City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Immediate reflections, just after the iPad’s launch, on what it’s for.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on February 8, 2010.

Many, many, many people have written about last week’s announcement of Apple’s iPad. I don’t actually remember a response quite like it. Far more than for the iPhone, for instance, or for any contemporary product or service I can recall. Perhaps its omnipresence in the media is due to promise it appears to hold for the media itself. But the response outside of the traditional media also feels immense.

As for me, I couldn’t help but make a few observations — I’ll try to take a different angle, at least initially, approaching it from urbanism as much as product/service design, particularly not having seen the thing in the flesh yet. To get the basics out of the way right away, yes, I think it’ll be incredibly successful. And yes, the name’s a bit iffy but will not be a problem in time because it’ll be incredibly successful. And yes, it’s the first iteration of something that will be rapidly refined over the coming years.

There’s been lots of talk of it being a ‘third’ product, in-between iPhone and laptop. To me, this reminds me of ‘third places’. That’s a Ray Oldenburg term, of The Great Good Place, and generally refers to cafés, bars, libraries etc. Thus the iPad to me feels more like a product for third places rather than a third product. Its form factor and service model is defined for in-between spaces. Although it will float around the home and the office perfectly well, it comes into its own in these third spaces in a way that that phone and laptop cannot, being either too small or too large respectively.

With this in mind, it also reminds me of Jan Gehl’s book, Life Between Buildings, in that the iPad is a device for the life between buildings.

If we approach it spatially — in terms of context of use I mean, rather than the device itself — it becomes clear why I think it’ll be a success.

It’s a device for airplanes, taxis, public transport, park benches, coffeeshops, pubs, bars, bistros, co-working spaces, breakouts, studios, receptions, meeting rooms, plaza and piazza, public libraries, beaches and all manner of transient spaces, civic spaces. It’s a device for cities.

It’s not that it couldn’t be used in rural environments of course; just that it wouldn’t be. The general lack of third spaces in such places means that a phone and a PC are sufficient. By living in cities, in other peoples’ places, a different kind of device becomes appropriate. Something light and small enough to fit in a handbag or satchel, yet powerful and productive nonetheless. In the old view of city living — say, the classic Parisian apartment — the small size of dwelling meant that the bistro downstairs at the street level of the block becomes the dining room, the bar/coffee shop becomes the living room, the shared courtyard becomes the garden, and so on. While this vision is hopelessly romantic, there are numerous urban variants on this kind of living, and these transient (yet personal) spaces are where the iPad will fit right in. (Again, exurban environments clearly have coffee shops too, but they are not part of a integrated system of living in the same way. And so different tools will suffice.)

As software becomes a service, data resides in the cloud, various forms of wireless connectivity coalesce over the city, and yet face-to-face physical connection becomes more important than ever, a device like the iPad becomes obvious. The cloud is the connective tissue between these spaces, the software provides the platform for interaction with information, the tablet is the tool, and the forum is the city.

The particular device is not the core aspect, necessarily, though brings things together at a certain place and time. The overall service model — noting how iTunes made the difference to the iPod — is key. There’s a symbiotic link between software, hardware and context. The link I’m now interested in is this last link to space, as well as system. As in, how do we design environments for this activity, and how does this activity work in, and affect, particular environments?

In much contemporary work — at least the more knowledge-based end — people are often transient too, even in a corporate office environment. In fact, in the latter, the chance that anyone will be at their desk at any one time is around 50% or less (which has implications for the way we design commercial office space, never mind soft infrastructure like computing.) Given this, it might be very handy to have a machine for easy lifitng between coffee bar, meeting room, what are euphimistically-called ‘quiet rooms’ or studio-like spaces, breakout spaces. Or in a non-corporate environment, just moving effortlessly over the space.

Of course this is why the broad move to laptops in working environments is key, but if a laptop is connected to a big screen (as may often be the case) and power socket, and you just need to flash some code, some text, some images/photos etc, some webpages, some Powerpoint etc. past someone’s eyes, a tablet will not just be more convenient, but far more appropriate. Indeed, a distributed phalanx of tablets will be far more palatable, more civil, than the walls of laptop screens that are temporarily erected during meetings now.

So I’m afraid this new device may be additive rather than subtractive. It probably is ‘yet more stuff in the world’. But at least it’s well-designed, relatively cheap, carefully thought-through, with increasingly considered life-cycle thinking (if not quite good enough). Well, at least most parts of it are well-designed. (See below.)

