The iPad’s Killer App: It’s Not A Computer

| Analysis

When I last wrote about the iPad — on the eve of its introduction by Apple — I was pretty much dead on in my speculation. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back — the writing was pretty much on the wall by then. No, I bring it up in order to mention what I missed. I said that even if the iPad turned out to be exactly what I envisioned, it would still be missing that “killer feature” — the ineffable something that would make it irresistible; something that would fill a need I didn’t even know existed yet. What I didn’t realize then — or for weeks after the iPad became a reality for that matter — was that I had identified that killer feature in the very same article in which I sought it.

Here’s what I said back then:

“That’s what I believe Apple’s going to unveil tomorrow….a whole new category of multi-purpose computing device. Heck, even take out the computing part from that description. To have the mass-market appeal that Apple will insist on in order to bring a device to market…it’s got to be something that isn’t perceived as a ‘computer,’ just like the iPod and iPhone aren’t perceived as computers.”

As it turns out, that “non-computerness” is the very thing that makes the iPad so appealing. Who’d have thought that the key to making a computer appeal to the general consumer would be to turn the computer into a consumer device? An appliance, even — no more difficult to understand and not much more difficult to use than a toaster. No wonder a geek like me would miss its real appeal — it’s not a geeky device.

Sure, we geeks will still be drawn to it — it’s amazing technology. But something that just appeals to geeks will never break out as anything but a niche product. No, the iPad has become a transcendent device because it appeals to the non-geeks; those who would never otherwise consider surfing the web on their couch, emailing at the breakfast table or stuffing a laptop in their beach bag. The iPad — much more than the Mac before it — truly is “for the rest of us.” And not just the rest of us who want to create spreadsheets or word processing documents. No, it’s for the rest of us who want to keep in contact with their grandkids and friends; who want to Google a restaurant, pull up their calendar, grab directions to the nearest movie theater, watch an episode of their favorite show or read a book on the bus. The iPad is not a computer — at least not to these folks. It’s whatever they need it to be at the moment — a slab of glass that becomes a scrap of note paper or a map or a magazine or a photo album — through technology they neither have to nor care to understand.

I, geek that I am, don’t need an iPad. Sure, it’s handy and sure, I’ll get plenty of use out of it. But armed already with my laptop and iPhone, it won’t change my life (at least not yet.) That doesn’t mean its not a game-changer, because I’m not the customer Apple is targeting with the iPad. The people I see with an iPad “out in the wild” are by and large people who would not otherwise have a computer with them. They are non-techies, the very embodiment of the mass market, whose lives are enhanced by the fact that they now have something magical — not technological — at their disposal. (Sir Arthur C. Clarke was right, after all.)

That Apple never refers to the iPad as a computer is no accident. That Apple routinely refers to the iPad as magical is not being trite. Computers are scary, full of arcane commands and file systems and viruses. Technology is intimidating, reserved for younger generations and geeks with chin beards who speak of mega-this and giga-that. An iPad is friendly, inviting and — in spite of its capabilities — simple. A computer responds to commands. An iPad anticipates desires. And as OS updates and apps evolve, its abilities will expand ever further in empowering yet incremental and incrementally intuitive ways.

The iPad will not replace laptops — at least not right away. We geeks will use it as something that fits into a heretofore unimagined “gap” between the iPhone and a laptop, and the non-geeks who buy an iPad would never have bought a laptop anyway. (Although some of them might have bought a notebook, and that’s just fine with Apple.)

The thing about the iPad is that it’s not a thing at all. The iPad has such mass appeal not because of what it is, because it’s designed to make what it is irrelevant, forgettable.

No, the iPad’s appeal comes not from what it is but what it does. 

And that’s everything.



I’m guessing the “magical” reference is related to Clark’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Not too far off…


Whitley’s First Law: “Read the ENTIRE post before commenting.”

Mark Hernandez

It’s amazing and fascinating when geeks are blind and have difficulty “seeing” things.  We have the expectation that geeks are totally plugged into the Information Age and can easily understand things that the greater population can’t.  But it ain’t necessarily so.

I’m 57 years old.  I wrote my first program 42 years ago. So I would classify myself as an uber-geek.  But I was able to actually see the iPad and it’s usefulness 30 years ago…

When I opened my new issue of Byte Magazine back in August of 1981 (which I still have and was just gently holding) and read articles about SmallTalk80 by Adele Goldberg, Dan Ingalls, Larry Tesler and others, and then found my way to the Xerox Parc research at the UCSD library and ultimately read about Alan Kay’s Dynabook, I immediately “saw” and I’ve been “waiting” ever since. 

I believe strongly that Alan Kay must have quietly wept when he was sitting in the audience when Steve Jobs intro’d the iPad earlier this year.  It’s been such a long road to finally arrive at this place that was envisioned decades ago.  Most geeks reading this comment probably weren’t even born yet when Alan and his colleagues were working hard on this stuff.

So it’s amazing to me to see so many geeks totally misunderstanding the iPad. I just shake my head and wonder what the heck’s going on here? 

And you can certainly be a twenty-something geek and immediately get it and “see.”  I work with a few.  You just have to read, learn, listen, ask and be inquisitive and try to cool it on the reacting and spewing and thinking that you understand what’s going on.

As Spock would say… “Fascinating.”  And along those lines, much of what’s happening here is that we’re human beings and not machines, we’re psychological creatures, and we can be just as confused about ourselves and how we work as people as we are about computers.

