A great blog post by Lukas Mathis has been floating around Twitter for a few days now. In it he talks about the removal of features in software development. Specifically:
If you don’t pay attention, what started out as an elegant, simple application that perfectly solves a single problem, can quickly turn into a huge behemoth of an application that solves a ton of problems, but solves all of them poorly.
This, and some other tweet comments, got me thinking about the iPad (who isn’t?) and how I believe it’s a glimpse of the future for how we interact with personal computers.
In the 35 years since the arrival of the personal computer we’ve been on a continuous upward trajectory of feature enhancement and specification bloat. It’s not just the software, it’s infecting the very machines that we run the bloated software on.
More memory is always a good thing, but only because the applications we run are getting hungrier and hungrier for processing power. The files we create get larger so we need bigger and bigger hard drives. Applications can now perform loads of very different tasks in one endless, oversized, confusing interface. And so it has gone on.
Not once has any hardware manufacturer turned round and said “Stop”.
But I think Apple have just done that.
Apple have previously put their products where their beliefs are and mercilessly cut features. Remember the first iMac and the outrage at the absence of a floppy drive? The MacBook Air with no CD/DVD drive. I own an Air and have never once wanted, or indeed needed, to put an optical disc in it.
And now the iPad. What no USB slot? Where’s the camera? What about a fold out stand? Why the big bezel? But, but, but… where’s the thingamajig? They’ve gone even further this time. And, as they say themselves, created a totally new class of product.
As we know, and have learnt in the years since the release of the first iPod, Apple are much cleverer than simply marketing products on features. You won’t find a single product feature comparison checklist on their website. They realised a long time ago that the features race is completely futile, especially if you fight your battles in a different space – that of putting the user before the interests of the geek or software providers.
They understand that the majority of personal computer owners / users don’t need all the extra ‘stuff’ that comes built in to a typical machine.
Let’s try and envisage an ‘average’ home user. She takes pictures from a digital camera and drops them onto her machine. Maybe even the odd digital video. She emails, books holidays and buys stuff (inc. music) online, writes the odd letter and does a bit of IM. Apart from maybe the photos and music, she probably creates about 20-30 documents/files a year. Most of her use is for consumption rather than creation. She doesn’t care about file structures. She has no interest in tweaking the preference files for a given application. She wants it to ‘just work’ right out of the box.
When she opens her writing app. she wants to see all the files that are associated with that application and not have to shuffle through an incomprehensible (to her) hierarchical file system. Hiding this file system from the user makes complete sense when, in reality, you never want or need to see it.
The personal computer should be about productivity and consumption. The problem with the ‘windows’ metaphor we use as an interface currently is that it has evolved over the years and has become bloated and overwhelming for the types of things most people do on computers. The very thing that should allow you unbound freedom to create or consume is often the thing that stands in the way of getting stuff done.
I was luke warm about the iPad from the keynote transcript. But watching where they have gone with the interface and the nuances of the touch screen gestures is utter brilliance. We may, at long last, have taken one step to subjecting the mouse / cursor interface to the same fate as the VHS cassette. As great as it once was, it’s overstayed its welcome.
Resizing a photo on the iPad is about direct hands-on (literally) manipulation of items on the screen. There’s no hunting through menu items or holding down the shift key whilst pointing, clicking and dragging with the mouse. It feels more natural. Yes, we may need to unlearn those things that we’ve come to understand over the years of using the current interaction metaphors. But that in my book is a fair price to pay for something that is, in reality, far more of a natural action for the human body to perform.
The other thing I found exciting from the iPad demo was the contextual popup menus in the iWork apps. They’re only there when you need them as opposed to floating palettes being a constant visual clutter on the screen. Every incremental release of Photoshop or Word adds more fluff into floating palettes. Their removal can allow me to get on with ‘creating’, unimpeded by visual distractions.
I did wonder about the 1024×768 size of the iPad screen. But in reality when you get rid of all the extraneous application clutter that’s as much screen real estate as you’ll ever need (I’ll be eating those words in a few years but you get my point).
I’m excited by the fact that a company has finally made a big step to try and affect some change in the way we interact with our computers. For those of us that build computer- or internet-based products and services, we have machines that allow us to ‘get under the hood’ with almost infinite variables and customisation.
Is the natural conclusion, though, that we will be using iPad-like devices on which to create iPad software? If it is, it’s some way off yet. And not without the protestations from the geek quarter who like their toys.
But in the mean time, for the rest of us, the future’s already here and it’s iPad shaped.