The various previous netbooks had, or met, many of these same conditions of course, yet Apple’s superior user experience, and integrated services, primes it for many many more citizens than any previous form of computer.

Some, thinking of third products rather than third spaces, have queried the idea of a third computer anyway. The thinking here is stuck in pre-’New World computing’ mode, to quote from this excellent review of the iPad.

In particular, that Old World thinking centres on a techno-centric view of computing as the ‘universal machine’, or Swiss army knife, capable of doing anything and so highly flexible — and so rarely used to its capacity and for most of its existence using a minute proportion of its processing power. You might almost say this is a resource-abundant view; another anachronism.

But the idea of ‘a primary computer’ is increasingly ridiculous, particularly as we move towards an ‘internet of things’, with data, including media, increasingly fluid, stored anywhere and accessd everywhere.

How many computers do you think you have, or use, already? Just the one? How about in the car, in your phone, in the fridge, in your camera, in the set-top box etc. Think on. It’s already almost impossible to calculate the number of computers most people use in their daily life, just as it is with the data traces contemporary life produces.

We’ll ultimately think of data floating across numerous computers and contexts, some of which are personal and some of which are shared.

So this is not about what some have called “the mythical convergence device” at all, but about multiple devices for divergent spaces.

Obviously, there’s a necessary critique here about ‘more stuff in the world’, which is fair enough. I’m not advocating for multiple computers necessarily — as Apple would have it: an iMac in the living room, a Macbook Pro on the desk, an iPhone for walking, an iPad for the transient bits in-between etc. But it is relatively smart of Apple to now have a stratified yet integrated range of products across all those spaces, you must admit.

That ‘Swiss army knife’ model may well be on the way out. It should be fine to say of a particular product, “Oh you can’t do that on that one”. That’s OK. We don’t expect, say, cars to do everything — off-roading in a Honda Jazz is not recommended, any more than doing the weekly shop in a Lamborghini is. When functions are attempted to combine we end up with monstrosities like the SUV. Or common or garden PC.

As for the lack of openness that has been critiqued, long-time readers will know that I’ve often been an advocate for open systems, but many will also know that the form of development involved in open systems tends to mitigate against ease of use. Poor design also mitigates against ease-of-use, of course — the hours I’ve put in explaining the difference between files and directories to Windows users cannot be got back. Paul Dourish, in the Where The Action Is, explored the mental models underpinning computing. It’s clear that many users, and potential users, will never want to, or be able to, live within those mental models. So to me, a relatively closed or controlled system that abstracts files and folders yet still enables a way into computing may be a price well worth paying, at least on this device (which again, is not the only computer in the village.)

Stephen Fry has nailed why many Apple products work for many people — because they’re not open, because they’re controlled. Democracy and openness does not always make good city form, either. Sometimes, often, it leads directly to NIMBYism, or consultative processes so convoluted that nothing actually gets done. Whereas, sometimes accidentally, dictators often have created great urban spaces (though often some years later). This is a core paradox around openness and control, but there is a time for both. Fry again:

“Yes, I do like and have tried to champion OpenSource software. How can I square that with my love of Apple? I’m complicated. I’m a human being. I also believe in a mixed economy and mixed nuts. I love our National Health Service and the National Theatre, but I also love Fortnum and Mason’s and Hollywood movies.”

Or, in John Gruber’s analogy, the iPad is akin to a shift from manual transmission to automatic in most cars (that won’t go over so well in dear old Blighty, where I think most cars are still sold with manual transmission, apparently out of sheer stubbornness.)

A more fundamental critique may occur around ‘seamfulness vs. seamlessness’. The lack of seams — obvious traces of structure that enable users to comprehend and ultimately manipulate the system — in the iPad’s system is what enables that accessible user experience, yet also prevents those users that wish to learn or explore deeper structural or integrative elements from doing so. Again, there are plenty of other devices to explore those aspects with, however. Not every device has to do everything.

Either way, as John Gruber notes, it’s more complex than that in that, when he says,

“Apple like their technologies open and their products closed”.

Others have critiqued it as a consumption device rather than a production device. While I think it’s too early to make that critique — as we don’t know what software will be produced for it yet, nor how it will work — this also falls into the trap of thinking about users using one machine for everything, that everything should do everything. This is not a displacement device — replacing a laptop, say — but works alongside other devices. And those devices more oriented towards creative work won’t go away. Quite the opposite.