Thankfully there are those geeks who “see” and LEAD, and show us what we should be focusing on even when we can’t see it right in front of us.

Mark Hernandez
The Information Workshop


Spot on, Chuck, and good post, Mark.

Technology is at its best when it disappears; when it’s so good that it hides itself completely. The iPad really accomplishes that pretty well. In the few weeks since I’ve had mine, it’s struck me more than once how “natural” its use can feel. It removes even more layers of visible technology by eliminating things like the mouse or trackpad which are physically removed from what they are controlling on the screen.

I’ve never owned a laptop, but I was using one last night for the first time since I’ve had my iPad. I was helping my daughter with something on her MacBook and no less than three times I put my finger on the screen expecting to scroll, touch an OK button, or whatever. My daughter thought it was comical. I think it’s quite telling.

I’m looking forward to multi-tasking and better ways of handling documents, but that’ll all come.

Nice job Apple.


“I was helping my daughter with something on her MacBook and no less than three times I put my finger on the screen expecting to scroll, touch an OK button, or whatever. My daughter thought it was comical. I think it?s quite telling.”

My daughter is only 21 mos. and she already has the UI on my iPhone down… she knows how to swipe, scroll, pinch to zoom, and use a ‘back’ button; all just from playing a handful of toddler games I’ve installed.

I was talking with my wife a couple of days ago while doing some maintenance on the Mac Mini we have as part of our home entertainment system.  As I was reconnecting the bluetooth keyboard and mouse, she made a comment like, “In 5 years, when Annie sees one of us still using a mouse for some reason, she’s going to think, what is this, some kind of bad joke?”

The iOS interface is the future, no doubt, and I can see it only getting better as time goes on… eventually, once we get those back facing cameras for things like video conferencing and the like, they’ll also be used for gestural commands as well, when they’re not being used for video input…  eventually we won’t even need to touch the touch screen to use our iPhones and iPads.

Neurotic Nomad

Apple has building gear for less-geeky geeks for over 30 years.

It’s what they do. They steal fire from the gods and makes it accessable to mere mortals.


@Mark, couldn’t agree with you more. I wrote my first program in 1969 and the iPad fits a need for me unlike anything else on the market


@Mark, as writing my first CAD-program on a ZX81 in the early 80ies I couldn’t agree with you more today.


I wrote my first program 42 years ago.

I wrote my first program (in FORTRAN) 44 years ago, as a freshman at MIT. Now, I haven’t written much of anything since then. I’ve always found it simpler to let other people do the programming. I tend to focus on using stuff, more than making it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never owned any “computer” that wasn’t made by Apple, Palm, or Handspring (later bought by Palm).


After over forty years in the computer business, the iPad is like a breath of fresh air to me, perhaps even more so than when I saw HyperCard and a Macintosh Plus some twenty years ago. I wrote a blog entry about the geeks’ views of the iPad (see it here) and ended it with a reference to “the rest of us,” too. I had not seen an iPad when I wrote the entry, and I still haven’t seen one. I live in Spain; hopefully, my iPad will arrive in the coming week—official release here is 28 May.
When I was writing programs, I always tried to write in such a way (especially later, when “terminals” came into use) that the user was unaware of the computer. MacOS went a long way to achieving this in a commercial professional and home-use desktop computer, but the iPad seems to just about achieve this as fully as possible.
Can’t wait!

Mark Hernandez

If you guys want to experience something on the iPad that speaks volumes as to what we hold in our hands more than anything else, get the app “Solar Walk.”  You will be absolutely blown away, and it will be the first thing you show others when you demo what the iPad is all about.

I just wanted to mention that it’s great we have 3 generations of geeks working at the same time, and like an atom or galaxy we’re a big globular cluster all holding each other together and making sure we don’t fly off into space.  We’ve got the wisdom of age mixed with the energy and idealism of youth, although I know some incredibly wise kids and plenty of creaky older people who’ve unfortunately become stuck in their ways.

I’m glad a bunch of us can “see” and help open other people’s eyes, and that “seeing” isn’t age-related.  There are even more brilliant people commenting in comment sections than there are writing blogs, and Chuck, you are a seer fer shure, dude!  grin

We have to keep pushing the envelope.  Conferences like MacWorld, WWDC and C4 that are only accessible to the privileged few are becoming anachronisms in an age when we all have multiple points of internet access in our pocket, on a tablet and on multiple screens.  And online forums and the “Blog Post/Comment Section” software also needs to be seriously updated to the 21st century (that’s another long discussion).  But those things are up to us to change, not Apple.


Nice writeup.  I love how you pat yourself on the back for your accurate predictions and then miss something so obvious. 

Looking back at history, many consumer products started off difficult to use, hard to maintain, and difficult to explain to the average joe, and expensive.  The automobile is an example.  The first owners had to wear goggles (not googles) and white coats.  To start the car, they had to walk around to the business end of the car and turn a crank.  You had to be mechanically inclined.  Now, cars are appliances.  BMW is even leaving out the dip sticks and temperature gauges on their latest models. 

We consumers do not want to know or think about HOW a product works, we just want to know what it can do for us and we want it to be easy to use without manuals or training.  Apple gets it.

Chuck La Tournous

Nice writeup.? I love how you pat yourself on the back for your accurate predictions and then miss something so obvious.?

LOL Thanks for noticing! wink

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