The PITS and the iPad

The unveiling of Apple’s iPad this week provoked seemingly everyone to prognosticate the future of the device and the future of computing in general. I was instead prodded to revisit the past—specifically, the original design goals for the Mac spelled out by the brilliant (and humorous) Jef Raskin. Just read the principles Raskin lays out in 1979 in “Design Considerations for an Anthropophilic Computer“:

This is an outline for a computer designed for the Person In The Street (or, to abbreviate: the PITS); one that will be truly pleasant to use, that will require the user to do nothing that will threaten his or her perverse delight in being able to say: “I don’t know the first thing about computers,” and one which will be profitable to sell, service and provide software for.

You might think that any number of computers have been designed with these criteria in mind, but not so. Any system which requires a user to ever see the interior, for any reason, does not meet these specifications. There must not be additional ROMS, RAMS, boards or accessories except those that can be understood by the PITS as a separate appliance. For example, an auxiliary printer can be sold, but a parallel interface cannot. As a rule of thumb, if an item does not stand on a table by itself, and if it does not have its own case, or if it does not look like a complete consumer item in [and] of itself, then it is taboo.

If the computer must be opened for any reason other than repair (for which our prospective user must be assumed incompetent) even at the dealer’s, then it does not meet our requirements.

Seeing the guts is taboo. Things in sockets is taboo (unless to make servicing cheaper without imposing too large an initial cost). Billions of keys on the keyboard is taboo. Computerese is taboo. Large manuals, or many of them (large manuals are a sure sign of bad design) is taboo. Self- instructional programs are NOT taboo.

There must not be a plethora of configurations. It is better to offer a variety of case colors than to have variable amounts of memory. It is better to manufacture versions in Early American, Contemporary, and Louis XIV than to have any external wires beyond a power cord.

And you get ten points if you can eliminate the power cord.

Any differences between models that do not have to be documented in a user’s manual are OK. Any other differences are not.

It is most important that a given piece of software will run on any and every computer built to this specification…

It is expected that sales of software will be an important part of the profit strategy for the computer.

It only took 31 years (not especially a long time in the history of technology), but I think the iPad is the device Raskin envisioned (given, as Raskin would have agreed, that “the interior” and “the guts” now includes the software interior/guts as well as the hardware interior/guts).

Fraser Speirs has called the tech community’s negative reaction to the iPad “future shock” (via Daring Fireball); but it’s really the shockwave of the past—the radical vision of computing Raskin and Steve Jobs always had—finally catching up to the present.

15 thoughts on “The PITS and the iPad

  1. Pingback: iPad och Apples historia » Datortekniskt

  2. Gerry McGarry

    I think “future shock” refers to the Alvin Tofler book of the same name.
    The future is another country where things are done differently.
    The book was written in 1970 and is well worth a read

  3. Aditi

    Finally! I’m a tech person so all the blogs I usually follow are full of skeptical posts about Apple’s marketing strategy.

    I’m so glad to read an intelligent exposition of exactly why the iPad is a good thing.

  4. Bruce

    Good catch. I think that’s right, which is exactly why I’ve progressively been moving away from Apple products.

    The problem with this vision from the end-user/consumer perspective is that it quite deliberately conflates issues of software and hardware design (ease of use, elegance, etc.) with business model (how they monetize the vision). There may be good user-oriented reasons for an application like iTunes, for example, but the only reason why it’s difficult for third-party devices (say Palm’s) to sync with it is pure anti-competitive business impulse: Apple goes out of their way to preclude this.

    But at least the web is still there (and HTML 5), so that developers can still do interesting and open things with the platform.

  5. Tim

    To work off of Bruce’s comments above, I’d be interested to hear how you understand this post to relate to your excellent analysis of the problems with Google Books. Most of the criticisms I’ve read of the iPad strike a similar chord (concerns with Macs closed development ecosystem, the way it seems designed to value passive media consumption over active production). And yet it seems that you are dismissing iPad critics as simply being stuck in the past. Am I misreading this? Should we not be concerned with a company that, for example, reserves the right to exclude any application it deems “inappropriate”?

