Future Shock

TL;DR: A guy on Slate wrote an article that insists on many common and frustrating themes in tech writing and journalism as a whole. In a somewhat scattered form, I attempt to address them.

I address the curse of High Expectations, which means Apple can't effectively impress anyone anymore, and are constantly competing against imaginary products that don't have to actually work.

In the end, it comes down to this: the idea that tablets can't be used for work, and that keyboards are essential for work, come down to an inability to not only accept and adjust to the future, but imagine a future that doesn't look like the present.


There is literally nowhere to begin with this article, published late yesterday evening by Slate in an effort to garner cheap pageviews and raise my blood pressure. Any criticism of it that claims to be complete will, by virtue of the sheer tonnage of weirdness in this article, be scattered and broad in turns. From sheer bone-headed assertions ("Tablets will replace computers, but only for people who can’t afford computers." - what a patronizing and ass-headed statement) to recycling the trope of bringing up a smart watch for no reason other than to grab SEO, it's an article with so much to hate.

My main, over-arching issues with it are four-fold:

1) Cognitive Dissonance

2) Expectation Curse

3) A Substandard Definition of "Work"

4) Future Shock


So, let's dive in. Here's the caption underneath the header image (we're not even in the article yet):

The new iPad Air is a slick device, but it's clearly not designed for getting work done.

Really. Clearly. What makes the iPad clearly not a device for 'getting work done'? I imagine that he'll tell us later. I pull out my bottle of antacid pills and read on.

Apple unveiled its new iPad Air on Tuesday, and as expected, it’s impressively light and sleek.

Okay, here's how this works. If something is expected, it wasn't impressive. That's not what those words mean. To be impressed is to have your expectations exceeded.

Here we arrive at a great example of issue 2, because the author assumes that the reader has the same condition he has: Apple's expectations are so high that true positive reaction to their behavior is impossible. What would be impressive? Does anything aside from giving the product away not fit under the umbrella of "they've done that before"?

The worst thing that ever happened to Apple happened immediately after the iPhone was announced in January of 2007. When they blew the collective minds of journalists and tech lovers worldwide with the iPhone, they created an expectation that they would be able to do this again, and again, and again, forever. That means, at least in spirit, every Apple product launch will be forever compared to the launch of the most successful product in history since oil. That sucks.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could go back and look at a product on its merits, rather than compare it to the best thing we could possibly imagine. That's what the author here is doing, you see: he's upset because Apple didn't release a keyboard cover for the iPad that's thin, light and doesnt add to the weight and usability of an iPad, while also providing a first-class typing experience with negligable power cost... in other words, a product that exists only in his imagination. If a product that exists has to be compared to a product that doesn't, you'd think its existence would be a major selling point. Not with Apple - they are the company that can blow your mind, remember?

When I say that Apple isn't held to the standard that other companies are, this is what I'm talking about. Every product Microsoft puts out doesn't have to be perfect at the risk of the destruction of Microsoft. Not so for Apple - they're not only competing with real companies that aren't handicapped in such a way, but also the collective imaginations of tech pundits worldwide. No wonder Apple focuses on delighting the user - delighting anyone else is apparently a futile proposition.


But it’s missing something that a lot of Apple-watchers had hoped it would have: an attachable keyboard.

If you're wondering where that citation is, where he asserts which apple watchers were doing what kind of hoping, you won't find it because it's not there. He just says that. To refresh your memory, no one that I know of that follows Apple or technology really expected a keyboard cover, much less hoped for it.

Just to clarify, as well, here's Apple's history with keyboards for the iPad: in 2010, a full keyboard dock was released alongside the original iPad. That's right, Apple made a keyboard for the iPad when they made the first iPad: they even gave it time on stage during the iPad introduction announcement. Apparently, it didn't sell particularly well (because no one wanted it) and so they neglected to update it for the thinner iPad 2 the next year. However, since the first iPad (I believe), Apple has allowed third party keyboards to pair with the iPad over Bluetooth (including Apple's own Wireless Keyboard, which it still offers as an accessory to the iPad at purchase time). I work with two people who regularly use their iPad in a keyboard dock or keyboard cover of some kind - I have never seen them use the iPad out of their contraption, but I've also never seen them bring their laptop to a meeting in lieu of their iPad.

What this author is talking about, then, is something more than a keyboard to go with the iPad, or a keyboard accessory. They want this:

image

The Surface debuted with a "Touch Cover" (as well as a "Type Cover", in typical Microsoft fashion: don't look at us, we don't know what you should buy!) last year. It was good, but not very good - either there was no travel on the keys, which is disorienting when the keyboard isn't on the screen for instant feedback, or the keys just weren't very good. Microsoft improved both covers in the newest incarnation of the Surface, but there are still issues with usability (see Engadget's and The Verge's reviews for more on that).

