The Impersonal Non-Computer

A few days ago, the iPad 2 was unveiled by Steve Jobs, and already people are gushing over how much better the world is going to be now that we have a faster iPad.

One piece I have read with much interest is Daring Fireballs “The Chair”. It is well written, not too enthusiastic and he makes a few good points. However, there is something I have a lot of problems with, and it’s the last sentence:

It’s a shame, almost, that we squandered the term “personal computer” 30 years ago.

Now, while this is a very good ending sentence for the article, I disagree with almost every point of the sentence. First off is the implication that the term “personal computer” was squandered on the distinction between mainframes, where you timeshared the computer and single-user computers. This distinction was a very important one, as it started the trend towards each and everyone having one or more computers, as well as towards miniaturization, as opposed to room-filling mainframe servers. In this way, computers have become more and more personal over the years, indeed, going so far that I can now buy fully assembled and working computers with a complete selection of software installed to my tastes in almost any electronics store. In fact, the computers that I am working on have exactly the software and exactly the settings I need and I want, sometimes frustrating my friends and coworkers to the extent that they’d rather user their own computer than mine. I suppose that the term “personal computer” is very fitting for that device, and I don’t think the name was “squandered” on that kind of machine.

But the second gripe I have is with the implication that the iPad should actually be a personal computer at all. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t fit the generally accepted cluster of things we call “PC”s very well, it is not very personal at all. All the iPads I have seen have had the same look, the same background picture, the same interaction modes, almost the same software installed and were used for almost exactly the same things (namely, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja). Now, that is not a bad thing, and actually, what most people want and need are monocultures and pre-chewed content, as is apparent from the success that mainstream tv and music have had, and that Apple now has. But it can’t really be called “personal” in any meaningful way, not much more than the big tv stations can be called “personal” for reading out twitter messages.

And finally, for me and for the most people, the iPad is not actually a computer. For me, having a computer science background, computers are inherently programmable devices. And I cannot program my iPad in any interesting way. Oh, sure, you say, I could spend a hundred dollars a year for the developer license, another 1500 on a Macbook and then the 500 for the iPad itself, and for a mere 2000 dollars I can get a programmable computer, for some time. But you know what? For 2000 dollars, I can get together with a few of my friends and let them do computations for me. I wouldn’t call a room full of my friends doing computations a computer, even though they’re a lot more personal to me than the iPad is.

Now, I covet Apple products as much as the next guy, and the iPad is a beautiful device and I’d like everyone to have one. I just don’t think we should epitomize it as the One True Computer. And while iPads are bringing computing devices to more and more people, we should certainly not compare the introduction of a toy to the massive, worldwide revolution that was brought on by personal computing.