The iPad: Two worlds collide

The iPad sure is a “magical and revolutionary” piece of kit, to quote Apple’s Steve Jobs, but for me what it really does is highlight how many actually magical and truly revolutionary standards and technologies it – and by extension, all our home entertainment kit – relies on.

Consider what the iPad would look like to a person from a past as recent as the 1990s. A slim shard of technology with a couple of buttons and one tiny slot on the bottom. What makes it run? Who knows. How does it store its data? It’s a mystery. Where are the wires? There aren’t any. Yet, it somehow gets onto the Internet and displays all this content on a clear, bright screen. Which responds to multiple, feather-light touches.

What’s interesting about the relationship between Apple and iPad customers is how much Apple is able to assume about the people who buy this toy. To start with, the company can assume they have WiFi at home, because without WiFi, it’s a real pain to get any content onto the iPad.

But having WiFi implies something else, it implies you have a router. Less than a decade ago, the routers you could find in a residential home were entire other dedicated PCs with multiple network adaptors: expensive and very technical to set up.

As so many of its critics have been quick to crow, the iPad has no inputs at all except its custom Apple adaptor, which both charges the device and allows you to squirt on data like music, movies and photos.

It’s essentially a USB cable, which seems perfectly mundane today, but again, at the turn of the millennium the idea of a high-speed, standardised data link from PC to device was, if not unheard of, then certainly a long way from commonplace.

Yet Apple can assume its customers have all these things: wireless router, USB, a whole other PC (or Mac, of course) to manage the iPad’s data. It can assume its customers have broadband Internet, so embedded apps like YouTube can work properly.

Apple iPad

The easy-peasy computer

This kind of confidence in the user’s ability to operate the device to its full potential has previously been restricted to the consumer electronics sector. TVs are so universal because the only bit of extra kit you need is an antenna. Audio setups are entirely self-contained, as long as you have electricity.

Computers, on the other hand, have always been nightmarish. Designers and manufacturers have had to work with the “lowest common denominator” to ensure the device will give some kind of utility, even to those users who refuse to buy any accessories, put the thing online, or indeed purchase any additional software.

The iPad, despite its extremely streamlined interface and despite Apple’s protestations, is very much a computer. It does computery things. But it’s a new kind of computer, one where its manufacturer has said “stuff it, we will assume the best, and our sales will support that assumption”.

With more than a million units already shipped in the US, the assumption appears to have paid off. What the iPad’s success has shown is that people really do want an Internet device that gives them the bulk of their PC’s functionality, all wrapped in a package that’s as easy to operate as, say, a television. Or, more accurately perhaps, a PVR.