Thinking is Overrated

I decided to follow-up my previous post about BarCamp with another incident that has been bothering me since Saturday.

I attended a group discussion about the viability of a tablet market outside of the Apple environment.  I missed the first few minutes of the session so I am not sure what the exact premise was but I gathered that the argument was this:  “There is not a general market for tablet computers and the only reason the iPad is so successful is that it is an Apple product”.  In other words, other manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, HP, and the like are producing iPad competitors in a market where nobody wants anything other than the iPad.  The discussion flowed in and around this premise but it basically became an argument over whether or not the iPad and tablets in general had any real value in the overall computing world.

I sat and listened for a while and noticed there was one particular guy that just couldn’t stand the idea that tablet computers existed.  He showed visible and audible disdain when anyone had anything good to say about the iPad.  For him a notebook with a full keyboard was the only proper portable computing device.  He fit the general stereotype of the geek who thinks he knows everything.  Personally I thought it was very unprofessional behavior for someone at a conference supposedly made up of tech professionals.  Anyway, the discussion continued and the debate shifted to what type of person a tablet computer would appeal to.  At this point someone, and I don’t remember who, said that tablets are for people who don’t want to think.  This is when I made the following statement.

“Why should you have to think…”

I was instantly cut off by the stereotypical geek guy mentioned above who couldn’t contain his laughter.  He blurted out sarcastically, “HA…why should you have to think?” and followed that up with rolling of the eyes and a little huffing.  Again, here was the guy who obviously thought no one should need anything other than a notebook with a full keyboard and everything else was a joke.  I was personally offended by this behavior but I let it slide.  It wasn’t worth calling someone out in a forum like that but internally I was seething.

I never got to finish my point but I am going to do it here because I still believe it is valid.  My point was to be that why should a consumer device, including a computer, require any specialized skills or thought to use?  Isn’t that what makes a good product?  The ability to pick up a device and use it without having to have years of technical experience is a sign that the device has been well designed with usability in mind.  I think that is why all iOS devices do so well in the market.  They are designed to be simple.  Tablets, and iOS devices in particular, fill a need in the market for computing devices that are designed to do a few things very well.  There is no doubt that notebooks are more useful and have many advantages over tablets but there are thousands if not millions of people out there that don’t need the breadth of functionality that a notebook or a desktop provide.

At some point before the end of the session it was pointed out that the iPad was not made for geeks.  That statement was right on and deserved to be talked about a lot more than it was.  The iPad and its competitors are not made for people who care about processor speed, storage space, command line interfaces, or anything else that get those of us in the technical fields really excited about technology.  Those devices are made for everyone else.  They are made for people who want to enjoy the experience of the Internet but who don’t care about how it works and quite frankly there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think it is wonderful because it brings more people into our world and helps grow technology and inspire new and creative uses for the things we geeks seem to care so much about.  Plus, it is not like notebooks are going to go away.  They will always be there when someone wants a little more out of their computing experience than a tablet can provide.  Ultimately, however, the iPad and other tablets are consumer devices designed to be dead simple to use are not intended to replace notebooks .  If someone stops using a notebook in favor of an iPad then they never really needed a notebook in the first place.  They just didn’t have an option before now.  The way I see it, this is a good thing.  Technology should fit the way a person needs or wants to use it and not the other way around.

I think the problem that many geeks seem to have with tablets and any device that doesn’t require electrical engineering experience to operate has to do with a sense of entitlement.  We seem to think technology is our “thing”.  Technology for many is a refuge and for a long time it was the only place we could feel comfortable and be surrounded by people like us.  As technology becomes more accessible to the masses there are some in the field that see the thing that makes them unique disappearing and in a way it is frightening.  Is this why devices that make technology accessible to the general public are often scoffed at by technical professionals?  Do they see the one thing that has been their own being drained away?  It is an interesting question but what I have seen personally is that the more “technical” a person is, the more likely they are going to be to dismiss anything that doesn’t require that level of knowledge to use and the more likely they are going to be to look down on others who don’t care or need to have the same level of knowledge. Geeks are just as territorial as anyone else it seems.

My point is simply this:  Technology doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated in order to be useful.  If something doesn’t require a lot of thought to be amazing it is not too bad a thing.


Thinking is Overrated — 5 Comments

  1. Hey Jeff, I was in that session with you and must say that it was one of the livelier sessions of the day as there was a wide range of opinions fueled by the fact that many of us were of different age groups and had different usage models and expectations for the technology in our lives.

    You weren’t alone in being cut off in that session – I believe everybody was at some point or another (unmoderated may be a good description) but I’m sure that whoever cut you off didn’t do so out of malice.

