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Is the Apple iPad really "magical"?
With the iPad you are the magician, not the audience.


I first wrote about the Apple iPad right after it came out 6 months ago in my essay "Early Thoughts About the iPad." Since then, I've used many different applications, and have shipped my own iPad app, Note Taker HD, that has risen to be one of the leading "productivity apps" on the device. Reading now what I wrote back then, I still agree with it and I think those observations are important when evaluating this genre of device.

Here are some additional thoughts I've developed since then.

The iPad has reportedly become the "fastest adopted consumer electronics product" in history. The "content publishing" industry seems to be all excited about it being a platform to target. There is talk about it being for "content consumption" as opposed to "content creation." I think such discussions miss what's special about the device, and thinking that you passively "consume" what is sent to you, or even asking whether or not you should do word processing and emailing on it, miss the point and will lead you astray in designing applications for it.

From the first unveiling, Steve Jobs and Apple have referred to the iPad as "magical." They say this over and over again about the device, like a mantra, indicating that there must be something important about it.

I think that this term is key to understanding a device like this. But it is also key that you know what I mean by "magical."

Some people think magical means it's technology is so advanced that you don't understand it and believe it must be supernatural "magic." However, the iPad is really just a computer, and the things it does are all things we've seen before, from touch and zooming, to portable access to information. The iPhone is not included when Apple says the iPad is magical, and the iPhone in many ways does the same things as the iPad. It can't just be the technology alone that makes it magical.

It could be that looking at it you are overcome with awe, that using an iPad is "like watching magic" in that its big and dynamic screen is so dazzling that you like watching it better than other, more mundane devices. This view would appeal to the publishing crowd: Here's a better way to present what they already have. Again, this can't be what's magic. A 60" flat screen TV with surround sound is much more dazzling, and an iPhone or Tablet PC is just as bright and live showing Youtube. It can't be that it's a "bright shiny thing" that makes it magical.

What is magic?
Let's look at some of the popular images of magic shared in our culture. One is of the magician, effortlessly pulling the right card from a deck or making a person appear and disappear on stage. There's the sorcerer waving his hands or a magic wand to effect the ebb and flow of water, such as in Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia. There's the 1934 Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West with her crystal ball that lets her call up images at a distance at will, and which she can even control when Dorothy tries to use it. In these cases the magician has mastery over doing things, while others, even when given access to their tools, is much less proficient.

Common dictionary definitions of the word "magic" include the word "control", such as controlling nature or natural forces. A magician appears to be able to confidently control things in ways that we cannot, often apparently effortless.

The way I see it, what makes the iPad magical is that with it we are the magician. The iPad is our own specially marked desk of cards. We now have power to easily and confidently control things that we previously did not. It is a very empowering tool.

With the iPad, we are the masterful magician, not the audience watching in awe.

Why is this so? Isn't the iPad just a big iPod touch?

As I pointed out in my first iPad essay, the iPad gives us more screen space than a pocket device like an iPhone to expose control points and to make the operation of those controls clear and easily accessible with fingers. The iPhone-size screens have room for mainly one major UI-control cluster plus a small toolbar or two -- when the keyboard is up there isn't room for almost anything other than a small view into what you are entering with little context. The iPad does not have such severe limitations, having room for many controls and explanatory information. You can sit back in your seat (like Steve Jobs at the announcement) and comfortably control the device, unlike an iPhone where you pull it to your face and squint to see the controls (especially if you are over 40 like I am).

The use of touch and the application of the capabilities of the graphics processor to give the illusion of smooth flowing, directly manipulated operations enhances the feeling of control. The larger screen in a still-portable flat form factor makes it comfortable for multiple individuals to watch as any one of them controls changes -- public magic, not private exploration. The wireless connectivity quickly brings requested data in on demand. The large screen has enough room to give you context and depth of information from that data.

Just as sorcerers and witches of fiction can conjure up images of people walking in the forest from afar, we can sit in the passenger seat of a car and zoom and pan through real-time traffic information and detailed satellite photos with the wave of our hand. You can carry an iPad around just as the magician carries a hat, wand, or crystal ball.

