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The Magical iPad

This is part three in a series on last week’s iPad event. Part 1: Whither Liberal Arts? | Part 2: The Missing “Why” of the iPad | Part 3: The Magical iPad

In The Missing “Why” of the iPad I wrote:

Yesterday’s presentation covered the “What” and “How” of the iPad, but it had nothing about “Why.” Why does the iPad exist? Why should consumers buy it? Why does it matter? These are answers that cannot be found in a spreadsheet or focus group, but only in experience, empathy, and philosophy – i.e. in the liberal arts.

To be clear, not knowing the “why” is a rather common affliction. Microsoft, for one, has been rather explicit in characterising the iPad as just a (poor) PC. In response to last week’s iPad event, Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Communications wrote:

Since we launched the Surface line of tablets last year, one of the themes we’ve consistently used to talk about them is that they are a terrific blend of productivity and entertainment in one lightweight, affordable package. In fact, we’re confident that they offer the best combination of those capabilities available on the market today.

That’s not an accident, it’s exactly what we set out to design. We saw too many people carrying two devices around (one for work and one for play) and dealing with the excess cost, weight and complexity that “dual carrying” entails. We believed that there was another, better way: A tablet built to offer great touch-based entertainment activities combined with a productivity powerhouse that helps people crank through the stuff they have to get done before they watch zombies or flick birds.

That’s what Surface is. A single, simple, affordable device that helps you both lean in and kick back. Let’s be clear – helping folks kill time on a tablet is relatively easy. Give them books, music, videos and games, and they’ll figure out the rest. Pretty much all tablets do that.

But helping people be productive on a tablet is a little trickier. It takes an understanding of how people actually work, how they get things done, and how to best support the way they do things already.

The good news is that Microsoft understands how people work better than anyone else on the planet.

This statement is true in a way that I very highly doubt Shaw – or just about anyone at Microsoft – truly understand or appreciates. It’s not so much that Microsoft knows how people work; rather, their thinking about everything pertaining to tablets – their imagination about what is possible – is limited by what can be done on a PC.

And so, the Surface is first marketed based on an accessory – a keyboard – that makes it more like a PC. The second wave of ads are spec comparisons focused on the PC-lite features like multi-tasking and multiple-accounts. And the presence of Windows is a feature, not a bug.

In short, Microsoft may know how people work now, but cannot imagine the type of work that people want to do, but cannot or will not do on a PC.


Mickey is a musician. He falls asleep with his guitar in hand, and has done so since he was a teenager, finding refuge from an uncertain adolescence in rock-and-roll. He experiences life through music, and when a line or a riff enters his head, he has learned to lay it down sooner rather than later. He uses an iPad to do just that; after all, an iPad is not a PC, but rather the most portable recording setup ever.

Jane is an artist, at least at heart. She showed remarkable ability as a child, but her parents ultimately passed up the opportunity to send her to art school in favor a more practical education. She always wondered what might-have-been, but now art seems more like a dream, one she doesn’t even know how to begin to pursue. Now in her 30′s, Jane discovered Paper on her iPad, and started sketching. There was no investment needed to get started, simply touch the screen. Her iPad is not a PC, but rather the most accessible art studio ever.

Richard is a student. As is the norm in his education-obsessed country, he commutes nearly two hours a day on the bus and subway to his elite high school. Formerly he lugged along backpack so full of books it had wheels; now he has a simple messenger bag with a notebook and a textbook with the brandname iPad. And, when his brain is fried, it magically turns into a television.

Selina is a child. She and her family live abroad, and she attends the local school taught in a different language than her own. It’s ok though; Selina’s father buys her English books to read on her English reader (also known as an iPad), at a price far cheaper than the local foreign-language bookstore. And sometimes, when she’s finished reading, she simply plays; last week she created a photo collage of herself and her brother, without any training.

Monica is retired, free to finally devote her time to her children and grandchildren. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – Monica’s children have done well for themselves and are scattered all over the country, even world. Monica, though, who has never used a computer, keeps close tabs on all of them through Facebook and Facetime, on an iPad she bought on her own, a fact that Monica is all too happy to share with anyone who asks.


Each of these individuals is using an iPad, but none of them are using an iPad. Rather:

  • Mickey is using a portable recording studio
  • Jane is using an accessible art studio
  • Richard is using a one-pound library
  • Selina is using a foreign-language reader
  • Monica is using a family-connector

Moreover, they are all doing work. They are all being productive. And what they are doing would be prohibitively more difficult on a PC.

If your worldview of productivity is limited to what can be done on a PC – documents, spreadsheets, presentations, coding – then of course you will produce a product that is like a PC, but worse for having tablet features. Of course you’ll produce a Surface.

