The next computer revolution

Over the last three decades we have become so used to the rapid pace of technological change that we are apt to miss changes that are truly revolutionary. Or maybe it’s that we hear the words ‘game changer’ or ‘paradigm shift’ bandied about so much that we have become a tad blasé about the real thing when we see it.

But there are some compelling reasons for us to pay attention to Apple’s new iPad as the herald of a new era in computing. Just ask Alan Kay.

Kay is one the greatest minds and influential people in the history of computers. He worked in the 1970s at the legendary Xerox Research Center in Palo Alto, California. It was there that he famously said that ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’, and that’s exactly what he went on to accomplish, inventing 30 years before they could be technically implemented the concepts for such things as portable computers and always-on mobile computing.

It was also Kay who developed the ‘graphical user interface’ based on a desktop metaphor, with overlapping application windows navigated with a pointing device called a ‘mouse’ – the same interface Apple licensed for the first Mac in the early 1980s and which was in turn copied by Microsoft Windows, thereby finding its way into all the computers we use today on a daily basis.

Three years ago, however, Apple introduced us to a new touch-based interface with the iPhone. Initially other mobile phone manufacturers couldn’t understand what Apple was doing and they derided the iPhone’s lack of physical keyboard and buttons, but with the runaway success of the iPhone and its entire mobile application ecosystem – 150,000 applications and billions of downloads to date – they are now scrambling to catch up and copy Apple’s design.

Back to Alan Kay. His reaction to the iPhone? He apparently told Steve Jobs after watching his iPhone presentation: ‘Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.’

And so enter the iPad, the larger version of the iPhone destined, in Kay’s words, to rule the world. And with it – and its inevitable emulators – computing as we know it will be for ever changed.

Oh, there are plenty of naysayers, of course. They point out that tablet computers, many with better technical features than the iPad, have been around for many years and they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. But that’s to miss the point entirely: all previous tablet computers have tried to make the desktop graphical user interface of the past two and half decades work in a tablet format, and they were therefore entirely unusable outside of a few niche applications.

By contrast, the iPad, extending the touch-based interface millions of people are already familiar with in the iPhone, is the beginning of what could be called the era of ‘natural computing’. Unlike the desktop and laptop computers we have been using for many years, but which are far too complicated for the vast majority of us, the iPad is designed to be a device that is so easy to use that anyone can pick it up and start using it right away, without any training whatsoever.

The reason for that ease of use is that touch-based interfaces aren’t just more obviously and directly interactive than intermediate input devices like the keyboard and mouse, but they also allow the entire design of the computer to adapt completely for each task. By displaying the ideal interface for each application, and only that interface, any user will instantly get it.

The iPad is therefore less a personal computer, more an endlessly morphing information ‘appliance’,  changing mode into whatever device you need it to be – web browser, newspaper, magazine or book reader, presentations device, communicator, media player, game console, or whatever specialised application you put onto it – looking and working just as it should, and as reliably as you would expect any dedicated device would, for that particular task. In this way, the computer becomes a natural part of our daily life, rather than a ‘machine’ that needs to be constantly worked and managed.

Completely new computer platforms don’t come along all that often, but it’s difficult not to agree with Alan Kay that the impact of such a ‘natural computing’  device will be truly revolutionary. Desktop and laptop computers –  with their classic windowed application environments and desktop metaphor interface, as well as all their power and complexity – will not of course disappear overnight and will still have their use for years to come.

But the iPad, and its successors and competitors, will over the next few years almost certainly become the main computing device for most people most of the time, not just while relaxing on their sofas at home, but in our offices and board rooms as well.