Why the iPad is the first real computer

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I don’t have a pundit’s drunken courage to say that this first iPad is going to be a smash hit. But I don’t think it puts me too far out on a limb to say that we might look back on it in a few decades and say, “Hey, that was the first real computer.”

That’ll be a gross simplification, of course. Nerds of 2040 will sigh and rattle off any number of previous computers if someone makes that claim. But even those nerds will have to concede that the iPad marked the beginning of appliance computing, when physical devices and interfaces receded into the background and touch gave us an entirely new intimacy with our information.

Open and Closed

The strangest thing about the iPad is that Steve Jobs is still wearing blue jeans. When Jobs and Woz founded Apple over 30 years ago, surely no one thought that we’d be stepping out of the swirling mists of 2010, full-featured computers firmly in our hands, swaddled not in skintight jumpsuits but in Levi’s.

Automobiles had been around for 30 years before Henry Ford put together the first Model T. Those previous attempts at a mass-market car were critical to Ford’s success, but it’s Ford we remember.

The iPad isn’t the most capable machine out there. It’s not a multitasker. It has only a 1GHz processor. It has a closed file system and a closed application market. Despite Apple’s claptrap about “HD,” the iPad has a low-resolution display. Except for today’s relatively inexpensive flash memory, anyone could have built a similar device five years ago for not too much more money.

But the iPad’s limitations are also its strength. Because they’re uniform across the platform, developers can work with and around them. The same kind of uniformity has allowed video game consoles to stay competitive with—and sometimes eclipse—more-powerful gaming hardware. The graphics on the Xbox 360 still seem modern because programmers have had five years to learn how to wring every last bit of capability from it.

Uniformity makes the user experience better, too: The Wii isn’t a powerful machine, but you can be sure that every single Wii application works on every Wii console. Simply to have a computer—even a relatively low-powered one—that I can always rely on to work is itself revolutionary.

The iPad won’t be all things to all people. Those of us who need raw power will still have our Macs and our PCs and our mainframes for years to come. But I think we’ll find that dainty two-stroke computers like the iPad are surprisingly versatile. (Did you know that there’s already a video-editing app for the iPhone 3GS? It’s not very good, but it works.) As long as these appliances offer us unfettered connections to the Internet, who cares whether or not we have access to the file system?

(I also think Apple should allow third-party software repositories, for people who are willing to risk it. It’s like with aftermarket parts for cars: In most states, dealers can void a car’s warranty if they can prove an aftermarket part actually damaged the vehicle. I’m all for reliable systems, but it should not be illegal to trade that reliability for freedom if you so choose.)

How Touching

Touch interfaces aren’t inherently better than mouse-and-keyboard interaction. They can feel a bit like visiting your data through the glass wall of a prison visitation chamber: You see it through the reinforced glass, but you can’t really touch it.

But it’s surprising how many things touch does improve—Web browsing, gaming, manipulation of 3D objects, and on and on. It’s to Apple’s great credit that it took an interface that had been mangled by half-hearted implementations for years and made it work. And by showing that touch could work, Apple opened up an entire new dimension of interaction with information (much the way Nintendo did with motion on the Wii).

The iPad is a step in the right direction, a step we’ve waited 30 years to take. I can’t wait to see what new things we’ll do with it in the decades to come—that is, until the next revolution comes along, the one we’ll herald as the next first real computer.

[Joel Johnson wrote this bio on an iPad and only made about six mistakes. He lives in Oregon. A version of this article appeared in the June 2010 print edition of Macworld.]

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