Apple’s Vision of Computing is a Lot Simpler Than We Realize

Harry C. Marks / December 4th, 2013

With the introduction of the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display, Apple has given customers more freedom than it (as well as other manufacturers) ever did with desktop computers. It’s not freedom of choice, but rather freedom from choice.

I know, it sounds like Apple has taken choice away, which usually results in a disappointing and often frustrating experience for the consumer. However, what’s happened here is Apple has taken the headache out of purchasing a line of its products, which I predict will spread in the coming years to its other categories. It’s no longer a paralyzing decision between bigger and faster vs. smaller and slower. Now, we just need to know how big we want our screens.

As Engadget’s Brad Molen points out in his iPad mini review:

This year is a different story. Not only did the iPad (now called the iPad Air) get redesigned to look just like the mini, but it also offers virtually the same specs as the smaller model. In many respects, the smaller tablet is now a scaled-down iPad Air — precisely what Apple seemed to be avoiding last year when it debuted the original mini with inferior specs. Now, the company wants its tablets to be equal in everything but screen size, so you don’t have to feel like you’re making any sacrifices by choosing the mini.

When we buy a new computer, be it desktop or laptop, we’re always asking ourselves the same questions. What will I use it for? How fast should it be? How much RAM do I need? Which screen size is best? When I purchased my MacBook Air in 2011, I asked myself all of those questions before and *during* the transaction, then followed them up with, “Did I make the right choice?” and “Should I have gotten more RAM?”

But Apple is changing the game now. Ben Bajarin writes:

With the new iPad Mini Retina being available, I know many are still wrestling with which iPad to get. My true sense is that for those computer users who are stationary for long periods of time and use a notebook or desktop in that context they will favor the iPad Mini as a companion to that computing context. But I share my experience for those who are more mobile than they are stationary and are looking for a device that lends itself to more heavy lifting while still being extremely mobile friendly. Which for me is the iPad Air.

The question of, “What kind of user am I?” once involved the level of power required of one’s device. Are you a music or video producer? Perhaps a Mac Pro or a fully decked-out iMac are your go-to computing choices. Maybe you’re a student looking to write papers, watch Netflix, and play Candy Crush at the back of the class. In that case, a 13-inch MacBook Pro might be up your alley. Or a MacBook Air. But which size? 11-inch? Thirteen? It’s maddening.

Now, with the iPad, the “What kind of user am I?” question really only applies to the types of activities you plan on performing. Are you a heavy content consumer focused on reading and watching movies on your daily train commute? Maybe you want something to accompany you to the doctor’s office while you wait to be called. The mini could be for you. Or you might be the exec-on-the-go, required to take notes during meetings and create numerous documents for an upcoming client pitch. Or you’re a novelist who actually enjoys writing in Pages (I’ve heard those people exist…somewhere) and you just need a lot of room to read your words. I bet that Air looks pretty good right now.

And if you plan on podcasting, or recording an indie album, or editing a home movie, or any number of formerly processor-intensive tasks, either model works. They’re nearly identical in power and speed, just not in size. Both devices are equally capable at running the same apps and doing the same things–it just comes down to preference of size.

Federico Viticci at MacStories puts it best:

You don’t hear people saying that, because of the size differences, the 13-inch MacBook Air is for consumption and the 15-inch MacBook Pro is for creation. The new iPads should be treated just like MacBooks: choose the size you prefer, and expect creation and consumption capabilities from both.

The 2013 iPads represent a new era of computing where the the hassles of checklists and charts have been removed from the equation. Of course, this will irk some who think we’re increasingly dumbing things down for the end user, but I see this as a necessary evolution of technology. Computers are tools, like hammers and cars and OXO’s version of the Slap Chop (seriously, I haven’t had to dice onions with a knife in years. Look into it.) Geeks and the more computer literate may care how much RAM or raw processing power is available in the latest iMac, but we’re getting to a point where that won’t matter for the majority of users anymore.

One day, we’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and step up to a table with three different laptops on it–one at 11-inches, one at 13-inches, and one at 15-inches. They’ll all have the same processors, the same graphics capabilities, the same RAM, and the same form factor. It’ll just be a matter of which size fits us best. Will that annoy those who require more flexibility and customization from their machines? Absolutely. But then again, they weren’t the intended audience anyway.

