COMMENTARY The new iPad started shipping today. As expected, the media coverage was replete with stories about lines of eager shoppers -- including Apple (AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak -- waiting to get their hands on the company's latest tablet.
Part of the attraction relates to an emerging post-PC sensibility among users of consumer electronics. These are devices that do what people want, but in ways that are more convenient than a desktop or laptop. But there's something else going on with the iPad -- and with the iPhone, Android smartphones, and other new devices, for that matter. The fervor isn't strictly pragmatic, nor can it be explained by nearly fetishistic regard that some people seem to have for their iPads.
Rather, this deep cultural fascination with technology may represent something important to the future of computing -- a yearning to reconnect with the world in ways that seem new but that in reality go way back.
It's not that a tablet is suddenly superior to all other computing tools. I've recently bought and started using an Asus Transformer Prime (hate the name) tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard for business trips. The light weight is a pleasure, and there are some things that seem easier to do on it. For example, using a touch interface makes Google Reader much faster and easier to use than a PC-based application that constantly blows up. Yet jumping back and forth between applications isn't as fast on the device as on a laptop or desktop. Long-form writing with a screen keypad is misery.
In other words, it seems unlikely that millions of people are rushing out to buy an iPad because everything in the world for which they might use a computer is done more ably and swiftly by a tablet. So why the feeding frenzy? I think the answer relates to the addition of features like voice recognition, touch interfaces, ultra-high resolution, and non-touch gesture interfaces.
When life was hands-on
Not that long ago, people connected to the world either directly or through tools that inserted a single intermediate step. To make a piece of furniture, you used planes, saws, chisels, and hammers. Drawing a picture meant applying pencil to paper. Gardening was done with you on one end of a shovel and the ground on the other. Metal parts were machined with lathes and drill presses. Writing was done with pen and ink, or, for the time-driven professional, a typewriter spooling paper.
Computers changed all that by adding a second or sometimes third step. Wood and metal tools were now computer controlled. Writing still happens on a keyboard, but the characters appear on a screen and are saved in an invisible format until a printer reproduces them. People drew with a mouse or, better, a graphics tablet. But there was no sensory feedback as you'd get with traditional media, which responded to a person's hands.
People's experience of the world also become more remote, though that had started long ago. Publishers brought the world to them, first through newspapers, then magazines, and finally television. But it was still at arm's length. The same was true with a computer. Yes, the Web could bring you amazing things, but they were on a screen.
Developments in tablets show how things are moving back in the other direction. As publishing consultant Bob Sacks told me, "The form-factor of the tablet gives you a greater sense of eliminating the rendering, and you're actually creating."
High-resolution screens move images to a level of reality beyond the current limitations ordinary screens, televisions, or printed paper. In their vibrancy, such images begins to approach photography, turning the tablet into a frame that you look through to see the world. Meanwhile, voice-interface capabilities transform the act of interacting with technology into something natural -- speaking and listening.
Tablets don't replace a more direct experience of the world, of course. They still come wrapped in glass and metal that are chilly to the touch. But they do veer away from what computers have offered for decades. Maybe that's why the enthusiasm for these devices has been so much greater than anyone, including Apple executives, may have expected.
People don't like living in isolation. The shift toward tablets -- and the intensity with which people are embracing them -- may represent the hope among tech users that, in time, all the sensory and experiential middlemen might again begin to fade away.
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