Incidentally: It’s been funny watching the videos of people trying to figure out the gestural controls — fidgety taps, repeated swipes, awkward pinches, agitated pecking. Like a teenager fumbling with a bra strap.

Incidentally: A camera would be nice of course, but it also would’ve meant that the fluid sense of orientation that Ive talks about in the promo is gone. Would you chat in landscape or portrait? Either. Portrait would be like talking to a Bill Viola ‘icon’ piece, and so quite appealing if unsettling. Landscape is more likely, but then the camera would be on the side of the device, near the thumb, when in portrait orientation.

Apologies to Bill Viola

Incidentally: In designing a computer “for the rest of us”, finally, 25 years after promising to do so, perhaps the best analogy for the iPad, as a product designed for everyday people, is actually the AK47, or in car terms, the Mini, 2CV or perhaps Trabant. Crucially, it does not yet share the adaptability, innate or crafted, of those products as a piece of industrial design, nor quite as software design. Yet. But if the rhetoric around ‘New World computing’ is right, it’s worth considering how it stacks up against these genuine pioneers.

Scaling the interface

All is not perfect, however. Some of those screenshots and videos of the iPad software in action unfortunately make all-too-clear some issues with Apple’s interface design. Although some elements of the iPhone software have always been problematic, the scale of the iPad screen brought it home to roost. The trigger was seeing the risible Notes scaled up to 9.7 inches, where the full horror of that interface design became evident.

There appears to be a schizophrenic character (if you’ll permit me to mis-use that term, no offence intended) to Apple’s software design, entirely at odds with its highly consistent hardware design.

Even at this distance, some parts of the UI look fantastic, like the YouTube app, or the core applications of Mail, Safari, iTunes, most of iPhoto etc. They are entirely in-sync with the clean machined lines and brushed textures of the Dieter Rams-influenced industrial design of Ive+team.

On Jonathan Ive’s Wikipedia page, it (at time of writing) states the most recent ‘phase’ that Apple has been going through is amusingly though accurately dubbed ‘extreme minimalism’ or ‘dark aluminium’. In the NYT, Paul Saffo says “a defining quality of Apple has been design restraint.” In the same article, Steve Jobs is quoted thus:

“Great products, according to Mr. Jobs, are triumphs of “taste.” And taste, he explains, is a byproduct of study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.””

But what do they think when iBook pops up in these surroundings? Likewise, Contacts, and even Calendar to some extent, appear to be trying to be desk diaries. iTunes doesn’t try to be a shelf full of vinyl records at all.

Notes, IBook, the Dock itself, parts of iWork, most of Calendar and Contacts are quite different, indulging in faux-textures, references to physical objects like desk diaries, 3D spatial metaphors, ‘spacey’ background images and so on; an entirely different interface language. What’s going on?

iBook in particular seems very rushed, and not great. That shelf interface is particularly horrible. While the bookshelf metaphor was trailblazed by Delicious Monster a few years back, it hasn’t improved with time. Why would a Rams-fan such as Ive settle for clumsy faux-wooden shelving? Particularly when you might have referenced the Ram’s designed 606 shelving system, which is about as perfect as shelving-as-modular-interface can get?

I don’t actually think that the interface should literally ape the 606, by the way — just that it might be better moving in that direction rather than some thrift store, sub-Leksvik, chunky wood monstrosity made by outsider artists. It would reinforce the holistic nature of the design across hardware and software. Even better would be to ditch the shelf metaphor altogether in favour of something more appropriate for digital content, more innate to the medium.

Within iBook, the layout of the books’ pages are fraught with issues. As many have picked up, the idea of automatically justified text is either lazy or ignorant. Either way it’s not great, in almost all contexts. Likewise the fonts they’ve got listed. While changing size is handy, obviously, these ‘features’ such as forced justified paragraphs in only six typefaces utterly negates the idea of book design, a complex and beautiful craft. Apple in particular ought to think more carefully about this.

Equally, the page turning metaphor Is without much merit. As with the designers of Mag+, I wasn’t looking for a ‘realistic’ page-curl from a new interface on reading. So much effort has gone into that page curl, and yet it still will not feel like paper. It will feel like touching a screen.

In an otherwise useful review by Andy Ihnatko:

“On the iPad, it feels as though you put your finger on the bottom-right corner of the page and dragged that corner towards the spine of the book until it flipped over.”