So, while we wait for that day to come, let’s prepare by visiting the table across the aisle.

Harry C. Marks

Harry Marks is a novelist and web columnist from New Jersey. He owns and operates CuriousRat.com and has written for various publications, including The Magazine, The Loop Magazine, and Macgasm.
  • fran farrell

    Apple gets the Chrome Browser concept. Users, not devices rule; for every use case there is a tool (device) that fits. For some use cases: moving, note taking, conferring, lead to documenting and content creation on stationary computers. Synch is essential and so is heterogeneous tool use.

  • Lyle

    I’d argue instead of “freedom from choice” it is freedom from COMPROMISE. Now the user no longer has to live with less speed or power use a smaller device. Instead screen size and price now are the deciding factors.

    • Shameer Mulji

      +1

  • stefnagel

    The consumption feature of iPads is lost on tech types. The iPads do for shows what the iPods did for tunes. No small feature.

  • stefnagel

    “… precisely what Apple seemed to be avoiding last year …”

    These groundless attacks on Apple’s motivations are so destructive to useful analysis, real journalism. What if Apple simply could not afford to put the chips and screens on its low priced iPad last year?

    • Rene Stein

      They could afford to. I think though, manufacturing constraints probably lead to this. It is hard to get the retina display in that size in the quantities they needed. Other companies can do it because their volumes are lower. The other issue was processing power/thermal requirements. What Apple could not do was put an adequate processor in the Mini without a redesign, the A7 took care of that. I don’t think they avoided it, I think it just wasn’t feasible. So, they went a different route instead, cheaper and older components.

  • Mauryan

    We have to stop using the word, “Computing.” This word belonged to an era that was predominant until more than a decade ago. At that time, computers were used mostly for computing work. Now the so called, Post-PC devices are more like “Utility” devices – they have a camera, a music player, games, video, entertainment, calendar, email, stop clock etc. Most apps function as utilities. No one has to program any of them. They just use them. In the case of a PC, one could program for individual use on a personal computer. As the PC evolved, laptops emerged and both devices could be used both as computing and utility devices. The laptop brought in portability. The tablets and smart phones have taken out most of the utility functions away from the PCs, leaving them bare to their original purpose and status. Many who belong to the consumer side spend more of their time with utilities. So most do not even log into their PCs or laptops unless they really have to. Those who are deeply engaged in design, development, data analysis etc are not mainstream consumers. They are techies and the PCs meet their needs. And PCs are real computing devices. Tablets and mobile devices are not.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Am I computing when I use the Wolfram Alpha app on my iPad? How about when I apply a filter to a photo? It’s worth to remember that what is going on beneath the slick interfaces is still computing in the strict sense.

      • Mechanic40

        I would argue that even an iPhone 5s is computing heavily, just doing things like taking your fingerprint, which I have read was computationally not possible with anything but the A7 and 64 bit with any degree of usability. Apple even Jony Ive has said that Apple designs there devices to “get technology out of the way”
        so that the user can enjoy the use of the device not compete with it or have to learn to use it. In other words like iTouch it just works and does its job. All be it with a lot of computing going on in the background hidden from the user.

    • Space Gorilla

      I wonder if you realize that ‘techies’ older than you once said the exact same thing about PCs, that PCs were not ‘real computing devices’.

    • lb51

      The ACM Computing Curricula 2005[1] defined “computing” as follows:

      “In a general way, we can define computing to mean any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computers. Thus, computing includes designing and building hardware and software systems for a wide range of purposes; processing, structuring, and managing various kinds of information; doing scientific studies using computers; making computer systems behave intelligently; creating and using communications and entertainment media; finding and gathering information relevant to any particular purpose, and so on. The list is virtually endless, and the possibilities are vast.”

      I believe an abacus is the earliest mechanical form of computing.

      • steve_wildstrom

        That definition is a bit circular, since it says computing is what you do with computers, without defining computers. And that definition is hard, much harder than asking whether an iPhone is a computer (I believe it is even by the most restrictive definition.)

        • lb51

          Nothing wrong with that, if it is circular? An example of circular definition.