Also, the keyboards just lay flat, and don't do anything to prop up the device: the tablet itself needs its own support mechanism, in the Surface's case a kickstand. (If you think Apple will ever put a kickstand on the iPad, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.)

It's important to note also that the Touch and Type Covers were the main marketed feature of the tablets when they released (with those ridiculous commercials with the tabletop dancing that made me cringe every time), and the Surface's sales were pretty crappy, suggesting that maybe a keyboard attachment is not a good selling point for a tablet.

So, with that background, Apple absolutely has to make one, right? It's inevitible! An unsuccessful product sort of shabbily did it - Apple's stupid if not to immediately follow their strategy! (in which case the narrative would shift to "Apple taking and copying their strategy from Microsoft? How awful!" No? Really?)

The Surface failed (and literally no other Android tablet is launching with a hardware keyboard, or at least anywhere as near a high profile addition as the Surface) because it is trying to run in two directions at once - move into the future with a tablet, and continue in the current trajectory with a laptop. The experience is disjointed at best, confusing at worst. Apple is not following this strategy - I know this because they say so at literally every press event they have. This most recent one sounded like this:

Our competition is different: They’re confused. They chased after netbooks. Now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they’ll do next? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that we’re focused.

Or this:

You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user. We are not going to that party, but others might from a defensive point of view.

This is the sort of this those "apple-watchers" would know, and would prevent them from predicting that Apple would make a keyboard cover.

Let's go back to the article.

Instead Apple simply rolled out a new batch of smart covers, which is something of a misnomer: The only thing smart about smart covers is that they put your computer to sleep when you close them and wake it up when you open them. There’s no keyboard, no touchpad, no accessory port.

(emphasis mine.)

First, that seems pretty smart to me. Second, who said the requrements for something to be smart were that it have a keyboard?

Sure, you can add a separate wireless keyboard to your tablet, or buy a third-party keyboard case. But these tend to be ugly and bulky to carry around, which rather defeats the purpose of getting an iPad Air.

The fact that this sentence exists in this article is unfathomable to me. It completely invalidates his other points, adresses the reason why many people choose to forego keyboards entirely, and asserts that adding one would defeat the purpose of getting an iPad (because it would ruin its ever so predictable thinness and lightness)! This is Issue 1: he says things that completely contradict each other, and asserts them both to be incontravertably true. Keyboard covers cannot be essential AND crappy additions to the iPad. The purpose of getting an iPad is thinness and lightness AND it needs a keyboard addition to be relevant.


Without a real keyboard, a tablet can’t plausibly claim to replace anyone’s laptop for work purposes. So why didn’t Apple build one?

He goes on to say that Apple is counting on people not to do work, and that might be a winning strategy for right now, but will eventually be subsumed by tablets with keyboards because words, but we can just stop right there and arrive at Issue #3.

Apple's reasoning for not doing things like a keyboard cover for a tablet is not just negative (as on "we don't want to do that."). They also are quite happy with their current strategy. Before they announced the new iPads at the event yesterday, they showed a video that was worth watching the rest of the keynote (about an hour in: i'll post a direct link when they release it). In it, they flash cut between people making use of iPads - some of them are really cool, some you've no doubt already heard of - surgery assistant, flight navigation and assistance, teaching tool.

Looking back on it, exactly zero of them were plugged into a keyboard, and I'd also venture to say that zero of them could have been plugged into a keyboard - they just werent in a position to make an external keyboard useful. Do you think that's because they left it at home? Maybe it's because the iPad is doing just fine as a productivity tool without it?

When commentators in this field talk about tablets, they seem to draw a line between productivity and work. yeah, you can do stuff with an iPad or an Android tablet (okay, just an iPad, let's be honest), but you can't do "work". Grownups use laptops - tablets are just for having fun and fucking around on Facebook.

Here's my question - at what point does activity geared toward one's job become "working"? I tried to think about this in the vein that I've seen people at my office use iPads and tablets for office productivity. They're used often for email, so that can't be the line. Neither is taking notes during a meeting, obviously, because people do that all the time. Neither can making resentations or running them.

I don't have an iPad anymore, but when I did I knew what it wasn't effective at doing and what it was good at. It's not a particularly good development machine for the web - iPad's text editors are geared toward publishing with formats like Markdown and less towards programming (even that is changing as iPad text editors improve), and the iPad's built-in keyboard make supporting symbols and punctuation slower than on a full sized keyboard, where parens and brackets are first class citizens (for languages like Python, which are relatively sparse in punctuation, check out Editorial for what's being done with that on the iPad: arguably, the iPad is one of the best Python dev tools out there.)

