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.)