Apple iPad – is it a Lightful interface?

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All the hype and expectations aside, the release of the iPad has actually marked an pivotal change in personal computing. Not on its own merits as a computer, or a replacement for the laptop, but because it represents the first true direct-manipulation user interface PC.
There are plenty of people who will argue whether the iPad is a PC or not, and I’ll leave that debate up to the people that feel like wasting their energy on it. For my purposes, it is a computer, it’s meant for personal use, therefore, the iPad is a PC.
The key question is, does this represent a new era in the way people interact with computers?
In my view, it does—but first, let me explain what I mean when I say that computers are entering a “fourth era,” the era of direct manipulation.

Four generations of user interfaces

The first era was the “Query/Response” model, where a computer operator would present a query to a computer through flipping switches, entering punch cards, or some similar mode of input. The computer would then process the answer, and return a response at a later time, often to be delivered to the original supplicant by an intermediary (the computer operator) who would interpret the computer’s output and render it understandable by humans. This era began with the first computers of the 1940s, and lasted for decades.
The second era began with the great innovation known as the command line interface, or CLI. Beginning in the early 1960s, computers emerged which were able to accept commands directly from a keyboard, and return meaningful output on the screen. Interactivity was born.
Until Saturday, we were in the third era – the age of the graphical user interface, or GUI. Invented in the 1970s at Xerox PARC, and commercialized by Apple with the Macintosh in 1984, the GUI is so ubiquitous that most people equate the familiar windows, icons, menus and pointers with the very concept of “computer.”
The fourth wave in computer interfaces is the direct manipulation interface. The direct manipulation interface is one where the user no longer has to rely on pointing devices like a mouse, trackpad, or stylus, and instead can touch and manipulate items on the screen just as if they were moving things in the real world.

Entering the fourth era

For the direct manipulation interface to take hold in mainstream computing, capacitive touchscreens and multi-touch first had to be invented. Jeff Han famously introduced multi-touch at the TED conference in 2006, and the technology quickly leapt into use with Microsoft Surface and, of course, the iPhone.
A host of mobile devices followed soon after, all supporting direct manipulation in one respect or another, and a few Windows-based PCs have had multi-touch capability hurriedly bolted on. Even the new Macbooks have multi-touch trackpads.
The PCs have not been direct manipulation interfaces, because they still use the ‘80s-era interface conventions of the windows, icons, menus and pointer (sometimes shortened into WIMP). Neither do the Macbooks have direct manipulation interfaces, because not only are they using the WIMP paradigm, the multi-touch input is not even on the screen.
As for the iPhone, and other multi-touch mobile devices, they have moved past the concept of the WIMP-style GUI, but their small screens and limited use (at least relative to laptops or desktops) meant that most people didn’t consider the idea that their PCs should act like their phones.
The iPad, however, is large enough and powerful enough that it enters laptop territory. Forget about whether it is powerful enough to run Photoshop, whether it can play games like an Xbox 360, or whether you can connect a scanner or a printer to it. The important thing is that the average person, after using an iPad for a few days, will start to look at their laptop and wonder why it doesn’t do some things more like the iPad.

Lightful – principles for direct manipulation computers

For some years now, I’ve been talking about the problem with modern computer interfaces. They’ve been built by engineers, for engineers, for so many years, that even when concepts like the GUI took the stage, the first considerations for any new interface were still technical ones. Designing for the user always comes later, and the computer’s needs always come first.
As a result, we’ve ended up with machines that are authoritative, rude, demanding, and often just plain mysterious.

A few years ago, I began a thought experiment. What if computers were designed first by usability specialists, with the user in mind, and the engineers arrived afterwards to design a system that could meet people’s real needs? In 2008, I gave my thought experiment a name—Lightful—and started drafting some principles and speculating on some ways such a system might work.

iPad next to a paper prototype for Lightful

The iPad has a number of things in common with my ideal Lightful system, and a number of things that are different.
A Lightful system is intended to become invisible to the user when they’re working, to fade into the background. Jeff Bezos articulated the concept when he introduced the Kindle, saying it was meant to disappear so there was nothing but the reader and the words. To do that, one thing that has to happen is that the screen has to return to a more natural location, similar to a drafting table, or Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk.
A Lightful system has to let the user concentrate on the task at hand, whether it’s work, play, communication, or anything else. Full-screen workspaces are a key part of being able to concentrate.
My own vision of a Lightful system has generally been a direct manipulation interface, although it’s possible to achieve the goals of a user-centered system with pointing devices, or even just a keyboard. See Jef Raskin’s amazing Canon Cat for proof that a keyboard alone can be sufficient input for a user-centered computer.

