Ben Ward

The iPad is not a car


So, the iPad was released. We see some controversy about Apple’s continued push of a closed software and purchasing environment, and we see lots of crap counter-analogies about cars.

The idea is this: Computers as we knew them are flawed on two fundamental levels:

Firstly, they are actually unreliable pieces of shit that drive their owners nuts and just by being turned on are guaranteed to produce all manner of maintenance tasks for the user (or, more accurately, for the user’s tech-savvy eldest son, because his younger siblings were smart enough to see the parental tech-support shitstorm his career choice was going to get into, and so pursued music and photography instead.) Computers, we are told, should actually just work, and not require anyone to think about how much swap file space is available, or whether their virus definitions are up to date, or why there are five completely different ‘update manager’ applications in their system tray.

Secondly, they are based on an interaction paradigm that’s becoming rapidly obsolete. Apple’s cringeworthy sub-slogan for the iPad is this: “It’s like you’re holding the internet in your hands.” Imagine me looking you in the eye and, with total sincerity, saying those words. Did you punch me? Did you then kick my semi-conscious, winded body crumpled on the floor at your feet? How hard? Well, here’s the thing. It turns out, the slogan is right. Interacting with web pages by touch, directly manipulating the display is a profoundly different experience than indirectly with a mouse. You’re not touching a mouse, or keyboard, you’re touching the page. We got a hint of it with the iPhone, but only with the simultaneous introduction of various other constraints (screen size, for starters) that altered our perception of the web less positively; we were using the new touch interface to work around the layout of pages, since they didn’t fit properly. Well, not with the iPad. With the iPad all this tapping and stroking and gentle coaxing of the written word around your screen is not only great but also, absolutely, without-a-doubt better. I don’t see that we’ll use onmouseover events and :hoverCSS selectors ever again.

So, cars. A defence of the iPad’s closed system is that it’s the evolution of computers, from a world where you were required to tinker with the engine and swap in spare parts (physically, or virtually in the operating system), and change gear manually, into a world where the engine is so mechanically optimised for reliability and efficiency that it’s been sealed away and on the now rarer occasions that it has to be tinkered with, can only be maintained with special tools by proprietary professionals. What’s more, when you’re driving your more reliable motor vehicle, you only had to set the car to ‘Go!’, and never make an adjustment to the gears as your environment changes.

The analogy presumes that this automobile progress is for the better. But this an analogy predominantly put forward by Americans, who you may note, build terrible cars.

The analogy works for engine maintenance. The enthusiastic hobby of tinkering with your car for performance has given away to manufacturers trying to completely optimise their cars in advance (using tools and facilities unavailable to you anyway, like wind tunnels and crash test dummies.) That the computer also becomes sealed away and less customisable as a consequence of reliability seems reasonable. The gears thing, however, is bollocks.

Here’s the thing: The loss of control over your computer with the iPad is all about making the experience better. It helps you perform a functional task more quickly, with less interruption, and so the complete interaction with your computer is more enjoyable, and satisfying.

Automatic gearboxes, on the other hand, are the opposite, and harmfully so. Firstly, they don’t actually work very well. They behave unexpectedly in response to your acceleration alone, resulting in an abrupt, jolty ride. When you want a burst of acceleration to pull out and overtake another car, or (more critically) as you speed up on the slip road of a highway, the correct thing to do is drop a gear to accelerate faster. The automatic gearbox expects you to slam your foot down and just hope it figures it all out promptly. It’ll jolt you around again whilst it does it. Then there’s engine braking (where you allow a lower gear to take speed out of the engine as you stop, rather than putting all the strain on your brakes), that’s useful too.

The automatic gearbox not only obfuscates useful, native functionality of the car, it does it at the expense of both safety and pleasure, which strike me as two very important aspects of driving. On the journey home from Tahoe to San Francisco, you travel downhill for hundreds of miles. The difference in fuel economy is remarkable. Of course, since you’re going downhill, you also have to control your speed. Many coddled by automatic gearboxes are unaware (or ignorant of) the aforementioned engine-breaking technique of slowing down, which is very important because if you try to drive 200 miles down a hill gaining speed in a higher gear, slowing yourself using only your brakes, your brakes will get too hot and they will fail. This is an example of an abstraction not only making a useful task more difficult, but also miseducating people with the suggestion that their understanding of gears be simpler than it really needs to be.

It’s useful in the rain, too, which is especially worrisome in California since it rains so infrequently here that drivers really do have no bloody idea what to do with it. As a pedestrian, I really wish I could rely on cars slowing down in a way less inclined to skid over the line.

Also on safety, it strikes me as a massive problem that at any point, a car could pull out in front of me on a highway, at a safe-looking distance and fail to accelerate promptly to the speed of the lane because the other driver’s gearbox was too slow.

Locking down the iPad, however, whilst it obscures functionality, increases safety at the same time as convenience. The gearbox just dumbs it down without providing an adequate improvement to the experience.

Finally, the automatic gearbox—the hateful device—takes away fun. Driving is a functional, often necessary activity, that holds the potential to be deeply satisfying. Being in tune with the vehicle, riding smoothly and feeling a car respond accurately and immediately to your direct manipulation is a hugely important part of making driving fun. Without that, not only are you less safe, but you’re reduced to being an operator, not a driver. You’re bored.

The dumbing down of the American automobile has provided for people with passion and understanding for computers but disinterest toward driving to make a lazy analogy about the positive march of progress. It’s wrong. A specific aspect of the car analogy (the engine) is somewhat appropriate, but to say ‘the iPad is a car’ is to suggest that computing is going to become a dull, tedious, more dangerous experience, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t what anyone means. (Although, I am interested to see if the comfort that comes from a seamless, risk-free computer makes users even more vulnerable to phishing scams…)

I’ve used an iPad, and it was an illuminating and inspiring experience. I’ve driven an automatic car, it was shit. An iPad is not a car.


Actually, for all of this, I don’t actually believe that the iPad lockdown is really about safety-through-abstraction, although that is a desirable side-effect, and may turn into the reason to maintain this system longer term. Personally, I think keeping the system under close control is more about my second, original point: The changing of how people interact with the computer itself. Old computers are full of options and choices for interaction. Some which work better than others, some are legacy ideas, some outdated but engrained, some new but ignored. There’s a lot of duplication, but most people have a way that works for them. On a touch screen, none of those existing methods apply. Everything is new, and there’s a lot of discovery and refinement to be made as we learn more about what people find intuitive in this environment. However, all of this research and learning is happening not in a lab, but in a popular, best-in-class consumer device.

A completely open system would result in a plethora of conflicting, duplicate ways to do the same things, user interaction that’s still barely defined would be muddied by variations, and the reintroduction of desktop computing ideas and interfaces that offer short-term comprehension but could stint the long-term vision for touch interaction.

Apple, by controlling the system, control the definition of this experience. They will believe that they’re the ones who can produce end-to-end to end perfection, but I honestly think that when touch computing stabilises and interaction conventions are accepted, we’ll see a more open application infrastructure (the combination of other market forces and competitors will also be important, obviously.)

I’m not going to say that Apple are right to lock others out of defining how touch computing is going to work, but they can, and I think their belief is that they can do it better if they don’t have fight off contradictory ideas in the meantime.

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