The Tech Industry and the iPad’s Appeal

Here’s the introduction of David Pogue’s review of the iPad 2 in The New York Times from when it
was released back in March:

“An utter disappointment and abysmal failure” (Orange County Web Design Blog). “Consumers seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it” (Businessweek). “Insanely great it is not” (MarketWatch). “My god, am I underwhelmed” (Gizmodo).

Good heavens! What a critical drubbing! Whatever it is must be a real turkey. What could it be?

Only the fastest-selling gadget in the history of electronics: the Apple iPad.

I love it when folks trot out the ridiculous proclamations of the insular and groupthink-prone technical press, so great opening so far as far as I’m concerned. Pogue continues:

All right, let’s not pile onto the tech critics. The thing is, they were right, at least from a rational standpoint. The iPad was superfluous. It filled no obvious need. If you already had a touch-screen phone and a laptop, why on earth would you need an iPad? It did seem like just a big iPod Touch.

But as it turns out, the iPad’s appeal is more emotional than rational. Once you get it in your hands, you get caught up in the fascination of manipulating on-screen objects by touching them.

This is where it falls apart for me.

The appeal of the iPad is entirely rational. Indeed, the degree to which the technology industry – both journalists like Pogue and companies building competing products – still fails to
“get” the iPad. The seeming contradiction between the quotes at the beginning of Pogue’s review on the one hand and the tremendous popularity of the iPad on the other shows just how hard it
is for most people steeped in technology to understand how “normal people” view their computers. (For what it’s worth, I include myself in this indictment.)

In short, the iPad is a huge hit because most people don’t love their computers. Full stop. Yes, even Mac users.

The conventional wisdom is that Windows users hate their computers, but Mac users love theirs. I think this is generally true in the sense that the alternative reality that is the horror of
Windows makes Mac users love their machines in the same way that someone who survives an airplane scare might kiss the ground when they land.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that many, if not most, “normal” Mac users aren’t still generally confused and overwhelmed a decent amount of the time. What’s one of the first things people
do with new computers? Download software from the Internet. How does that work on the Mac (before the Mac App Store)? Usually, you download this virtual disk thing called a disk image, mount
it, and drag the application to the Applications folder. You probably have no idea what a disk image or a virtual disk is, you probably don’t know what the Applications folder is because
you’ve just bought this computer and you’ve just been using the Dock to launch apps, and you probably don’t know you can install things by dragging and dropping. I’ve been encouraging
friends and coworkers to switch to Macs for years. When the switcher is a “normal” person (i.e. just about anyone), they always trip over this process.

What if you want to uninstall? If the app is in the Applications folder, most people will probably just ignore it forever, and maybe that’s not so bad. If the app icon is in the Dock, they
might figure out you can drag the icon out of the Dock, and if they do make it that far, they’ll probably assume that uninstalled the app. Oops.

Before you start protesting that the Mac App Store fixes a lot of this, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Application installation is just one of many comparatively byzantine
tasks one must deal with when using a full-blown “personal computer.” For example, on a Mac, what’s the difference between closing an app’s last window and quitting the app? The point is
that personal computers are very complicated and most people still find them confusing.

Consider the alternative provided by iOS generally, and the iPad specifically. Sticking to focusing on installing apps, you go to one place to find apps: the App Store. It’s pre-installed and on your home screen. Installing apps is always a one-click process. When you install an app, the App Store app closes and shows you exactly where the app can be found on your home screen. When you want to delete it, you tap-and-hold and tap the little “x” button. Done and done. (Admittedly, gestures are inherently hard to discover, so maybe many people don’t know how to uninstall the app.) It’s hard to imagine the process being much simpler.

When a “normal” person uses an iOS device, the simplicity is striking compared to what they’ve come to expect from computers. My mother and father-in-law aren’t computer savvy at all and
don’t have a computer at home. I would never recommend they buy a PC or a Mac over an iPad. The iPad is by far the superior choice, even considering some of the annoyances that might come
with it like the lack of a physical keyboard when trying to type anything long (yes, I know you can use a Bluetooth keyboard).

Simplicity and ease-of-use are paramount. It’s a testament to just how badly the industry as a whole has failed and continues to fail on this score.

I don’t believe the response people have to an iPad is “more emotional than rational” at all. Purchasing a product you use more and curse at less is entirely rational.