Real-world use: the first weekend with the iPad

The iPad has these things in common with the Lightful vision, and it’s been gratifying to spend the weekend with a device that lets me experience directly some of the interface paradigms that will eventually be taken for granted.
I purchased the Apple-designed iPad case as well, which is as much a part of the iPad’s form factor in my mind as the iPad itself. The case is similar to a legal pad holder, so that it can be held open like a book—much like cases for the Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle. The iPad case, however, also transforms into a stand, allowing the iPad to be held upright, displayed at about a 70 degree angle, or set on the desk at a 20 degree angle, approximating the Jefferson writing desk I mentioned earlier.
The first thing I noticed when using the iPad at my desk was how much more connected I felt to my real environment than when using a laptop. Without a screen blocking my view of the room, I no longer felt submerged in the glow of the pixels, separate from “real life.” I could use the iPad for the task I intended to do, but when I was done, I didn’t feel compelled to continue staring at it, idly browsing web sites or fussing with the machine. Like a newspaper or a notepad, I was able to set it aside and enjoy my environment.
I downloaded a few apps for the iPad, including AOL’s instant messenger, NPR, Evernote, GoodReader, Dictionary.com, and several games and magazines. The concentration and focus that comes with using full-screen apps can’t be overemphasized. Without menu bars and overlapping windows vying for my attention, I could do what I came to do without the ADD twitch of multi-tasking guilt tapping me constantly on the proverbial shoulder. The pleasure of using a computer without distracting toolbars was so complete that when I watched a movie with Netflix, and the iPad’s clock and battery status bar remained at the top of the screen, it was an almost shocking intrusion.
That phrase, multi-tasking, however, leads to one of the criticisms of the iPad that is most likely to be heard over the coming weeks and months. The iPad, of course, does not multi-task. Certain apps created by Apple, such as iPod, Mail, and Calendar, can run in the background, just like the iPhone, but like the iPhone, multi-tasking is for all intents and purposes unavailable to the user.

The Apple Way

Apple has done this with the best intentions—by limiting external developers’ ability to do certain things, such as run background apps, they ensure that the iPad will remain as stable as possible, and fulfill that important mantra, “it just works.”
These best intentions, however, highlight Apple’s philosophy and the role they envision for the iPad. Apple believes in protecting users from themselves, and sees the user as someone who would only mess things up if they had too much access. It’s no accident that most Apple products now come with sealed battery compartments—the first Macintosh was so hermetically sealed that a special tool was required just to open the case.
This hasn’t always been the Apple way, however. I still have my Apple ][ plus, with its pop-off lid and easy access to even the most core system components. At computer camp one summer in the ‘80s, we built electronic interfaces between Apple computers and remote controlled cars, running wires from a breadboard directly into the 16-pin I/O port on the motherboard, and sending electrical pulses out of the computer with simple POKE commands. It could be argued that it was this level of access that helped secure the Apple II’s success. For myself, at least, I avoided the Macintosh in the ‘80s, preferring to stick with the more open and visible model of the Apple II. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Steve Jobs, famous for his love of control, cited the Macintosh as Apple’s first revolutionary product when he introduced the iPhone, rather than mentioning the anarchic, open Apple II.
The iPad may represent Steve Job’s ultimate vision—an utterly sealed, completely locked-down computer, appliance-like and under the ultimate control of the mothership.
In this sense, the iPad may become a Moses device, like the Macintosh of 1984, pointing the way to the Promised Land of the next wave of computing, but fated to ultimately be left behind while others enter the land.

A next-generation computer, but it’s not a computer

The iPad has a number of things in common with the Lightful vision, but a number of things that are different. In order to be useful as a general-purpose computer, a direct-manipulation system needs to be capable of everything that current-generation GUI systems are. In order to be worth using instead of a WIMP-style GUI, a direct-manipulation system needs to do many things better.
A Lightful system, in contrast to an iPad, needs to be more than just invisible, it needs to be ultimately visible. The user needs to be able to know exactly what is going on inside, even if he might not understand. It needs to be capable of managing a robust, complex, and extensive file system. It should use services and tools, rather than monolithic applications. It needs to be ultimately subservient to the user, letting her use a pen or a brush as well as her fingers, stopping whatever it is doing when the user chooses to interrupt, and returning smoothly to its task afterwards.
A Lightful system has to be forgiving, allowing a user to undo absolutely anything, as far back as they like. It needs to be collaborative, so that the separation between systems becomes irrelevant to users.
The next wave of personal computers will be tools, not appliances. There will be a place for the iPad, and there will be many other appliance-like devices sharing its space in the minds of the public. For a huge portion of the population, the only “computers” they will ever need will be iPad-like devices, dedicated to communication, or entertainment, or even specialized functions at their job.
The iPad’s place in history is assured as the first of many pads and appliance-style tablets, and in form factor alone it is fulfilling the promise of many a sci-fi movie or novel of the past thirty years or so. Its real meaning, however, will be as the device that popularized the direct manipulation interface, and ushered in the fourth wave of human-computer interaction; even though it may never itself be seen as a personal computer.

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