Ode to an iPad

First published October 21, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I really had no idea how much I’d love my iPad. I have to say that it’s now my preferred connection to the online world. Somehow, whether by design or coincidence, Apple has tapped into something primal and intuitive in myself. Judging from other iPad owners I’ve talked to, I suspect I’m not alone. There is a magical thing happening between me and this sleek little device. And whatever it is, it’s important, even prescient. This, I suspect, is our future sitting in our laps.

What’s the Big Deal?

I’ve spent a good part of my life pondering various technology interfaces. Based on this, I really didn’t think the iPad was that big a deal. The reason I got one was because I needed an ebook reader and I felt that the iPad offered me more functionality than a Kindle. But other than the inevitable coolness (or, at least, perceived coolness) that comes with any Apple device, I didn’t see what all the buzz was about. After all, it was just a big iPhone… without the phone. I still had to deal with an all-too-touchy digital keyboard and a rather anemic processor.

But then I got my hands on one. And something rather strange happened. I suspect that Apple may have found the perfect form factor. When you combine the larger screen with multitouch technology, it completely changes how I interacted with my device. It wasn’t something I could have predicted. But everything I did on the iPad just seemed more natural, more enjoyable, more — dare I say it — sensual. This was one sexy little piece of technology.

Love of the Limbic Kind

What happened? There is no new technology here. We’re even using an obsolete OS, for heaven’s sake. There may be no rational reasoning — but I’ll tell you, my irrational mind has fallen in love. Then again, perhaps it has nothing to do with ration. Maybe Apple is just making interactions with technology more primitive, in a good way.

Keyboards are stupid in pretty much every way imaginable. I’ve dedicated several hours of my life to understanding the QWERTY layout so I’m a reasonably proficient touch typist, but the layout still makes no sense — and yes, I’m aware of the history of it vs. the Dvorak keyboard.. The mouse was a step in the right direction, but there was still some rewiring of our brains required to understand that the cursor was really our proxy for our hand movements.  I find track pads a rather poor compromise.

But, to be able to grab something right in front of our eyes and manipulate it, ah — that is touching something hardwired deep in our limbic brain.  To flick, to stroke, to pinch — that is what it means to be human. Up ’til now, our user experiences have had to be jammed in the arbitrary constraints of outdated and illogical interfaces. But the iPad, perhaps more than any other device before it, is letting us be human again. And the experience is intoxicating.

The Human Part of HCI

I felt something of the same rush when I first picked up the iPhone, but the extra real estate of the iPad delivers a compounding effect on the level of the user experience. Perhaps you think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but I suspect that the very humanness of the iPad’s interface could be a game-changer. I’m not the first to say so. This was much of the buzz I discounted when the iPad first came out. But now I’ve had the chance to see what might be behind the game-changing aspects of this device. And ironically, it’s nothing to do with new technology. In fact, it’s wrapping existing technology in a package that nailed the “human” part of the human-computer-interaction equation.

The question that comes to mind is, how might this change the nature of our online experiences? If our entire online history has been built on the paradigm of a keyboard/mouse/monitor interaction, how might that change with a multitouch, interactive screen? And that’s not even including geographically savvy devices, cameras or voice commands. That’s a substantially different paradigm, which will inevitably lead to a substantially different experience. Imagine, interacting with a virtual world where you can picture your surroundings, know where you are, touch the things you’re interacting with and express your intent verbally.  Finally, technology will start to catch up with what it means to be a human.

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