Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.

18Mar/121

It’s not what you’ve got (Or: Shut up about your iPad)

I'm so sick of hearing about new Apple releases.  Heck, I'm even sick of reading why other people are sick of hearing about new Apple releases. "Does it matter?" is verging on the rhetorical: even Gizmodo is starting to feel the iPad malaise.  To pardon the well-worn Purves family phrase, nobody seems to give a rat's cock any more: it's beyond a joke.  I think my favourite iPad coverage so far is Gizmodo's fun little "We Gave People an iPad 2" video, which is well worth checking out.

So why exactly are people getting so irritated about it?  Apple fanboy-ism is generally a joke because an almost religious fervour is applied to design principles and (disputed) technological advantages over Windows machines.  I'm no Windows apologist, but I'd say this usually means people are prepared to lay out far more money than is reasonable  on a machine they are unlikely to exploit as fully as it is designed to be exploited.  I feel this can best be summed up by the following amusing viral video of a frog.

Good video, right?  Yeah.  I watched it twice.  But the first time I saw that video, I was sitting on a tram: I plugged myself into my iPhone (yes, I have my own collection of Apple tech) to divert myself from an incredibly dull conversation two nearby geeks were having about what the pixel count was likely to be on the new iPad.  As I watched the frog blindly attacking imaginary ants, I wondered to myself whether the frog had considered how many pixels were on the screen of his/her owner's iPhone.  Perhaps the reason it turned so violently on its owner was not down to its disillusionment at the imaginary nature of the ants it wanted to eat, but in retribution for being forced to play its favourite game on an inferior device.  True, that's obviously at least an iPhone 4, but perhaps it was expecting a 4S?

No.  That is of course a ludicrous scenario.  Frogs are 99% unlikely to understand the difference between an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4S - and besides, Froggish isn't listed in the languages officially supported by Siri.  What with Siri being the only discernible difference between the two devices, that's unlikely to be what's annoying the frog.  Probably the frog is just hungry.  However, were the frog in that 1% I have left open for the possibility of improbably technologically-advanced reptiles, I don't think it would be fussy about Siri either: because Siri is just software.

I can't illustrate the point I want to press any further without boring myself (and probably you, too) into endless and merciful sleep, so I'm going to delve way back into my personal internet history yet again in the hope that if I can build my argument into personal experiences that happened so long ago nobody can dispute them, I might win.  Let's see if it works.

When I was a child, my mother's father was massively into electronic typewriters, multi-use fax machines/phones and other frankly pointless gizmos.  In fact, he bought one of the first Palm Pilots.  I still have it: lord knows where it is, but I did just manage to find the collapsible keyboard which is a thing of beauty.  Here, marvel at its beauty.

Palm Pilot keyboard being opened
Assembled Palm Pilot keyboard

For me, it's like looking at an ancient arrowhead lost in the mud of a forgotten cave.  In reality, it's a bit of obsolete tech in a box full of tat in my spare room.  Each to their own.

Anyway, Grampa eventually ended up giving me this old tat, item after item, because as awesome as it was he never ended up using it.  When I got it, I'd play with it for a while - you know, input stock figures, write a to do list, write "55378008" in the calculator - then get bored and shove it in a drawer.  Palm Pilots were not designed for little children: there was nothing I could use it for.

In stark contrast, when my father got his first computer (it is impossible to date this event because (a) it feels like I've always had access to a computer and (b) my father doesn't relish being woken up in the middle of the night) my brother and I were on it like a shot.  Not because of the clicky sound it made when reading floppy disks or whatever it was that came before floppy disks, nor the exciting knowledge we were little children allowed to play on what we knew was a Grownup Thing.  What I liked was that I could play a game called Magic Maths (a very, very early text-based game I've found impossible to trace), and my maths would get better.  I don't remember that first computer: I don't remember how old I was when we got it, how much memory it could hold, what operating system it used (although I do remember it only had green text on a black screen) or anything else, but I do remember Magic Maths.  When we upgraded to a newer machine, I was allowed to hang on to the last one simply because I loved playing Magic Maths.  It wasn't about the computer, it was what I could do with it.

Fast forward to now, and I'm still the same: I don't think anyone else is different, either. A while ago I went to the launch of the new Salford University buildings at MediaCityUK, and while the work on display was impressive I have to admit I spent more time watching visitors to the open day play with the big multi-touch tables - provided, I believe, by Microsoft (you can check out how Manchester's using this technology on the Microsoft Surface website).

It's impressive technology, but when people approached it their instinct was not to marvel at the screen resolution or ask nearby helpers to list the functionality provided.  Of course not.  The first thing people did - an instinct shared by children and adults alike - was to immediately touch it: to see what moved, and how, and look at the pictures and information on the screen.  Children wanted to play games, adults wanted to see pictures and both wanted to generally marvel as stuff whooshed across the screen.  I watched for over half an hour and during that time not one man, woman or child started discussing the limitations of the operating system or the upcoming patch Microsoft was going to release to fix blah blah blah.  I can assure you that, working and socialising with the delightful geeks that I do, I have met plenty of people who would happily bore on about such things for hours.  However, the people experiencing Surface for the first time were not my colleagues: they were ordinary people.  The kind of people who simply use technology, as opposed to the tiny percentage of people who make it, or write about it, or read about it on Gizmodo.  These people were not interested in the details of how the tables worked - they were far more interested in could be done with them.

This is why I, like so many others, am increasingly sick of pointless hardware releases which include negligible improvements.  I got my first iPhone because it could do things my O2 XDA couldn't: it had better games, it could play my music, and it came with the possibility to expand with an ever-growing library of free and cheap apps.  My iPhone 4 is smaller, has a second camera, free messaging to other iPhones on a 3G connection and a very noticeable retina display.  Not a life-changing offering, but my contract was up so I switched.  But the 4S - well, it just mostly has Siri.  So basically, in terms of what your average user sees, progress is actually slowing down.

A similar thing appears to happening with iPads.  The first was revolutionary; the second had useful improvements, and the third... well, it's a bit better.  If you know what you're looking for.  Which it appears even Gizmodo staff don't (that link again).  You can still do the same things with an iPad 3 that you can with a first-gen iPad: play games, watch videos, get the internet, look rich.  Sure, it has a camera, but so does the iPad 2.  Sure, it has more pixels, but - well, you can still see stuff on it.  I'm getting bored with this now.  Reeling off iPad specs is like writing about expensive cars: great, they'll go up to 200mph, but where on earth can you legally drive at that speed?  And how long can you safely bore on about it at parties before people start making assumptions about the size of your manhood?

So, I don't care which iPad you have.  All I know is, you have one and I don't.  Good for you.

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  1. I’ve just bought my partner an iPad. I went to PCWorld at 8.30and if there were queues I wasn’t going to bother. Just one person looking at the only iPad3 they had on display. I’d read a review about it raining about how looking at the Q on the keyboard really showed up the increased pixel count so we compared the 3 with the 2. I haven’t told my partner which I bought in the end because she’d think I was crackers spending £70 just to get better Qs!


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