Believe the hype – iPads will change the way we use computers

by Randy Tsang

  • A paradigm shift in human-computer interaction
  • The end of the “desktop”

First up, I love Apple. I do have issues with the company, but overall I am a fan and I do own several Apple products. Despite this, as Apple presented the world with their newest device, the iPad, I approached it with suspicion and skepticism as best I could. However, even though there has been a large degree of backlash and cries of hype from the online community and even though I have yet to test this bad boy for myself, I have to say that I am sold. And I do believe that the introduction of the iPad is going to have a significant impact on user interface design and human-computer interaction (HCI) for years to come. As significant an impact as the mouse perhaps, which it may soon render obsolete.

There has been a lot of skepticism before the announcement last Wednesday. Many companies, Apple included, have already tried their hand at a tablet PC. 10 years ago, Bill Gates was convinced that we would all be walking around with them. It looks like he might have  been right all along, albeit a decade later and with help of the Steve Jobs Midas touch.

The way it is being pitched, the iPad is a new category of mobile device. Sitting in between the iPhone and Macbook, the iPad is a mobile device aimed at offering a new and better way of browsing the internet, sending emails, viewing photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games and reading ebooks. From what I have read, this has been a pet project of Steve Jobs for many years now, and it seems that he believes that we are all now ready for such a device.

There are many things that the iPad lacks. Still no Flash support to annoy Adobe. No camera because who really uses it. No multi-tasking to save on battery (which seems to have pissed off Hitler to no end). No OLED to save on costs. These are valid concerns for many and perhaps we will see them introduced in future iterations of the device. Despite this, what we have been presented with is a new method of human computer interaction, a paradigm shift in user interface. Multi-touch, which began life on the iPhone, has found its new home and heralds the beginning of the end for the traditional point and click system and the “desktop interface metaphor” for computer operating systems.

The trigger to make this possible was Apple’s introduction of multi-touch technology on the iPhone in 2007. Science fiction has constantly teased us with fantastic user interfaces that have impressed (e.g. Minority Report’s gesture user interface). What Apple has achieved, is to present us with a new fantastic user interface, without it being too fantastic. 75 million iPhones and iPod Touches have been sold to date, which for many of us makes the transition of moving to a multi-touch tablet device almost seemless. This product is not for geeks. Regular consumers will start using this immediately because for many it will already seem natural to them. It’s the perfect computer for your grandmother or for your one year old!

What the iPad does is to provide a new norm for HCI. The metaphor of the Desktop Operating System was originally developed to make the interface of a personal computer more accessible to its core audience – namely office workers. The filing cabinet is used to access your documents and folders, all your icons were organised on your desktop and deleting files would move it to the trash can. However, as computers were popularised and grew in complexity and as the audience diversified, the desktop metaphor has become obsolete and actually works to hinder our understanding of a computer interface. Installing programs and plugging in devices can prove a chore and can sometimes be an absolute nightmare. In fact I would argue that the desktop metaphor no longer holds any meaning for digital natives, who have grown up unfamiliar with a world before broadband internet. The way they use computers has been defined by their interactions with services such as Facebook and YouTube, with tools such as Google and Wikipedia and devices such as the iPod Touch as demonstrated by the video above. But on the iPad, the process of finding, buying and downloading apps to conduct specific tasks will be second nature to many, because they are already so familiar with the process. This model has become so successful, that other companies have scrambled to launch their own app stores. Stores now exist for your Nintendo DSi, Android mobiles, Tv sets and your car.

In my mind, the iPad will undoubtedly be a success when it launches in a couple of months. In the long term, its influence will be seen in the numerous copycat devices that will undoubtedly be popping up over the next few years. New upcoming technologies will be scrambling to implement a form of multi-touch interface because it is the new norm. If it isn’t the norm now, the attractiveness and affordability of the iPad will soon ensure its ubiquity. In two years time, you will see every student with one of these devices.

The iPad is a next generation device and it is significant.