they’re competitors; there is no reason whatsoever that there be only one “winner.” It happened, more or less, with old-school desktop OSes in the ’90s, but this is not the ’90s. These days if it does email, the web, and maybe sudoku, it’s good enough for a lot of people—that’s all that matters. Document cross-compatability is dying, and along with it the idea that if your platform can’t run Microsoft Office it isn’t worth using. Microsoft probably realized this a long time ago, and that’s why they tried so hard to stall the web with IE6, ActiveX, etc—they could see it would eventually render their monopoly irrelevant, and that’s exactly what has happened. The barrier to entry is far, far lower now.
I don’t think Apple wants, in as much as a company can want anything, to own 100% of the computing market. I think they will be quite happy to own, say, 50-70% of the top third of that market, give or take, plus some portion of the middle tier. I’ll bet that the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch/iWhateverIsNext ends up with, say, 20-30% of the new console computing/phone computing market in five years. And I think they’ll be perfectly happy with that, making snazzy devices and piles of money (don’t forget that Apple is making more profit from 3% of phone handsets than more or less the entire rest of the industry combined—I don’t think they’re too disappointed with that kind of “loss”).
Flavors of Android will probably have a substantial share, including a bunch of the bottom, as will, in all likelihood, the successor to Win Phone 7 (or whatever they’re calling it this week), and maybe HP’s WebOS and other new platforms as well. Nobody will “win” any more than anybody “won” the TV market, or car market, or refrigerator market, or any other appliance market.
We will, of course, see.
To repeat: Console computing is the future, but traditional computers won’t go away entirely either, and nobody is going to win the smartphone war.