More complex need not equal more difficult

I am horrified at the sight of people vomiting up reactionary, unconsidered or plain wilfully ignorant rhetoric about the iPad, especially when a vanishingly small fraction of the world’s population has actually seen one. To quote, um, myself: if anyone tells you that the iPad “is” anything – especially if they tell you that it “is just” anything – they’re a fool, a cretin and an arsehole. Or, perhaps, merely a bit egotistical, a bit unimaginative, or just ever-so-slightly desirous of generating revenue from the contextual advertising that accompanies their masturbatory ramblings.

Two things strike me as sufficiently important (and sufficiently non-self-explanatory) to warrant my time to write and yours to read. The first is that while that part of the industry – hacks, devs, users, retailers and sundry analysts – which is possessed of adequate humility, imagination or integrity is quietly positing a future in which less time is spent using computers to tend to computers, Apple itself was peculiarly restrained in its stated vision for the iPad. We weren’t told that this was a new computing paradigm. We weren’t told that this was a shift from Old World to New World computing, regardless of how logical that shift might seem. I’ll entertain as plausible the idea that this was because the notion of telling people that ‘the Mac/PC is dead’ is too big to sell – especially to investors – or that, as it stands, Apple’s implementation of the iPhone OS ecosystem is simply too immature to serve as a convincing replacement even for those relatively simple tasks it excels at. But still: it’s notable that it’s the industry that is even debating the future of the personal computer paradigm, not Apple. (Caveat: …at least publicly.)

The second point develops the argument so well-articulated by Steven Frank. (Not familiar with it? It’s impossible to summarise without ripping out the nuance, and that does the thesis a disservice; make time to read it. It’s not dazzlingly original – in a good way; it’s a statement of fact, and facts have only a limited quotient of original – but the case is better made than I’ve seen most people achieve.) And here’s my flourish, my addition to the discussion: for once, technology is decreasing in complexity from the user’s perspective, while increasing in complexity in the absolute. My example of this is a button in the National Rail application for the iPhone, marked ’Next train home’. Tap this button, and the iPhone works out where it is, where the nearest station is and, knowing which is your ‘home’ station, tells you what time the next train you can get is, displaying delays on services as it does so. Think: that’s a colossally complex task. Monumental. Herculean. Involves billions of pounds of infrastructure, enormous gouts of code, uncountable man-hours of work on making sure that this cog works with that cog; alloying just staggering – and staggeringly-different – technologies together.

There has always been a drive to make the complex accessible, to abstract away the mind-buggeringly difficult, and present just the bits we need to see in order to control. (I know how an internal combustion engine works in theory – couldn’t build one – but I can make a car go by pressing the accelerator. I know how the internet works – couldn’t build it – but I can buy a new lens for my SLR by going to Amazon.) The National Rail app, however, is emblematic of a tempo change in this push towards accessibility, usefulness and merit.

I would be disappointed if, by the time I retire, even this use of highly complex and interdependent technology to present a simple, human-centric – ‘human-parsable’ – result is seen as anything other than dreadfully old-fashioned, yet I say again: if the iPad represents a future in which the highly complex isn’t merely made less so, but is mashed up with other stuff to create usefulness far in excess of its constituent parts, then that’s something worth feeling happy about.

Further reading
Steven Frank: I need to talk to you about computers
Fraser Speirs: Future Shock
My post at MacFormat: Is the iPad a computer or a peripheral?
Tom Royal: There are two ways to reduce complexity
John Gruber: Various iPad thoughts (Aaaargh, car analogy!)
Craig Hockenberry: iPad liberation (Describes what I usually refer to as ‘sitting forward’ and ’sitting back’ computing. Has resonance for me as a journalist, as I suspect that one of the reasons e-mags remain niche is because the dominant paradigm for computers is ’sitting forward’, requiring thought and attention, and reeking of work.)

Dog of the Week: Ellie


I was slightly wary of Ellie the Weimaraner, having been told she was ‘in here for a reason’ and being warned that she was dog-aggressive, but as it turned out she was sweet as pie. When we encountered other dogs, I’d just stop, keep her on a short leash, and keep a gentle touch on her head to remind her I was there and I was calm. And in fact, once we were out into the fields, she was nothing short of lovely – very playful, though desperate to be off her lead, and affectionate. And just look at those big floppy ears! More pictures – including her Queen of the World™ pose – on Flickr. (What is Dog of the Week?)

The three questions everyone asks about the Kindle (and why they’re important)

If you know me or follow me on Twitter, you’ll be in no doubt that I own a Kindle 2. (Disclaimer: I love it, though I’ve detailed its shortcomings, especially in the UK, in numerous reviews for titles within Future. Also, affiliate links throughout.) I’ve shown it to many people, and they all ask the same handful of questions. Some ask other questions as well, but the following three almost always crop up within 20 seconds of holding one in your hand. The questions, and the context and implications behind them, are, I think, more interesting than the answers.

