Mike Bland

Thoughts on Apple

Reflections on Apple's impact from a Linux-based programmer

- New York
Tags: Apple

Despite my enthusiasm over the the recent Ubuntu Lucid Linux desktop release, at home I’ve mostly found myself playing with my shiny new MacBook Pro—which I bought after realizing that the iPad I’d decided to purchase wouldn’t be compatible with my 5-year-old, G4-based PowerBook running Tiger. A slippery slope, yes, and I went through with my contribution to Apple’s “3 iPads per second” sales phenomenon fully aware of the irrationality of my actions, and aware of the betrayal of my former stated principles: That Linux’s Free Software/Open Source foundation is the way and the light, and that Apple’s walled-garden policy encroaches upon the basic freedoms of users and developers alike.

So what was it that tipped me, despite the high price tags and arguable lack of functionality (in the case of the iPad) and freedom? To some degree there is no rational explanation, and I am not obligated to provide one. But I think that Apple is playing its part to force people to rethink the relationship between engineering, computing, and society, and there are some things that it’s getting right to an awe-inspiring degree.

In my mind, Apple’s focus on the physical experience of its products is just as responsible for the impact as its graphical interfaces (or, in the case of the iPod Shuffle, the lack of a graphical interface at all). Even when an iPhone (which I don’t own), iPad, or MacBook Pro is turned off, it looks and feels both elegant and durable. Regarding the unibody MacBook Pros in particular, the thing just feels more solid than any other notebook on the planet. Using a MBP is a much different physical experience than using any other laptop, just like using an iPhone and an iPad is a much different physical experience from nearly any other computing device—and just like the iPod provided a much different physical experience for enjoying (sharing? consuming?) music.

Focusing on the iPad, apart from demonstrating impeccable engineering quality, it encourages a much different physical model of interaction from the typical portable device. Before the iPad, I berated myself for not being up-to-date on current events and tech trends, largely because I never bothered to manage and peruse my RSS and Atom feeds. Now I sit in the local coffeeshop on the way to work skimming my iPad every morning like the morning paper. And the way I sit is different: I’m not leaning over the table with my hands on the keyboard, typing and clicking; I’m comfortably sunk into my chair, holding the device like a magazine, swiping stories with my finger almost like I was flipping a physical page. Like a colleague told me: “It’s doesn’t feel like I’m at work when I’m reading on my iPad.” Who cares about a lack of multitasking and USB ports when you’re taking the time to consume information and content, rather than at work producing it?

Sure, I could’ve been more disciplined about using the Linux-based devices I already own to do the same thing: my laptop; my desktop; and my Droid. But I didn’t. Why? Whatever it is about the iPad experience, it’s inspired me to stay up-to-date in a way no other device has. I enjoy consuming content on my iPad as much as I’ve begun to enjoy producing it on my MBP. It feels like the right tool for the job.

If the iPad can have such an impact on a somewhat tech-savvy individual like me, what possibilities lay ahead for the iPad and the similar devices that will follow in its wake? Will this new format for presentation and consumption allow for the spread of ideas via new publishing models that can sustain high-quality content production? By changing the physical model for consuming information, will we be able to make information more accessible to more of the world population at lower power and (eventually) lower cost? Such questions are no substitute for deep thought, but they are the necessary first ingredient.

With all of the power to share and consume information, I would hope that perspectives might broaden and that dominant themes of online discourse would move away from shallow social interactions and outrageously divisive rhetoric. Technology (and the iPad in particular) won’t solve that, but it will provide even more leverage for whichever trends may emerge. (And, of course, I’m speaking of my own preference. I’m not King of the Interwebs, and neither would I ever wish nor presume to be. May the fittest meme win.)

Even if it may be argued that they didn’t invent many of the innovations they’re known for, Apple has focused on the physical usability and experience of computing products more than anyone, and over the long term that has earned them the success they now enjoy. They are producing bold new technologies in a series of accessible products (if you can afford them) on a grand scale before anyone else, and as such are rightly credited with a significant degree of societial impact and economic upheaval of established industries in recent years. Love ’em or hate ’em, their products or their policies, Apple is doing important work to advance the technological state of the art, with strong repercussions for the society in which their technology is applied. And I choose to find out for myself firsthand what those repercussions might be.