A bit over three years ago, I saw the future. The iPhone was the future of smartphones. Nearly everything else was, according to its manufacturers, already established, gloriously superior in every way, shape or form (number of styluses: WinMo: 1; iPhone: 0; WINDOWS MOBILE CLEARLY WINS) and would outwit the iPhone in a heartbeat in every metric that mattered. These apparent champions are now mysteriously replaced by their full-screen multitouch successors. As a smartphone, iPhone has succeeded. However, I now find myself waiting for the future of the future.
Steve Jobs compares the currently sprouting wave of “post-PC devices” to cars, and PCs such as they exist today to trucks. For most things most people do, you don’t need a truck, and it’s a lot of dead weight to haul around with you. I can see his point to a certain extent, but right now, the argument doesn’t hold.
You could argue that what, say, the iPad provides is pretty much the useful parts of a computer, and you’d be right for many definitions of “useful”. But iOS isn’t well suited to take on every computer task. Although the subject is often used as a shield, this isn’t really about programmer obsessions like direct global file system access per se.
Some people will say “real people don’t care about the file system”. Well, okay, sure. Real people still group materials together from multiple applications into one folder for whatever project it is they’re working on. Real people still aren’t satisfied with a row of chronologically ordered, scrollable thumbnails where the only recourse for secrecy is removal, and the only recourse for reordering is frail and time-consuming and involves re-saving everything.
Real people still don’t know quite how to sync over documents to their iPad apps, nor how to sync their iPads at all or why they would, nor what those Apple people were smoking when they invented this scheme. Real people do use Dropbox to work around these problems — sometimes. Sporadically. For certain things. This is audacious on the level of asking people to connect a garlic press before they save — you probably don’t understand what it does for you and you just don’t realize why you’d need something else.
This has turned into a debate of whether the iPad is about content creation or not, or, passive-aggressively, whether we should listen to the programmers that got us into this mess, posited as a false choice between the new failure or the previous failure, hoping that pointing out which platform has Angry Birds will make every problem go away. That’s focusing on everyone’s hot buttons instead of the problem at hand.
The iPad may not need a visible, all-dictating file system as we know it, but it damn well needs a filing system. This “post-PC device” depends on a PC, or on nasty workarounds like emailing or cloud services, to do what it’s supposedly replacing. (Unless literally all you do is read mail and browse. I’m pretty sure most of those people would like to write a document and file it away every once in a while too.) I get that this might be a lot to solve without repeating the failures of past systems, but it’s badly needed. If this isn’t addressed in iOS 5, one wonders what the priorities are in Cupertino.
That’s one example. Usually, this argument can be made for other aspects. “Real people don’t care about concurrently running programs”. Nope, but they care about multi-tasking and moving information around, which is why the multitasking bar and copy-paste were such welcome features and why even confused extended family members of mine use them even when they call and ask for help about doing the same thing in Windows.
“Real people don’t care about Bluetooth profiles”. No, but they care about being able to send things to their computers, or to other phones — they don’t sit up all night and think about it, but they rightfully get mad when it’s not there. “Real people don’t care about lack of hardware access”. No, but if they bought a book app and they can’t turn down the backlight in it, they blame whoever made the app.
I’ve been using iPhone as a lead-in and iPad for the meat of this post. The iPhone is ultimately “still just a phone”. Most of the things it can do, like act as a bubble level or flute, is pure gravy; if your business didn’t buy it for you, you probably carry it to be reached and to mess around in Cut The Rope once in a while. The iPad is positioned directly as something that mostly replaces a laptop and is more powerful than the iPhone. The iPad is simply where the justified criticisms in the same iOS because of positioning really turn inconvenient.
“What do you mean I can’t organize my documents in a uniform way? I might not like exactly how computers work, but that’s what they do for me. It’s why I use them.”
Screw the debate about Flash, 7″ screens or device heft. The best thing Apple can do to take it beyond today’s PC is to bring it closer to today’s PC. They already have the innovative parts. The successor to flawed organization isn’t no organization. It’s time to salvage from PCs what still works so well.