  6. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Bruce/@Tim: I was working here completely as a historian of science rather than a commenter on whether the iPad is good/bad because of its closed nature. I’m simply noting here that the iPad really is the completion of a very old vision, and that we shouldn’t be shocked that Apple has arrived at this point, as if it’s some increasing diversion from a “better” Apple. Steve Jobs would have voted for the iPad in 1979 vs. any computer with BASIC or a command line if he had had the choice. I probably should have added a gloss about that.

    What I think is interesting and worth debating–and as you probably can guess, I’m very torn about this–is the value one places on creativity at different levels in the computer stack. Apple’s philosophy since 1979 is that ideally all the tinkering should be at the top of the stack, whereas Bruce and many others believe that we should be free to tinker at all levels. I’m an advocate for open source/access and a computer tinkerer, and so I’m strongly inclined toward the latter as well. But (again, like many others) I can understand Jobs’s feeling that to enable the “liberal arts” (note his use of that last week) you have to make the computer disappear. Just look at what computer novices have done with the Brushes app on an iPhone (a program that will be even more compelling on an iPad). We may wish that in the near future there will be an open source Brushes app on a ChromePad; but I’m willing to bet it will be clunkier and that seemingly minor aesthetic differences (to non-artists) will reduce the non-computer-savvy artist’s potential of creativity (not to mention the X-factor of inspiration from holding an aesthetically pleasing device).

    So hard to balance the need for an aesthetic experience with the need for openness. I’m still thinking about that one. We could say that Apple could be both open and aesthetic; but I suspect Jobs would disagree strongly.

  7. Mark Stoneman

    This was a strange week. On one hand, this iPad comes out and it is better designed to sell stuff to an end-user than let that user produce stuff and communicate with others. In other words, we have a lack of openness. On the other hand, the very existence of this product threatens Amazon’s attempts to control the prices that publishers charge for books, which has resulted in a major dispute with Macmillan. From that point of view, the Apple model seems to be opening up markets for publishers, at least, although I’m not sure what it does for the PITS who already has a MacBook and library card.

  8. Bruce

    So hard to balance the need for an aesthetic experience with the need for openness. I’m still thinking about that one. We could say that Apple could be both open and aesthetic; but I suspect Jobs would disagree strongly.

    My point is, I think this is a business position more than an objective statement of possibility. A 2010 Mac desktop, for example, has an open source base OS, wifi, bluetooth, USB and Firewire, which together make it a fair bit more open than their mobile stuff.

    In my own recent buying choices, I’ve clearly put a greater premium on openness. But this is in part because I think it’s a bit too cliche to accept there is a vast gulf in user experience between Apple products and everything else. I think there are places where the iPhone UI wins, for example, but I also am quite happy with my Android (Nexus One) UI as well.

  9. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Bruce: But as Raskin noted in 1979, when computer systems have to run on “a plethora of configurations” they are prone to sacrifice the aesthetic. Google’s creation of the Nexus One was an admission on this point. As Android devices began proliferating, with different screen sizes and carrier-installed UIs of varying quality, Google implicitly agreed with Raskin/Jobs that the most aesthetic expression of Android will be on a device they control in a more Jobsian way. Tying the N1 tightly (through defaults, which are critical) to Google’s cloud, for the PITS, might be only slightly less enslaving in day-to-day use than the iPad. Again, all of this doesn’t apply to those who feel comfortable (and indeed liberated) by being able to install apps from anywhere; the toughness of Raskin’s vision is that he could care less about you and me. (I’m close to buying a Nexus One, FWIW, for its freedom and its great UI (and GMail).)

  10. Sherman Dorn

    There is one more step beyond this idea of a single device where the guts are invisible to the ordinary user experience: colonize other devices with this design and a certain programming style.

    The first example of this was the GUI — yeah, another colonization by Apple, at least in terms of pushing the idea. My (probably highly-inaccurate) sense of the history is that GUI and object-oriented programming went together in a loose way chronologically and in a tight way in terms of dependency (GUIs requiring OOP, and OOP requiring a certain number of programmers who had been successfully converted).

