There’s a device in the movie Minority Report that predicts the future for Tom Cruise. I think most of us would call it a computer, but it’s obviously fantasy, hardly like modern computers. Still, it works basically like a modern computer, giving output in response to input.
I think that’s pretty close to our collective vision of the future of computers. I remember when the movie was first released there was a lot of talk about the gesture interfaces, the instant video playback, etc. These were discussions about what kind of computers we might use some day. Strangely, I don’t remember anyone asking how you’d play Minesweeper on that thing.
Seriously, as amazing as that thing was, all signs pointed to it being completely unable to run Minesweeper. That computer had only one application. It was a complicated application, but there was no way to quit it so you could open another application like Minesweeper. Not only was there no way to open Minesweeper, you couldn’t even open a browser to download the application bundle, nor open your file browser to move it into your applications directory.
Tom Cruise should have been furious when he found out his employer spent so much on such a crippled device. But he wasn’t. And he wasn’t for the same reason no one cares that they can’t upgrade the firmware on their TV: when a device does one task, it’s not really a computer.
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, so I’ll just get to it: Apple’s new iPad is not a computer. With the exception of quitting applications, everything you can’t do on the Minority Report prediction machine is similarly impossible on the iPad. It’s a device with a more specific purpose than general computing. That purpose isn’t very specific, but it also isn’t general computing. It’s specific enough that you don’t need access to the file system and you don’t need to run multiple applications at the same time. A lot of people are bothered by this specificity; I think those people are largely missing the point.
Did you know Nintendo’s Wii doesn’t have a photo editor application? You probably did, but you never really thought of the possibility, because you don’t think of it as a computer. It has games, a browser, email, a photo viewer, and many other applications you find on a computer, but it’s clearly not a computer.
Why not? Part of the non-computer designation is the lack of multitasking or file system access. But I think most of it is the branding. The Wii is a gaming console from a company that makes gaming consoles. The iPhone, on the other hand, is a phone from a company that makes computers. It’s hard not to think of it as a computer, to remember it’s primarily a phone.
It’s even more difficult to think of the iPad as something other than a computer, because it doesn’t fit into another existing category. If it’s not a computer, what is it? Apple didn’t help answer this question with the name. It’s a pad? Well, no, that doesn’t really evoke enough to distract us from the underlying computer. It’s not even close to how our TV’s computers are completely abstracted away.
I don’t have a good name for this new type of device that isn’t quite a computer. John Gruber made a good analogy to the introduction of automatic transmissions in cars. They made cars a lot easier to drive, but also a more difficult to tinker with, a little less powerful. Maybe we should call these new devices automatic computers.
Whatever we call them, I think they are the future, and conventional computers will in time be relegated to a category of device only computing professionals use. As a computing professional, that’s not exactly a happy thought for me. But as a computer user, that’s great. When I’m not moving files around to do some serious computing, I’d like nothing more than for the filesystem to disappear, for all other applications to quit, and for my focus to be entirely on what I’m doing.
Indeed, I’m doing that right now, composing this in WriteRoom, an full-screen text editor. It’s not at all difficult to see how most people would prefer this experience all the time. A week ago, I was thinking the iPhone’s interface was limited because the hardware capabilities are limited. I expected it to get more and more like a computer over time.
Now I expect the iPhone and the iPad to grow further and further away from traditional computer interfaces. The process of exiting one iPhone application and opening another, for example, is still clumsy in terms of exposing an underlying process I really don’t care about. I don’t want to stop talking on the phone, exit my phone application, go to my home screen, and open my email application to write an email. I just want to stop talking and start writing.
Part of me still wants to play Minesweeper on the prediction machine, but I think I’ll forget about that when I have a separate Minesweeper machine. Now that computers are starting to fade into the background, it’s important for those of us closest to computers to remember: this is a good thing.