Future Shock

I'll have more to say on the iPad later but one can't help being struck by the volume and vehemence of apparently technologically sophisticated people inveighing against the iPad.

Some are trying to dismiss these ravings by comparing them to certain comments made after the launch of the iPod in 2001: "No wireless. Les space than a Nomad. Lame.". I fear this January-26th thinking misses the point.

What you're seeing in the industry's reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock.

For years we've all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the 'average person'. I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort.

Secretly, I suspect, we technologists quite liked the idea that Normals would be dependent on us for our technological shamanism. Those incantations that only we can perform to heal their computers, those oracular proclamations that we make over the future and the blessings we bestow on purchasing choices.

Ask yourself this: in what other walk of life do grown adults depend on other people to help them buy something? Women often turn to men to help them purchase a car but that's because of the obnoxious misogyny of car dealers, not because ladies worry that the car they buy won't work on their local roads. (Sorry computer/car analogy. My bad.)

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.

Not the entire world, though. The people whose backs have been broken under the weight of technological complexity and failure immediately understand what's happening here. Those of us who patiently, day after day, explain to a child or colleague that the reason there's no Print item in the File menu is because, although the Pages document is filling the screen, Finder is actually the frontmost application and it doesn't have any windows open, understand what's happening here.

The visigoths are at the gate of the city. They're demanding access to software. they're demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.

People talk about Steve Jobs' reality distortion field, and I don't disagree that the man has a quasi-hypnotic ability to convince. There's another reality distortion field at work, though, and everyone that makes a living from the tech industry is within its tractor-beam. That RDF tells us that computers are awesome, they work great and only those too stupid to live can't work them.

The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get "real work" done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the "real work".

It's not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party.

Think of the millions of hours of human effort spent on preventing and recovering from the problems caused by completely open computer systems. Think of the lengths that people have gone to in order to acquire skills that are orthogonal to their core interests and their job, just so they can get their job done.

If the iPad and its successor devices free these people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people's perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. I find it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn't a price worth paying to have a computer that isn't frightening anymore.

In the meantime, Adobe and Microsoft will continue to stamp their feet and whine.