February 3, 2010

The padded desktop

Has it really been only a week since the iPad was unveiled? Perhaps the month’s worth of analysis that has transpired in the intervening days makes it seem longer ago. I think one can wring from the discussion a certain Solomonic prediction: The iPad will fail at exactly what Apple decided was outside its scope, and will succeed at precisely what falls inside it. I don’t see much debate as to how well it appears to approach what is within that scope—only how the scope will increase with time.

Apple products expand scope gradually but deliberately. The 2001 iPod was a music player and a hard drive. The 2005 version could display calendars, play solitaire, display a slideshow on your TV, and run feature-length films. The 2010 iPad is a big iPhone. You know how this goes. But there’s more to Apple’s tablet than its own scope.

Evolution and adaptation

Let’s take a step back. The iPad will evolve, it will influence the design of other tablets, perhaps tablet computing will indeed be reborn and draw significant numbers of casual users away from desktop computing as the iPad’s strongest supporters suggest. But we are not all casual users. We don’t all have needs that can be met by an appliance solution. What becomes of the desktop? It seems unlikely that it should be left to stagnate.

Of course, I have my own ideas on how to proceed. But assuming we’re not ready for that yet, we still have a time of transition ahead for the traditional computer. And despite Apple bringing to market the first direct-manipulation UI for desktop-class applications, I’m not convinced that the tablet paradigm stands to actually replace our old PARC-derived one. Even if there’s a tablet in every home, I can’t see offices replacing desks with sofas to be worked upon eight hours a day. But each side can learn from the other. As we saw with the iPhone and OS 10.5, Apple doesn’t hesitate to adapt things from its appliance UI to its desktop.

XI and friends

The first major step will probably be to take a multitouch mouse for granted: You can see this happening in fits and starts with various bundled apps on MacBooks. If OS XI isn’t a fundamental rethinking of the desktop paradigm, it should at least require a Magic Mouse. Once the UI can make that assumption, there’s suddenly a lot more it can do even with old-fashioned scattered windows—plenty more if you start from the iPhone platform’s modal window approach and combine it with scalable Cocoa Touch interfaces and window tiling. Perhaps a roving-to-mouse-position, local 1:1 touch surface? If Microsoft puts its researchers and its appliance people in charge of a future Windows, we could see similar advancements from them.

Ultimately, the iPad points not toward a future of tablets for everything, but toward the porting of tablets’ successful experiments to the desktop realm. The future of tablet computing is going to make the current desktop feel increasingly inelegant, but it won’t replace it. Their relationship will most likely be symbiotic, leading to new advancements in both realms.