          Hill – “1: a usually rounded natural elevation of land lower than a mountain”[3]Mountain – “1a: a landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill”[4]

        • lb51

          And, why would you question if an iPhone is a computer. An MP3 player is considered one. Yes, an embedded computer. Or, must you be the person doing the programming of the device to qualify it as a computer?

          • steve_wildstrom

            I don’t question it at all. But others insist smartphones and tablet are not “real” computers.

          • klahanas

            Being one who is fiercely on the side that they are not “PC’s”, even I acknowledge them as computers.

        • Mauryan

          “Computing” is an old definition when electronic logic circuits were programmed to compute and perform rapid calculations. Computing is simply calculating and crunching data. There is a difference between driving a car and building one or adding changes to it. Today the mobile devices are simply user based “experiences” much similar to driving a luxury car without much interest to how it works or how it can be manipulated. “Computing” is similar to performing maintenance, building, changing to more rugged tires or replacing the engine. That is how the PCs were dealt with. In the case of tablets and cell phones, users do not tinker around with any of it. They just use it and everything is built for them. So they are really “driving” rather than constructing or maintaining anything. If you press the gas pedal in the car, you are exercising it. But it is not the equivalent of a mechanic pressing it hard to test the timer belt. That was my point.

  • Good article. Concise and to the point.

  • klahanas

    “One day, we’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and step up to a table with three different laptops on it–one at 11-inches, one at 13-inches, and one at 15-inches. They’ll all have the same processors, the same graphics capabilities, the same RAM, and the same form factor. It’ll just be a matter of which size fits us best.”

    I’ve been calling them iDentical’s for a couple of years now. It wasn’t a compliment or an insult. Just a fact.

  • N

    This article makes great points. I just wish the author had not engaged in the now tired bashing of people who prefer using the iPad mini for writing. Why is is so hard for people to look beyond their nose?

    A few rejoinders:

    1. Not everyone, including journalists, learned to touch type well.

    2. Even those adept at touch typing often run into a health issue such as carpel tunnel syndrome or tendinitis. Thumb typing might be slower but it’s far more ergonomic.

    3. Pages and text editors like Editorial are incredibly stable. Microsoft Word still crashes to this day. Losing work is soul crushing. With Pages or Editorial, you can set down your iPad mini and return to it a few hours or days later and pick up right where you left off without having had to actively save your document.

    I’m tired of making these arguments. I wish that someone like Ben Bajarin who is both open minded and influential would make these points in a proper article after conducting some research.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Stay tuned, I’m planning a column for next week on tablets’ secret advantage: Stable, error-free software.

  • dudster

    Excellent article. When I bought my next Mac Air this summer, I was fairly stunned at the similarity of MacBooks and Airs. When the Apple Store salesman told me he used a Mac Air 11-inch to run his entire punk band live show from the stage (he’s the bassist) I was a bit blown away. We are nearly at the level of computers being like wired phones used to be — “Oh, I like the Princess style in light blue” or “Cool! They make a Mickey Mouse phone!” The underlying too use is the same, so the form factor is the only variable.

  • JoeS54

    I’ve been reading a lot of articles like this lately, because I was shopping for a tablet. I don’t know why there is so much Apple boosterism out there, but it often appears to be some sort of delusional cult. I’m not a sheep-like partisan of any brand. I’m a critical consumer who buys what best suits my needs and budget. I’ve owned an iPhone, and now use a Samsung Galaxy S4. The tablet I ended up buying? Microsoft Surface Pro 2.

    I don’t have anything against Apple in general. They had a resurgence thanks to the iPod. They came up with the iPod Touch, then realized they could make it into a phone. More success. The iPad is the most recent thing they came out with, and its success has been more limited.

    The problem with Apple is that they were a one man show. Steve Jobs was not merely the heart and soul of the company, it was his personal vision, intuition and instincts that were behind every success they ever had. The drop off since his death is noticeable to anyone who has their eyes open and isn’t drinking Kool Aid. The first thing Cook did was fire Scott Forstall, who had been in charge of iOS since day one. The result was iOS7, which has shown right out of the gate that Apple without Jobs is going back off track. Other companies have taken note of what they did, and are now beating them in design, functionality, and performance. If you want all of the same functionality as an iPhone or iPad with better specs for a lower price, Android devices are beating Apple left and right.