No, it doesn’t. This is ‘ocularcentric’ thinking (that Pallasmaa et al have so brilliantly critiqued, if not eradicated, sadly, in architectural discourse) — the mistaken belief that somehow sight overrides all other senses. Or that in this case, visual feedback is so convincing that it substitutes for touch. Touch is another sense altogether, and the iPad has no sense of that, having no feedback for texture, or weight of object (at least in this version).

So this part of the interface is entirely skeuomorphic, and valuable processor-time, screen real-estate and gestural interactions would be better spent on the new functionality enabled by this new medium. You can call it an e-book — and reading Bleak House on on an iPad is still reading a book, from a content point-of-view. But from an interface point-of-view it is not a book, or a magazine, but something else, a window onto text, with new possibilities, and so new affordances. It would be far better to focus on new functional manoeuvres, like clipping text, saving/quoting elsewhere, contextual services, ‘scrobbling’ reading patterns and so on.

I look forward to seeing a Kindle app for the iPad, if Amazon can bring themselves to do it. They (Amazon) can then drop out of the hardware market. Amazon thus far has been about transcending hardware; the first hardware it transcended was the mainstream bookshop. Equally, I’d guess iBook should be much better by launch.

But does the software mentioned above even come from the same team that designs iTunes, Mail etc? And how is design co-ordinated across the hardware and software? I’m aware these are age-old discussions around Apple’s design team and process, but each new product seems to highlight these occasional, but meaningful, inconsistencies even more.

The other effect of the iPad I’m interested in is how its scale might affect the application interfaces, and applications themselves. The iPhone had indicated that for many apps the screen and associated interaction model was effectively the right scale for many basic applications. While interaction designers for mobile would argue they’d been exploring (relatively) small screen interfaces for years, the explosion of innovation that Apple’s App Store model enables has both honed and expanded interaction around applications.

In this respect, I’d argue that Facebook on the iPhone is far superior to Facebook on the PC, partly as all the extraneous chrome and optional functionality is pared back to a core. Ditto Tweetie for Twitter, Google apps and so on. Incidentally, the App Store model also means that users paid for applications direct, rather than through advertising, which I think is far healthier in many respects cf. newspapers. The advantage is that interfaces can be honed around core function rather than advertising.

There’s a focus forced by the constraint of the iPhone that leads to better UI. I think the iPad has the same possibilities — constraints in terms of screen, input mode etc — but across a wider set of more complex applications. Some reviewers have indicated this effect of these constraints on the iPad’s software already:

“I was struck by the amount of restraint the apps’ designers used. A bigger screen increases the temptation to just keep adding interface elements. And yet it’s remarkably uncluttered. All of the features of a “real” spreadsheet are there, but there are appear to be fewer buttons and controls here than what you’d find on a typical Android tip-calculator app.”

I think the really interesting point will come when a truly meaningful piece of productive software — Photoshop, SketchUp, or Omnigraffle, say — is attempted on the iPad. I would hope that it’s possible to compress Photoshop’s interface by half at least. (Of course Adobe are at an interesting point in their relationship with Apple, so we’ll see …)

With iPad I hope we’ll see that there is a middle-ground between the phone and the laptop, and that the way the application interfaces are designed defines that as much as any aspect of the hardware. If we start seeing genuinely productive or creative software appearing on it, those who talk of it ‘merely’ being a machine ‘for consumption’ might need to re-think. (Please read alongside earlier points about the device being part of a system of interactions, rather than a closed all-purpose system.)

If it’s technically possible to develop a Processing environment, a sawn-off Photoshop or Illustrator, Sketchup, Omnigraffle for the iPad, then I see no reason why Apple wouldn’t move those apps to the front of the shop, and thus the iPad becomes productive, at least in a traditional sense.

The iPad abstracts away complexity such that files, folders, and multi-tasking are effectively invisible or inactive, which will require a new approach to, say, sharing multiple edited versions of images between applications and spaces. It’s not at all impossible to imagine productive workflows that do not require foregrounded multi-tasking or obvious, seam-ful access to filesystems. Conceptually, there is nothing in computer science that states that this must be so. It’s just become the de facto standard approach to operating system and application design. So this will require a ‘New World computing’ approach to re-thinking how we might do it, and that’s not a bad thing. It’ll be interesting to see how people approach it.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on February 8, 2010.


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