If, though, your worldview of productivity is defined not by the PC, but rather by people – by the liberal arts – then you will produce a product that is nothing like a PC, but rather an intimate, responsive object that invites people in, and transforms itself into whatever you need it to be.

You’ll produce an iPad.


Watching Steve Jobs at D8 in 2010, it’s clear he came up with the now famous “iPads are cars, PCs are trucks” analogy on the spur of the moment.1 The entire exchange, though, is worth a rewatch:

The transcript:

Walt Mossberg: Is the tablet going to eventually replace the laptop do you think? There are a lot of people who say “Well you’ll never do content creation on it” for instance.” Talk about what you think where it’s going, not just the iPad, but the tablet itself as a form factor.

Steve Jobs: You know, uhm, [long pause], uh, I’m trying to think of a good analogy.

When we were an agrarian nation all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, and America started to move into those urban and then suburban centers, cars got more popular and innovations like automatic transmissions and power steering and things you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. And now, probably, I don’t know what the statistics, maybe 1 out of every 25 vehicles, 30 vehicles is a truck, where it used to be 100%.

PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used like 1 out of X people.

WM: And when you say PC, just so I’m clear, it’s not PC versus Mac, you mean…

SJ: Personal computers

WM: Personal computers and you’re including laptops and desktops.

SJ: Yeah! And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy. People from the PC world, like you and me. It’s going to make us uneasy, because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. But, and we like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen I think it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, because it’s change, and a lot of vested interests are going to change, and it’s going to be different. So, I think that we’re embarked on that. Is it the iPad? Who knows. Will it happen next year or five years from now or seven years from now, who knows? But I think we’re headed in that direction.

Here then, is my concern for Apple: it’s the PC guys – or Mac guys, if you prefer – who have taken over iOS, and last week’s presentation was a little too truck-heavy. It’s not so much that Frank Shaw was mistaken; rather, it’s that Apple even gave him the opening to attack. It was Apple that decided to spend more time on the Mac than on the iPad. It was Apple that saved the most-extensive software demo for iWork, and even then, only on a Mac and browser (and just as well: PC software works best on a PC. It’s not really the best selling point for the iPad). It was Apple that was unable to focus on the product and experience that is far more magical and transformative than the PC/Mac will ever be, and instead deliver a smorgasbord of product announcements, most of which are (relatively) unimportant.

I’ve written previously that the iPad is a truly disruptive product. It is inferior to a PC on the attributes that matter to PC-users, even as it excels on orthogonal attributes that appeal to a new type of customer. Those orthogonal attributes certainly include things like portability and battery life, features highlighted in last week’s event. But the more essential attributes are those that make the iPad very much not a PC. The immersiveness of apps, and responsiveness of touch. The safety of iOS, and the discoverability of the app store. None of these attributes were highlighted; indeed, the iPad was not even demoed. It’s as if Apple is doing its darndest to undisrupt itself.

Again, from D8:

SJ: You know, people laugh at me because I have used the phrase “magical” to describe the iPad.

KS: Yes, they do.

SJ: But that’s what I really think. There is something magical about it. It’s like you have a much more direct and intimate relationship with the Internet and media, your apps, your content. It’s like something’s, some intermediate things has been removed and stripped away.

KS: Like the keyboard.

SJ: You know, like that Claritin commercial where they strip away the film, it’s like that. And, is it the direct action? Is it the fact you can move it all around? Is it the fact that you have no cables and 10 hour battery life? I don’t know. It’s all these things plus other things which I don’t understand yet. But there’s something about it that’s magical. And, I think we have, we are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps we can build with it. I think one can create a lot of content on a tablet.

“Magical” as an adjective is deeply uncomfortable for us geeks especially. The very idea of believing in something that can’t be explained, much less quantified, is so foreign that it is almost immediately rejected. And yet, cultures the world over believe in the supernatural. Humans believe in that which they cannot explain, or fully understand. And they respond to that, and it’s the liberal arts that helps us comprehend their response.

The “why” of the iPad, then, lies in its magic. It’s in the experience, and, crucially, it’s in the apps.2 The iPad is not an iPad, yet-another-Apple device to weigh down your bag and your wallet. Rather, it is whatever, and exactly, you need it to be.

If you are a musician, the iPad is your instrument, your studio. If you are an artist, the iPad is your paint brush, your easel. If you are a student, the iPad is your textbook. If you are a child, the iPad is your storybook, or your entertainment. If you are a grandma, the iPad is your connection to your family.

If you are human, the iPad is your magic wand. And, honestly, who does not want a magic wand? And why isn’t Apple selling it as such?

  1. One wonders if Jobs, had he had more time to think, wouldn’t have gone with bicycle instead
  2. Apple’s reluctance to help build a sustainable model for apps is particularly problematic for the iPad

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