The iPad: Epic success for users

As much as I hate to hand the future of end user computing to a single company, the iPad is da bomb!

You read last week's Backspin (you did, didn't you?) so you'll know it included a riposte from my old friend and verbal sparring partner, Winn Schwartau, to my April column "Curse You, Users."

Winn's contention was that "in so many ways, the IT community can be legitimately accused of Epic Fail. We have overestimated users beyond comprehension and that is our fault. There are three million of us geeks and three billion of them. Mark and I are both right, but seem to disagree on how high the digital literacy bar should be."

Winn raised a really interesting point: How high should the digital literacy bar be? Another way of thinking of that is, how low can it go and still make computers useful?

Just consider Microsoft Bob. Launched on an unsuspecting public in 1995, Bob was Microsoft's answer to making Windows PCs friendlier and more accessible to the average user.

IN PICTURES: Microsoft's most glorious failures

What Bob showed the market was two things: First, Microsoft could make huge, expensive and inconceivably ridiculous mistakes; and second, "dumbing down" the user interface doesn't solve the problem of making the average user more comfortable with using a computer and more productive.

When I say "dumbing down" I really mean it. Microsoft Bob was death by metaphor, turning even the simplest operations into labyrinthine tasks involving "assistants," animated software characters that were supposed to help you but really just served to annoy the crap out of you.

And, of course, these assistants eventually lead to the execrable Clippy, one of a handful of the most annoying conceits ever spawned by the insane engineers and designers trapped in the Microsoft laboratories. (Smithsonian Magazine called Clippy "one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing.")

Microsoft eventually realized that Bob wasn't so much a failure -- it was more of a disaster -- and dropped the product like it was radioactive. Which brings me to the whole issue of how to make computers simpler for users.

The answer is not to dumb down computers but to dumb them up; make the hardware and software so well designed that the barriers to understanding and productivity are minimal. And what product has managed to achieve this lofty goal? Roll the drums, please ... the Apple iPad.:

As much as I hate to hand the future of end user computing to a single company, the iPad is da bomb! It really is. Not for heavyweight stuff like Adobe's Photoshop or Wolfram's Mathematica, but rather for everyday programs such as document creation and editing and handling email.

'MAGICAL': 5 most unusual iPad incidents: From kidney selling to burning replicas

Is the Apple iPad the only game in town? Of course not, there are some other really nice pad-style hardware platforms out there, but none of them have the right software and many have poor hardware.

BlackBerry's PlayBook? Nice, but RIM made some dumb design decisions with it, such as charging only works while the device is on and it doesn't come with an email client (you have to tether to a BlackBerry phone to handle email). And tablets running Windows 7 tend to look like a collection of spare parts flying in formation. Android? Much better than the others, but compared to the iPad it subtly misses. It's just not as, well, elegant. It takes users too much time to get things done and each vendor does its own thing with the Android operating system.

On the other hand I could give an iPad to pretty much anyone and in a couple of hours at most, they'd be more-or-less competent. They could run most apps and get real work done and my support duties would be minimal (w00t!).

Of course, that's not to say that the iPad is enterprise material just yet; total centralized management of a collection of iPads is something that Apple has, for whatever reasons, ignored so far (although I'm guessing that Apple has plans for such a feature in the works for a future release ... actually, I'd be shocked if they didn't), but even so, what the average numbnut ... er, user can achieve with an iPad with little or no training is insane compared to the learning curve that a PC or a Mac presents.

Moreover, enterprises have no choice ... iPads are creeping in at an incredible rate because they are cheap and users can get real work done with them easily. You thought the notebook and smartphone invasions were disruptive! You've seen nothing yet.

STUDY: Ready or not, iPads, other tablets are in the enterprise

This is, I contend, not so much because the iPad lowers the bar for what we expect of users and, in turn, what they expect from a computing device, but rather because the iPad lowers the bar to the ground and shows the user what to do. For example, the iPad removes concerns about where the data is and how to manage its storage and instead focuses on what the data is and how it can be used.

And iPad applications are cheap and easily explored and researched making it easier to find the best software to get stuff done.

Winn's right, in general we have overestimated the users' abilities and, worse still, overestimated our ability to make users effective and productive.

But all is not lost: The iPad shows that the industry, or at least one company, can get it right and change the value proposition of what computers can deliver and how. The iPad hasn't made users smarter or computers easier ... it's made how we interact with computers more intuitive and now it's up to the rest of the industry to catch up. It's an Epic Success.

Gibbs is caught up in Ventura, Calif. Your level to

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Configuration / maintenancetelecommunicationPCioshardware systemsWindowsAndroidWindows 7mobileData Centeroperating systemsiPadAppleconsumer electronicsMicrosoftsmartphonesMobile OSestabletssoftwareapplications

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Mark Gibbs

Network World
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Best Deals on Good Gear Guide

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott


My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?