To me, some of the most magical apps on the iPad are Maps, Photos, and Star Walk. Maps and Photos, which come preloaded on the iPad, let you effortlessly zoom around and into and out of a world of streets or of your favorite photos. Those apps feel like they respond instantly to your touch and easily take you wherever you want to go. VITO Technology's Star Walk lets  you zoom in and out of a view of the heavens, and even uses the device's motion-sensing and position-detecting technology to pan as you hold the iPad up towards the sky and move it around to show you the names of the constellations and planets above you in the sky. A simple drag of a timeline slider smoothly animates the sky configuration to correspond to the changing date and time.

The original Apple iBooks app works and doesn't work as "magical." Turning a page slowly by dragging a corner and watching it curl under your finger, showing a faint reverse image on the back of the page as it turns, feels like a special control. But changing the size of type is clunky (no "pinch" zoom or a slider), and dragging the page slider and then switching to a page not adjacent to the current page in a long book can feel slow. Navigation just isn't, to me, as empowering compared to paper as, say, Maps is to a paper map or Photos is to a stack of paper photos. I find that I like the control feel of the Amazon Kindle iPad app a little better than the Apple iBooks one, even though the iBooks app looks much "prettier" and polished.

Likewise, I've found some other reading applications, like magazines, that look really nice, and seem to give you control, but that fail to deliver enough when you try reading and perusing the publication -- you feel hampered and long for bound paper that you can skim through and with which you can easily flip back and forth with the right feel. As they say, "God is in the details" -- details of implementation are important and can distinguish the winners from the losers.

To me, a computer is a tool. You use tools to get things done. In the case of the iPad, you can use it to read, to write, to watch, to search, to communicate, to play, and more. The challenge in app design is to give the user a feeling of appropriate and comfortable control.

One of the most popular categories on the iPad is games. Many of the most popular games are noted for the way they respond to you, and how well you feel in control. They aren't about watching how well someone else drove their race car, they are about how you feel driving yours.

I am especially aware of this as I keep honing my app, which is used to take handwritten notes using a finger or stylus. The small screen compared to 8 1/2"x11" paper and other aspects of the iPad are extra challenges, and I've used various techniques like zooming and split windows to meet them. Potential users are comparing its feel and effectiveness to that of a fine pen and a paper notebook, which have been developed over hundreds of years, and deciding which is best for them as they take notes in medical school, at meetings, and more.

30+ years ago, when I developed VisiCalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet as we know them today, I was challenged to displace paper, pencil, and a calculator. I had to make the electronic version easy and natural enough to use that you'd use it instead of the paper version, even if you thought you'd only do the calculations once. I ended up giving the accountant, business person, planner, and others a feeling of control of their data and calculations that they didn't have before with paper. The thrill of control that a good car racing program gives the user became the thrill of control to the MBA planning a marketing campaign on a limited budget. When the character-based and keyboard-driven spreadsheets of the early 1980s were superseded by the mouse and keyboard-driven spreadsheets of the 1990s, with far enhanced font and graphics ability to let you better craft the output, users were even happier.

The challenge for the "content producer" of today is to not see the iPad and the other upcoming tablets as destinations for them to push content to be passively viewed by people, but rather to give people material that they can control themselves, and reading, seeing, remembering, and sharing environments with which they can explore with confidence and ease. A traditional newspaper has so much material on so many pages, easily navigated differently by each person who "reads" it, with affordances like headlines, sub-heads, inverted pyramid writing, and more. (See my 1998 writeup about "What we can learn from newspapers" on GoodDocuments.com.) We need to invent, and make use of, appropriate other affordances for the tablets. Newspapers took many years to get to where they are today, with many different trials and errors. Tablet reading and writing will also take time.

An area that I think will be dominated by tablets will be as "cockpit" control devices and "dashboards" for all manner of other devices and types of data. Much as you can explore the sky with Sky Walk, you should be able to drill down on information about products you are selling as you meet with a customer. Just as you control a race car or other game, you should be able to control devices, or even other screens, in your home, office, or factory. Multiple tablets can be ganged together, ad hoc, to give larger control surfaces.

Given the growing popularity of the iPad and probably some of its upcoming competitors (if their designers make theirs magical, too), in the year 2015 remake of the Wizard of Oz, even Dorothy will have her own crystal ball.

-Dan Bricklin, 11 September 2010

The photo above is of a Steuben Glass crystal ball (an award from Stewart Alsop that I received at a conference back in 1989, ten years after VisiCalc shipped). I'm holding it in my hands over an iPad. Technical specs: Canon EOS 60D, 11mm f8 1/30 ISO 800, Photoshop for cropping and contrast/brightness adjustment.

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