Why the iPad matters

Malcolm Garrett argues that the true value of the iPad will be in driving the evolution of the computer interface

I’ve yet to see or touch the Apple iPad, writes Malcolm Garrett, so the following is based on conjecture, and quite a bit of enthusiastic anticipation, but when it comes to interactive technologies I am a receptive audience. I had an instant liking for the iPhone, not so much for the object itself, but for how it would shake up both the telecoms market and the whole world of computing. After only a few minutes of playing, and of enjoying of the way the touchscreen interactions varied from task to task, it was apparent to me that this direct yet dynamic way of handling information pointed towards a complete rethinking of hardware interfaces everywhere.

Almost overnight, expectations of how technology could and should work, subtly but irrevocably changed. At once straightforward, yet playfully seductive, this way of manipulating information feels natural and obvious. It is not at all technical or intimidating. It just works effortlessly and effectively.

This can not now be taken away, nor can other products ignore it. I’m already expecting everything else to work in similar ways, and miss that level of control, even when it has never been present. I find myself instinctively touching and stroking screens, and already feel disappointed with old fashioned buttons, keys and clicks.

Many critics are understandably concerned that the iPad appears to be a solution in search of a problem, and are speculating about what it’s actually for [see reaction to our earlier post here]. For me the real interest lies in the evolution of the interface rather than any debate about the precise form factor.

I am excited by further exploration of this type of interaction, and the unpredictable outcomes it will precipitate. Arguably the most remarkable thing about the iPhone has been the sheer volume of inventive responses to its unique combination of hardware and software. It is the integration of accelerometer and GPS which makes the iPad such an exciting prospect, bringing together touchable interaction, connectivity and physical and spatial awareness. Together these features have added hitherto unexplored dimensions to software development, and implementing them in this next generation of device was inevitable. The irony is that although the iPhone was in part successful because it could, of course, be relied on to be a cool phone, the reality is that this is its least interesting facet. Far from being a criticism, this highlights a bold distinction between the iPhone and all else around it.

What is key is that Apple continues to simplify and demystify the computer interface. The flexibility of the screen is such that the location and function of screen tools is always contextual, and specific to each and every application. It is obvious that the iPad is intended to be a general purpose media device, rather than an office or work-related tool. Given the incremental development of the iPod over the past decade from the first click-wheel through to iTouch and iPhone, it is quite logical to see the iPad as a very powerful, and uniquely responsive, next generation iPod, rather than a downgraded MacBook.

That said, the iPad could really be the first laptop to actually warrant that description. You can’t use a MacBook on your lap for long without needing heat protection. The iPad just has to be more comfortable, portable and perfectly useful on your lap, in your hand, on the coffee table, sitting on a shelf, relaxing on the sofa, or even lying in bed. Thinking about its use, I note that there are many more games consoles and DVD players in the world than there are laptop computers, suggesting that mainstream media consumption is entertainment-oriented, and for most people becomes most usable in singular ways rather than in complex, work-like, mutli-tasking environments.

The consensus of opinion at my company, AIG, is that this is a good thing. As this is an Apple controlled operating system, the design of Apps maintains just enough interface consistency to enable them to be comprehensive yet comprehensible, and given that they are empowered by wi-fi and internet, this alone could easily make many browser-dependent websites redundant. It is no surprise that the publishing industry is finally seeing a challenging opportunity rather than a threat to its existence.

For my part, back in 1990, when I made the irreversible transition from analogue to digital, I was still somehow anticipating the development of a computer with a screen as large as a drawing board. I felt that screens needed to maintain a better physical relationship between user and media than was allowed by keyboard and mouse, and the disassociation brought about by the confines of such a tiny window into a vast virtual world was a conceptual step too far to grasp easily. The world now suggested by the iPad isn’t at all how I imagined things would progress, yet it feels like a step towards something much, much better.


Malcolm Garrett RDI is creative director at Applied Information Group

This article will also appear in the March issue of CR, our 30th birthday issue in which we have asked 30 notable people in the field of visual communication to nominate one thing that they are excited about for the future: Malcolm Garrett chose the iPad. The March issue of CR is on sale on February 20

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