But that's only my idea of "work". If I can't write code, compile apps or connect to a terminal to run commands, I can't work. Honestly, that makes an iPad about as useless as a Windows PC, and I would have to do comparable levels of setup for both to make them work in the way I'd need them to (Exhibit A: Cygwin).

Some may also use tablets in mobile work environments, like a doctor’s office or an Apple store, but rarely if ever for Word processing, or while sitting at a desk.

The iPad video presented at the keynote showed people being productive, and undisputedly so. Were they not working? Or were they doing what they define as work? It looked like the iPad fit in quite well at their definition of work.

Also, since I'm assuming by "Word processing" the author means Microsoft Word, it's important to note that Office for iPhone has only been out for a few months, and Office for iPad doesn't exist yet - that might be why it's hard to use Word on an iPad. If he had said "word processing", than that would have been a fallacy, because word processing is a common and trivial task for iPads.

And another thing: A tablet is only useful if you're using it for work at a desk? Isn't that a bit of a rigid requrement? If you work at a desk, isn't that a great place to put a device that benefits from being stationary for long periods of time, like a laptop or desktop?

Here's what it sounds like to me: "work" is all the stuff that's not fun and sucks to do. As soon as it becomes fun, its not "work": it's "creativity" or "productivity". That's why the iWork apps fail at doing work - they make it fun, and therefore not work. Apple should definitely take direction from Microsoft, who has been making things not fun professionally for years! They're practically the experts at sad and banal! They're... what's the opposite of a fun thing that makes your life better?

An airport. They're like the airport boarding process of application design.

(The most unbelievable part of this article is that it's author wrote this in response to the Surface 2 announcement - it's basically what I'm writing now, criticizing Microsoft for misunderstanding tablets and for making productivity "no fun". I tried to think how the same person could write both articles, but I got a headache.)

Just like the "million lines of code" article from earlier, whether the iPad is a good device for work really depends on the work that's being done. The iPad is a great productivity tool - it presents information in a way that is easy to absorb and manipulate, and it has the power to do computationally intensive tasks that involve more than direct input from a user (it can factor in location, orientation, speed, etc). The potential for this device is astonishing.

Unless you primarily type all day, in which case it took some getting used to, and probably still isn't as fast as working on a hard keyboard. I suspect that this is why journalists are hesitant to mark the iPad as a machine for productivity - they can't use it, or at least they don't yet. That's on them, though - that's their use case, and they don't speak for everyone. BUT THAT'S WHY APPLE MAKES MACBOOKS.


Issue #4 is pervasive throughout not only this article, but tech journalism as a whole. It goes something like this:

Apple needs to reinvent this category and really change the world: wait, why doesn't it look or work like I'm used to! Where's the thing I use? This sucks!

I call this Future Shock: it's the inability to process a transition from past to present without some arbitrary hook into the past to establish comfort. When the author says a tablet can't replace a laptop without a keyboard, he's effectively saying "anything that means to replace my laptop has to have a keyboard", which isn't true. This is what he was talking about in the first photo caption. It has no keyboard, so clearly it can't be used for getting work done. It made perfect sense to him.

A laptop replacement doesnt need a keyboard; if it doesnt have one, it just needs to replace the need for a keyboard, which in many cases the iPad has done. That leaves us to be open to new ideas about how to create - an uncomfortable proposition for some.

Microsoft is the company for people with Future Shock. Their products are designed to massage people slowly into the future, by constantly hedging their bets and insisting that if they don't give their customers exactly what they have had all these years, they'll be abandoned. Whether or not that's the case, they are pushing that strategy forward with Windows 8.1 and the Surface tablets, talking about productivity being exclusively the domain of Excel spreadsheets and reports.

You know people with Future Shock. You're probably related to them, and if you're reading this, odds are they're your parents. The transition to iPhones was hampered with cries in mourning for their Blackberry keyboard and worry that they just couldn't use the iPhone, which was the same kind of fear they had for cell phones, and laptops, and computers, and new interface changes on Facebook. The same thing always happens - Fear in the form of an Allergic reaction, then familiarity brought from use and repitition, then Acceptance and Learned Behavior. The same people who can't type without a hardware keyboard are the same people who couldn't type without a typewriter, who were the same people that couldn't type.

Don't wait for these people to come up with the future, with the new groundbreaking innovations that spur the world forward. By extention, don't wait for them to move there yourself - they'll come along eventually, or be left behind, but just because they refuse to move does not mean the future fails to arrive, on time and on schedule. This blog is about greatness, and it is a fact that people with Future Shock and people who cater to them do not make great things.