Normal people don't like today's computers. Most loathe them because they can't fully understand their absurd complexity and arcane conventions. That's why the iPad will kill today's computers, just like the latter killed computers running with punchcards and command lines.
Of course, the iPad—the actual product that millions will buy in the coming months—won't replace all computers. The entire world is not going to run just on tablets, just like the world doesn't run only on smartphones and personal computers now. But Steve Jobs' Next Big Thing is the first computer that requires no training whatsoever, one that is truly accessible and useful for everyone. Just like the iPhone changed the idea of what a phone should be without anyone truly realizing it, Apple's new computer will completely and permanently change our idea of what a computer is and how it should behave.
The perception change will be so deep that it will kill Mac OS X, Windows and Linux as we know them today. At one point during this decade, you will no longer have a billion folders and file icons floating in a virtual desktop. There will be no more baffling setup screens. No more shortcuts to work around limitations and old conventions. These frustrating barriers—built during decades of evolution—are what make normal people hate computers. These barriers have now been obliterated, first by the iPhone and now by the iPad. Everyone will be using computers similar to the iPad. Not in terms of hardware, form factor, and specs. But on its philosophy. Even the naysayers would have abandoned the Desktop Metaphor by them (in fact, some naysayers already bought theirs).
That is what is important about the Apple's new mobile computer. It shows that computers have—must—be an invisible platform, one that shifts its appearance to give people the tools to complete the tasks they want to accomplish, whatever these are. To enjoy and create content. To play. To communicate. To work. By being invisible and letting the applications do the work in the most simple way possible, the power of the computer will, at last, be available for everyone. No previous knowledge required. From a 3-year-old baby to your 90-year-old grandma, people will be able to just do things.
Some say that this is not possible. They focus on the anecdote and not on the big picture. They dismiss the computing model change that the iPad brings—and the new mobile computer itself—anchored in their preconception of what computing should be. They are forgetting that history shows that the change is not only possible, it's inevitable. It has happened before. Many times. And it's happening again.
At the end of World War II, the power of computers was controlled by the scientists who built them using tens of thousands of vacuum tubes, diodes, relays, and resistors. They were extremely expensive and hard to maintain, so there were only a handful of them, greedily guarded by governments and the military.
Then the transistor and the punchcard appeared. Computers became a bit smaller, more powerful, less expensive.
Their new power was quickly seized by a larger group of high priests, who began to harness it for big businesses.
A few years later, the command line was invented. Even smaller computers—which still required a lot of money to buy and maintain—started to pop up in medium-sized companies.
A new elite took over, the old guard cried, and punchcards faded out.
After that, the first personal computers arrived, and the elite further expanded, now including hobbyists, tech students, entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Like with all the previous steps in this evolution, the personal computer was despised by the older castes, who had spent time learning the mysteries of the more ancient arts.
The incumbents said the personal computer was inadequate and underpowered. It couldn't even multitask, unlike their glorious, room-filling computers. The personal computer would never catch on, they cried. They were wrong.
In 1984, Apple introduced Macintosh, a personal computer that changed the command line for something called the "graphical user interface" and the "desktop metaphor," a representation of reality with icons set over the representation of your work desk. Its memory and storage capacity was very limited, but it allowed people to access computers and be productive with them with a lot more ease than command lines, punchcards, and switches. Microsoft followed this model later.
Once again, the previous elites laughed because they thought the GUI wasn't as powerful as the command line.
Despite that, the people who jumped into this new computing concept showed that they were more productive in these computers than "the others". Shortly after, this desktop metaphor took over the world, further democratizing the access to computing power.
That's where we are today.
The problem is that the desktop metaphor is not good enough. Despite its relative ease of use, most people still find computers difficult to use. Now, if you actually like computers, you probably don't sense much of a struggle when managing Mac OS X or Windows. But watching some of your friends and family will make it painfully obvious: Most people are still baffled by conventions that many of us take for granted.
What's worse, the ramping-up of storage capability and functionality has made the desktop metaphor a blunder more than an advantage: How could we manage the thousands of files that populate our digital lives using folders? Looking at my own folder organization, we can barely, if at all. Apple and Microsoft have tried to tackle this problem with database-driven software like iTunes or Windows Media Center. Instead of managing thousands of files "by hand," this kind of software turns the computer into an "information appliance," giving an specialized interface to organize your photos or music or video.
The iPad fully embraces that solution. It puts that idea—photos, music, movies, documents of all kinds stored into task-oriented specialized databases—together with the fully modal, task-oriented interface of the iPhone, loaded with amazing applications that will let you do everything you can imagine, for pleasure or work. It's the realization of universal information appliance proposed by genius like Alan Kay and Jef Raskin in the '70s. The Holy Grail of Computing.
iPhone or Android users who ask themselves why it is so easy to do things with these devices, but wonder why their PC and Macs remain so cumbersome and complicated, will fully embrace this. Your grandma will embrace it. Your aunt will embrace. Your cousins. Your kids. Everyone who doesn't have a fucking clue about computers and don't want to learn and don't care. Everyone will jump into this new era of computing. Everyone.
Even myself—a tech-oriented person who depends on keyboards and specialized software like Photoshop—will do it. I will because I find myself doing more and more things on my iPhone, and less in my computer, even while I'm in front of my notebook or desktop. I use my phone to update Twitter or Facebook, to check eBay, consult bank accounts, tune a ukulele, play quick games with friends, play music, check the weather, pick up a movie and buy tickets, plan my trip across the city using public transportation, select a bar or a restaurant after the movie, and, when I arrive at the bar, name the tune that is playing. I can keep a schedule, quickly contact anyone, take a photo and sort through old ones, play any song at hand, store travel itineraries, bring up information about tides and waves for surfing, quickly pick a recipe and make a shopping list, or record a voice memo.
The list of tasks is endless. Even while smartphones are limited by small screens, they have become the absolute center of the digital lives of many normal people. Unknowingly, the iPhone invasion started the transition to this new computing era.
The iPad is here to extend that into a larger screen that will make new things possible. And after the iPad, others will come. One of them will be as big as my Wacom Cintiq 21-inch graphics tablet. Others will physically resemble my desktop computer. But all of them will be part of the same computing revolution.
It won't happen overnight, but it will be fast. First, iPad will succeed. In a year, something similar to the iPad will come from Google. In two or three years at most, an iMac and a MacBook Pro with something resembling the iPad OS will arrive. It won't just be iPad OS. It will be the full Mac OS X with a new UI covering all of it, and smart, instantly searchable databases to store documents with metadata, all of it open to developers. Then Microsoft will introduce its own version of everything, killing file managers once and for all. And during all this time, more of that data and metadata will be stored in the cloud, with local storage only acting as a cache. No more syncing between devices, no more hassles, no complications.
That is the future. And it starts this Saturday. Hold onto your underpants, because the world is changing again. Big time.