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  • The iPad Report: The New Human/Machine Relationship

    April 7th, 2010

    There’s a fascinating article in Slate this week about the ultimate ideological split between Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Where the original Apple computers were extremely open when it came to easy expansion and modification — a capability still retained by most current PCs — the Mac and its successors, with only a few exceptions, have remained extremely closed platforms. This represents the ultimate dichotomy of the Jobs and Wozniak viewpoints about personal technology.

    Yes, you can still upgrade your Mac officially in limited ways, such as adding RAM and, in a very few models, swapping hard drives and even adding expansion cards. A skilled repair shop can literally take everything apart and put it together again, but the regular user is constrained when it comes to modifying the hardware.

    Now even though Mac OS X runs perfectly fine in its default configuration, you have limited customization options in System Preferences to alter various settings. You can also hack your way with abandon in Terminal or with a third-party utility to make even more elaborate changes.

    That, of course, represents one of the major differences between the Mac and Windows. With Microsoft’s operating system, there are so many individual settings readily available in Control Panel form, you can get into serious trouble if you click and activate the wrong option, unless you’re a power user and revel in the ability to make the changes you want. That, however, requires study and experience or ready access to a support person if you find yourself in over your head.

    Little of that, however, makes you a more productive person. Most of the system customizations don’t impact how you actually interact with your applications. In the end, isn’t the personal computer a platform with which to run apps, rather than an end in itself? I mean how long can you simply play with your Mac’s system environment before you actually get around to accomplishing something?

    The iPhone basically eliminates much of the separation between a computer and the end user. You interact with your iPhone by actually performing a needed function, whether it’s placing a phone call, writing email or playing a game, to name some common uses. You aren’t made aware that there is a sophisticated Unix-based operating system behind all of it. Your ability to modify your working environment is restricted to a small number of choices that you never have to actually make to gain maximum use of your smartphone.

    This concept is extended to the iPad, which is thought by many to be the ultimate replacement for the personal computer, at least when it comes to its potential. Again you interact with it as a game playing machine, an Internet access appliance, an e-book reader or whatever function you prefer. You don’t need to concern yourself with organizing folders, fiddling with app windows, examining the operating system’s layout and so on and so forth. You don’t need a pointing device, such as a mouse or trackball or even a keyboard (although you can add one optionally). You simply touch it to make things happen. The iPad is very much a genuine computing appliance that succeeds in thinning or removing the window between you and the machine.

    However, such gear doesn’t always appeal to the techie who craves maximum access, from opening the case to replace the innards to configuring the system to a fare-thee-well. Of course, playing around with one of Apple’s mobile products isn’t impossible. As you’ve probably read, hackers have already figured out a way to jailbreak the iPad, very much in the fashion of jailbreaking an iPhone. But remember that’s done by exploiting a security leak in order to gain access. That’s the same tactic an Internet criminal might employ to take control without your permission, so be forewarned. If you really need maximum access, maybe Apple’s products aren’t for you. The computer “for the rest of us” comes with it restrictions that you may or may not wish to accept. If that’s your position, your choices are available elsewhere.

    But consider where the iPhone and iPad exist in the scheme of things. When you buy a television set, you do not expect to open it up and modify anything inside. That’s left to the repair shop if something breaks. Yes, there are setup menus with a small set of configuration options, such as choosing a screen layout for standard or widescreen content, or adjusting picture quality to suit your tastes. Beyond that, it just works.

    Of course the very same thing is true about your toaster oven or even your cordless telephone. You buy them to accomplish something, not spend your days and nights fiddling with interfaces to exactly configure each and every potential option. Where there are setup choices at all, they are strictly limited to form and function. Why should it be otherwise?

    That’s what Apple has figured out and it’s something other tech companies simply don’t understand when it comes to computers, whether large or small. Some may feel Apple is exerting too much control over the user experience, but most of their customers wouldn’t have it otherwise.



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