    So is there going to be a critical mass of developers who evangelize a “deviceless” user experience? Possibly, at least with the notion of what they can be like. Then there’s the question of infrastructure support to colonize multiple OSs with the “deviceless” experience. To wit, there are a few programming developmental kits designed to port infrastructure-specific ideas (e.g., implemented with Flash or Ruby) into something that looks and feels “native” for either iPhone/iPod-Touchy or Android (and soon iPad). I know of PhoneGap and Appcelerator (formerly Titanium). There have been some previous attempts at supposedly universal cross-platform foundations (most notoriously Java), and these may go that way, but there’s also the chance that these kits only stuff in enough of the foundation to make the apps work without layering on an entire OS (the way that a Java program requires loading of all of a Java client).

    Will this pan out? I don’t know. But it’s possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of something of the magnitude of the introduction of the GUI: clunky, start-and-stop in some ways, but one-way.

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  12. Guy

    Sure its for the “everyman’ its a way to SCREW OVER the everyman though.

    Companies like Apple are trying to leverage AWAY from General Purpose Computers – to specific machines with limited functionality that provide superior profit.

    For all the hate against Microsoft – they only sell an operating system that anyone can write programs for – you can even give those programs away.

    Apple is going MUCH farther and its fairly ingenious in its evil.. Now they don’t just write the operating system. But they sell the developer tools that you have to USE for specific “apple approved” functions. And then if a user wants to use these programs they have to pay Apple more money.

    Thus Apple controls the whole computing experience from top to bottom and they make money every step of the way. They even control advertising on the web – as the upcoming Safari Browser will let Apple “block” ads – but will allow special apple profiting ones to exist..

    But if that wasn’t enough – they control the hardware as well. No upgrading your ram – no even hooking your iPad to your computer without a non-standard apple cable. Want to output to an external display? You need a special dock etc etc.

    Its just a matter of time before Apple launches a “consumer” iMac which functions like a larger more powerful iPad.

    It’s been Steve vision all along.. And this is a sad thing. As a guy who likes building his own computers – one remarkable thing about a PC is that’s its a set of STANDARDS that REALLY DO WORK!

    If I want top of the line DAC converters for my sound output I can add that in. If I want USB 3.0 I can add that in. If I want to buy a NEC monitor and hook it up with a cable from monoprice I can do that. I can buy cheap RAM fron Newegg and stick it in very easily..

    This was the revolution of computing – computers were allowed to be used by ‘regular people” without great EXPENSE. In the jobs world Every app you buy – every add you see – every upgrade you make – it all has to benefit apple.

    Apple is about maximizing your expense but its fans are so enamored with Jobs slick software and marketing they don’t see that..

    Whereas original PCs were about sticking it to the man. By doing useful things on machines that you were free to use as much as you wanted – in any way you wanted whenever you wanted. It was a big FU to the world. You could use your little machine to do all kinds of neat things.

    But Jobs vision of the world is YOU renting computing appliances for specific jobs and paying out the *ss for the privledge of doing so..

    Apple fans think its a great leap forward but its actually a great leap back.. It’s not really “new” either. The cable companies have been doing the same thing for MANY years.

    Pretty much everything a cable box and DVR do – could be done and done BETTER by a PC. But then cable companies wouldn’t profit from it. So they would rather ‘rent’ you cable box and the charge you money to make phone calls on the data pipe you already bought from the them..

    Cell phone companies do the same thing of course. You pay for ‘unlimited data” but then they charge you extra for texting. They have apps that let you track your friends and family in real time and charge you 15 bucks a month for that privledge when of course they do it all the time anyway.

    Apple is not set to pull these kinds of shennigans on “PITS” and dumb people are lauding them for it..

    Apple is playing you for the fool and by the time you wake up it will be too late..

  13. Frank Bennett

    We already have a working model of an Apple-like computer/consumer ecosystem in the world, in the Japanese portable phone market. One result appears to be a year-on-year drop in the typing speed of incoming university applicants. Not a good sign, I should think.

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