    I believe I was the one who made the point that devices like the iPad aren’t for geeks anymore but I really don’t think it has anything to do with a sense of entitilement, or even of a “private geeks club” elitism where we can be smug that we understand something and others don’t.

    I think it may have to do with control and with not wanting to be treated like children and mollycoddled by the technology we use.

    We have spent lifetimes learning about these systems, understanding them, seeing their potential and making them do what WE want, but in a push towards the wider consumer market who don’t know these things, the ability to do those things is being left behind. I guess that irks many of us who pay for a computing device and then can’t do what we want with it.

    I believe the point was made that we should treat these devices as appliances rather than computers and then things start to make a lot more sense for people like me.

    But here’s a question for you Jeff, which was not addressed at the panel – do you think that as the consumer computing model becomes devices like the iPad, which are so tightly locked down, that it will have detrimental effect of future programmers and developers.

    Many OS’s and devices today do not ship with the means to write your own programs (unless you go spend the cash to buy them).. and that is a far cry away from when I had to learn Basic in order to do anything productive on my C64 and Assembly if I wanted to do anything cool…

    Could the lack of a native development environment lead to lower programmer and developer numbers in the future, or at the very least, developers of a lower caliber who didn’t spend their childhood cutting their teeth before heading off to school to learn it?

  2. I think I was agreeing with you, and if I cut anyone off, sorry! I do agree that tech devices should not require high tech skills and that the different form factors are great and will result in usage in ways we are just beginning to figure out. Was a wild session though. I never could really figure out the original premise.

  3. You are exactly right that these devices have to be treated differently. I won’t say they aren’t computers though because they are, but they are a different kind of computer than what we are used to. I had a C64 as a kid as well but there is more raw computing power in my wife’s iPad than I ever had in the C64. For that matter there is probably more computing power in the embedded processor in my truck than there was in the C64. That argument is just semantic though and the real point, which you made, is that tablets are different and we have to see them as such.

    I personally like the iPad and don’t feel like I am being treated like a child when I am using it. I use it for certain tasks. I use it to read the news while I am out on the porch. I use it to check the traffic before I leave for work. I use it to make an inventory of things I need to get at Home Depot for my next repair project (love Evernote for that). I use it for a whole host of things but it will never replace my notebook or my desktop. I would hate to try and create a blog post on the thing. Sure it could be done, but it would be slow and limited. There are certain things the iPad does (and other tablets could do as well) that make it a better choice than booting up my notebook. Maybe it is like a microwave. If I want to cook some popcorn or heat some water the microwave is a great device but if I want to cook a meal for my family it just doesn’t get the job done. If I am a good cook I think I can still use the microwave and not feel like I am lowering my standards in the process.

    Anyway, I think we are on the same page here. If I was forced to use an iPad for everything then I would be upset that I didn’t have access to the tools I need to really do my job. Today, however, that is not the case so I am comfortable with these computing appliances and their success in the overall consumer market. What might be concerning, however, is if the success of the iPad caused well designed notebooks/desktops to disappear. At that point then I too would be concerned that our ability to do certain things might disappear and we would be stuck with some kind of closed system that only allowed us to do what Big Brother wanted us to do.

    Your second question is intriguing. I’ll give my thoughts on that in a later comment.

    By the way, it was great meeting you and your wife Saturday. Hope you enjoyed your trip to Birmingham.

  4. So finally I can get back to the second question, you posed.

    Basically you asked whether or not making computing devices easier to use and shifting the industry toward more appliance type devices would have a detrimental effect on the industry. Does it make it harder for people to get interested in programming and software development.

    I guess my answer would be…I don’t know. When I was a kid, only the most geeky people cared about computers at all much less learning how to program. It seems to me, and I don’t have any real data to support this opinion, that there are more people now making careers out of programing and software development that ever before and yet computers are arguably easier to use than ever. My feeling is that there is a particular type of person that really yearns to go deeper when it comes to technology and that kind of person will always find ways to learn.

    Still, I wish programming was a little more accessible. I am not a programmer and any time I try to learn a little of something programming related I find the tools available to me, without some kind of investment, are fairly limited. I remember programming in basic on the Apple II and the C64. I can even remember typing in lines of machine code straight out C64 magazines. I don’t see my daughter doing the same thing and I wouldn’t know where to point her natively on her PC to get started.

    I don’t think anything I said really addressed the issue but I am not too worried about iPads and the like filtering out the potential developers and innovators of the future. I think that will happen do to our society’s general apathy toward learning and tendency toward mental laziness but that is probably an entirely different conversation.

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