The iPad, and the Staggering Work of Obviousness

by amy


On Thursday, I set my iPad up for the first time with the fold-out case and Bluetooth keyboard. And I got walloped but good by Nostalgia. Nostalgia that was chunky and green.

The heartbreaking fate of the lovable Newton is exemplar of everything that is wrong at an Apple without Steve Jobs, and why a customer reaction of “Is that it?” can be a product designer’s best friend.

Take a little trip in my time machine

We can’t pretend to understand the present without first understanding the past. In this case, Apple’s past:

1998: A revolutionary, lovable Apple PDA with little squareish icons, on-screen keyboard, common icons across the bottom, single-tasking, and the best compact keyboard of the decade, complete with an ungainly but functional fold-out case. The Newton.

2010: A revolutionary, lovable Apple PDA with little squareish icons, on-screen keyboard, common icons across the bottom, single-tasking, and the best compact keyboard of the decade, complete with an ungainly but functional fold-out case. The iPad.

One an unmitigated, iconic flop, the other destined to be a success of Biblical proportions.

What a difference a decade makes.

What a difference a Steve makes.

The unbearable lightness of being steved

Steve brutalizes any attempted whizzbang without a real purpose. He’s so famous for it that he’s got his own verb.

Cutting-edge tech, fabulous, intuitive, friendly interface, lovable design — none of it matters, and nobody knows that more than Steve.

The Newton had all of those things and more. To own a Newton was to love it. It had the smile factor unlike anything else, since the original Macintosh.

The Newton was too ahead of its time. The final version, the MessagePad 2100, was released almost exactly a decade earlier than the first iPhone.

And so when Steve came back to Apple, he steved the Newton.

now, the technical problems were nothing

Critics slammed the Newton for being overpriced, for not having enough software, for the green screen, for the handwriting recognition’s imperfections, and for its chunky design — well, they didn’t get it then, and they sure as hell don’t get it now.

The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it.

There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.

Nothing like it had ever existed before. It was revolutionary. It was a total surprise.

the ipad has technical problems too, but it doesn’t matter

Today, of course, it’s an entirely different story: we’re all intimately familiar with the concept of the little computer in our pocket. We fell repeatedly for watered-down Palm handhelds which, in reality, we used rarely; we replaced them with iPhones, which we use too much.

Now the same critics who shit-canned the Newton for the wrong reasons are shit-canning the iPad for the wrong reasons.

The iPad, though, unlike the Newton, is going to win, and win on an epic scale.

Nevertheless, the shortsightedness of punditry is evergreen. Instead of praising the iPad, critics express their disappointment, because they expected more. They expected a genre buster. They expected something they’d never seen before, something beyond their imagination. Something revolutionary.

They’re disappointed that the iPad is so… well… unsurprising.

Therein, of course, lies the genius.

the ipad is barely a surprise at all

The design, delivery, and timing of the iPad couldn’t be more different than the Newton. The iPad wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s the capstone in a family of devices.

There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely.

“Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

It doesn’t matter if they utter that phrase in distaste. That little sand grain of dismissal becomes the core around which will form a pearl of understanding.

“Trying to deal with email on the iPhone is tough. The screen’s too small.”

“I wish we could both work on this at the same time.”

“I’d like to sketch concepts with touch, but I keep running off the borders.”

Ding ding ding.

Steve knows, better maybe than anyone else, that you don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it, first.

And it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.

the “of course” model of innovation diffusion

People won’t buy a product if they can’t understand it immediately. They can’t understand it immediately if their worldview doesn’t already have a readymade place for it. And their worldview won’t have a readymade place for it, if they’ve never seen anything like it before.

Steve expertly wields the powerful tool that is the feeling of recognition.

That feeling tells us, hey, I’ve been here before, and good things happened, and people were nice to me. Recognition is a poor man’s wisdom. It helps people decide whether to buy. Without recognition, they won’t even entertain the question.

So, because one Steve is worth a zillion other CEOs, Apple paves the way to the future by giving us devices we can understand today, in order to create more revolutionary (but still recognizable) devices tomorrow.

Do you doubt that the iPod was laying the groundwork for the iPad all along?

the takeaway for you, the designer

The question becomes not Why is the iPad so obvious? but rather, What’s next that we’ll consider obvious by the time it comes?

And How can I be the one to do it or take advantage of it?

And, How can I use the feeling of recognition to introduce my next product?

Intrigued? My personality-based recommendation system suggests that you also try my previous essay, Don’t Listen to Le Corbusier — Or Jakob Nielsen.

If you’re a freelancer, consultant, or somebody else who values their time, you should also check out Freckle time tracking, a product I designed & run.

I wrote and edited this essay in its entirety on my iPad, using my Apple bluetooth keyboard, and the iPad Pages app, and posted using the WordPress app. I only inserted the images on my Mac. It was awesome… and reminded me of writing posts for my old Mac news site, circa 1998, on my Newton MessagePad. Sniff.

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