In the early 1980’s, I was a very young software developer working at HP Labs, and this was when personal computers had been out just a few years. The computers were getting faster and more powerful every few months, yet users really struggled to interact with them. The head of our research lab, Joel Birnbaum, posed the question: “Why do most people not like their computers?”
Sadly, I would argue that the situation hasn’t changed all that much since then.
I was in an airport just a couple days ago watching a couple sales professionals from some tech company cursing out loud at their PC because some software got installed by their IT department, and now they couldn’t run their demo.
Sure, those of us in the industry are usually okay, but how many of you, like me, have to spend time on the phone helping relatives that have messed up their computer, or trying to figure out just what your kid installed that has slowed the computer to a crawl?
As far as I’m concerned, Windows is still stuck in the 1980’s. A Mac is better, but it’s still very obviously a computer.
Joel argued that the answer was to be found in the children’s book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In that story, a boy meets a fox, and the fox tells him, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you want a friend, tame me. One only understands things that one has tamed.” This inspired his vision of “the domesticated computer,” one that would adapt to people rather than asking people to adapt to it.
I remember that we thought we could do this within 10 years. Well, that turned out to be pretty optimistic, and it wasn’t us that did it.
Yesterday I picked up my iPad, and after having spent the past 24 hours with it, I would argue that the world now has its first domesticated computer.
People are talking about how it’s such a great media device – optimized for things like reading books or magazines, watching videos, and playing games. But I would argue that while this is true, the reason is because it’s the first “computer” where the computer itself didn’t get in the way of the user experience. You can just simply use it.
For the most part, a finger and some normal gestures are all you need to do most typical activities. Certainly the iPhone got us all ready for this model, but the iPad takes the interaction model further in that it’s both immersive and invisible at the same time. Things like keyboards, a mouse, menus and modes all get in the way of the actual experience, and the iPad largely does away with all that, and it’s just you and your content.
One of the things Joel did to communicate his vision of the domesticated computer was to commission an artist to create a poster which he then gave copies out to all of us. I did save the poster for several years because I really liked it, but it’s long gone and I tried to find an image online but unfortunately this was before digital cameras so no luck. But if my memory serves me correctly, it was a peaceful scene of a woman sitting alone at her breakfast table, with a cup of coffee and a view of the Bay out her window, and her computer is this unobtrusive, stress-free companion. The iPad would have been right at home.
Congratulations to everyone at Apple that worked on this device and the ecosystem that supports it.