Does it do touch?
Damned iPhone. These days, everyone expects handheld devices to have touchscreens. Less than three years ago, despite touchscreen PDAs and some smartphones’ relative popularity with the alpha geeks, very few people would have asked that question at all, never mind as an initial reaction to a new piece of kit. People are disappointed when they learn that the Kindle doesn’t do touch, and that’s remarkable; how did we get from ‘no mainstream devices do touch’ to a position where people feel (not necessarily think) a device is technologically retarded if it uses buttons?

Some research has suggested that devices with touch interfaces create a stronger bond with their owners simply because of their inherent tactility – a geological instant separates an ancestor who would stroke its mate’s fur from a Hoxton metrosexual paging through his contacts by stroking his iPhone’s screen – but I am delighted that Amazon chose, even in the second (and third) iteration of its ereader, to shun touch. Not only does adding a touch substrate, as in the case of Sony’s touch-capable model, decrease the contrast of a screen already a bit muddy compared to an LCD, but the fact that the next/previous page paddles on the Kindle fall naturally under your thumbs as you’re reading means you don’t have to stretch a digit or involve your other hand just to swipe across the screen to turn the page. (Annotating and more general computing tasks are a different matter, perhaps, but for reading, the paddles are perfect.)

[Actual answer: no]

Is it colour?
Again, I think that the implication here is that if it only monochrome, it’s shit. Which implies, more broadly, both that people simply expect colour displays these days – fair enough, I guess, if a bit unimaginative – and also expect their gadgets to be general purpose, good-for-everything devices. Interesting.

Colour E Ink is in development, and I can see its value for magazines, websites and some technical manuals or richly-illustrated novels, but I’m perfectly happy with monochrome for reading novels – and that, after all, is what the Kindle’s for. (It’s very good at it, too, though it’s much, much less good at non-linear media such as newspapers and websites. The developers have tried, implementing clever nav elements for newspapers, say, but the experience is still sub-optimal. Sometimes, simply taking the time to adapt to a new way of interacting with media reveals the new system to be either as good as, better than, or merely different to the old paradigm, but in this case, the linearity of the reading experience on a Kindle just can’t compete with the inter- and intra-page flickability and serendipity of a physical mag or paper.)

But if colour E Ink is so far away, why not just use traditional LCDs or even those OLEDs that gets the geeks priapic with anticipation? Because they’re the wrong choice for this platform. Not only do both consume significantly more power than E Ink – the battery on my Kindle can last weeks between charges, depending on how much reading I manage to fit in – but they’re also both much less pleasant to read. Honestly: E Ink is a revelation, and it’s considerably gentler on the eyes, especially after a working day spent bathed in LCD backlight.

[Actual answer: no]

Can you read your email on it?
Curious; the question’s not usually “Can it browse the web?” but “Can it do email?” I don’t know whether this is because as a primarily text-based device, people associate it with messaging, because people perceive it as a potential productivity tool, because we just plain want our devices to be capable of email, or because this is another test, another enquiry designed to ascertain whether this new thing is, in the abstract, ‘good’. Regardless, it’s another example of how, apparently, we’re starting to shun single-function devices, and place a greater burden of ability on the personal technology that companies want us to buy. Perhaps that’s blinkered; perhaps it’s only now that people are even imagining a multi-function device is feasible; the ten-year-old me didn’t even think to ask the question ‘can this Discman make phone calls?’ because it was so utterly obvious that it couldn’t. Stick a big bitmap display on something, now that components are small, the internet exists, and wireless bandwidth is ubiquitous, and it really is now a question of ‘what can’t this device do?’ rather than what can it.

[Actual answer: yes, though some webmail interfaces, if you’re in a territory where Amazon allows you to access any web site through the built-in browser; in the UK, for example, since the Kindle is a US device roaming internationally, for which Amazon is paying the data bill, you may only access the English-language version of Wikipedia.]

None of these questions presage especially dramatic wider social shifts in and of themselves, but I was struck by how significant the Kindle felt, how it focussed – and sometimes, with good reason, ran contrary to – many of the trends in consumer technology. Speaking on the PC Pro podcast, David Fearon, the magazine’s rather brilliant deputy editor, commented (and I’m paraphrasing) that the Kindle felt somehow important, like it felt like something – a product, a service, a model – was trying to take shape in your hand. I’ve no idea what that something is, but I feel it too.

(If you buy the international edition of the Kindle 2 or the larger Kindle DX from these links, I get commission from Amazon.)

Dog of the Week: Teenie

This is Teenie, a Doberman with an inexpertly-docked (hence, still not healed) tail.


The snow makes her go a bit mad.

(Man, I really shouldn’t put Lightroom-tweaked raw photos from a DSLR next to video output from the iPhone 3GS. Bleurch.) More pics on Flickr. (What is Dog of the Week?)