    And while I never thought I would say this, now if you want innovation, quality software and cutting edge design, Microsoft is leading the pack. Windows 8 and the Surface Pro 2 are game changers, that I believe represent the future of tablets and computing in general. Microsoft will never be anybody’s fan club, and anything they do will always generate complaints because so many people rely on them for their livelihoods. And there will always be “haters” who resent Microsoft’s success. I’ve always used Windows because of the options and price. Like Android, you could get a device with better specs for a lower price and more software options if you went with Windows. It was never Windows itself that made the sale.

    But it should not be forgotten that Bill Gates is the one who’s been harping on tablets as the future of computing for well over a decade, long before the iPad. The Surface Pro finally delivered on his vision. Microsoft will never get the adoring press that Apple gets, but credit should be given where credit is due. Faced with the challenge of translating Windows into the new age of mobile devices, they have hit the ball out of the park.

    Apple is now treading water. It is clear that without Jobs they have no vision, and they’re just going to milk what they have for as long as they can. It’s the same story that happened in the 90s on the desktop. The Macintosh set a lot of standards (although the GUI was developed by Xerox), but ended up being a niche product as others beat them in the marketplace. It’s happening again.

    Simply put, when I went to shop for a tablet, I was open to any option. I disliked iOS7 enough, and the stagnation of Apple’s hardware was enough, that I jumped ship from the iPhone to Samsung. But I was still willing to consider the iPad, because the Galaxy taught me that Android is a mediocre OS that has a lot of low-quality apps. I tried them all, and compared them all on price and features. If I wanted a pure “media consumption” tablet, I would have gone for an Android device, which would have been much cheaper than an iPad. But I wanted more. So it came down to the iPad Air vs. the Surface Pro 2. I didn’t know if I was willing to pay for the Surface Pro, but when I seriously compared them, there was no contest. The iPad has a nice screen, and it’s lightweight. But it is far, far too expensive for a tablet running a smart phone OS. It’s just flat out not worth the money.

    My wallet is still hurting a little, but the Surface Pro 2 is phenomenal. Windows 8 is the best touch screen OS on the market, by a mile. Desktop users who upgraded on non-touch PCs rightly have problems with it, but in the form for which it was intended – where the Surface Pro 2 is the ultimate example – it blows away iOS and Android so dramatically that it isn’t even close. There are still a few apps lacking from the Windows Store, but the fundamental quality of the apps as software is much higher than anything on iOS or Android. Microsoft’s “ecosystem” is also better than Google or Apple’s – SkyDrive, Office 365, etc. The integration is seamless, and everything works perfectly. And of course on top of it all, it’s a full blown Windows PC that can run any program since at least Windows XP.

    Long story short: I’m afraid Apple’s day in the sun is over, and Microsoft will once again win the day. History has a way of repeating itself. Google has alienated me with their blatant and incessant money-grabbing, trying to shoehorn you into their second-rate services and track your every move for their advertisers. Android is only a sideline for them, a portal into your face for their ads. Getting back to Windows after dealing with iOS7 and Android is comforting. You know who you’re dealing with. And they have really stepped up their game.

    Smartphone sales have been astronomical. Sometimes people seem to forget that tablet sales have been much slower. I think a lot of people haven’t seen the need for one yet. In the form of the iPad or Android tablets, it’s a luxury toy. I think Windows will be what actually makes the tablet useful for most consumers. That was my conclusion, which is why they got my money.

    • Mechanic40

      Lol who’s drinking the Kool Aid?

    • steve_wildstrom

      You are entitled to you opinions, but not your own facts. There are a couple of errors that need correcting.

      –The iPod touch was announced after the iPhone had shipped, so the iPhone did not develop from the touch.

      –Firsing Scott Forstall was hardly the first thing Tim Cook did as CEO. Cook had been running Apple for more than a year and a half before Forstall left and Steve Jobs had been dead for nearly a year at the time of his departure.

      • JoeS54

        Fair enough on the iPod, but the point about iOS remains. They fired the guy who basically created the iPhone and iOS, and followed it up with a really bad version of iOS.

        • isitjustme

          Just your personal opinion.

          The 74% iOS users disagreed with you.

          • JoeS54

            Right, 75% tolerate it, and the other 25% are now using Android phones, like me.

Protected by Gerben Law