the end of the mechanical age

Anyone that knows me also knows that I am tablet fan. My first job out of college was at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center creating a user interface for a tablet that never shipped (this was 1998!) even though we got it working in prototype form. I have used tablets of various kinds since then – my main portable computer was a Thinkpad X Tablet until the Macbook Air came out and replaced it. (yep, 1 lb lighter plus much faster wake time is just too much of a difference to ignore, tablet or no tablet)

While much has been said about the iPad, both pro and con, on the negative side the focus seems to be on what it doesn’t do. For those that would have wanted to get a tablet mac, as opposed to a big iphone (and I think of the iPad not as a big iPhone, but I think of the iPhone as a small iPad, if you get what I mean), there’s no argument that would bring them over. The iPad simply doesn’t do what they want, and that’s ok. There’s also been a lot of commentary on how much of a controlled environment it is, how it can’t be hacked, and so on. All of those are in my view good points but somewhat beside the point. Since the thing clearly isn’t meant to be a general purpose computer, it is not that helpful to say that it isn’t and to want it to be one. It’s not a general purpose computer, and Apple never said it would be one. Done. Let’s all get over that.

What I find interesting is not so much what it does or doesn’t do, but in what it is in terms of its construction as far as bigger devices go, and the consequences for software/hardware interfaces. It seems to me that Apple is on a mission to lead the age of glass – no mechanical components, or as few of those as you could possibly get away with, and increased control of the physical interactions by the software, to create interfacing modes on the fly. From its screen all the way to the casing, the iPad is almost a solid block of metallic particles arranged in various ways, glass, and some plastic. If we had molecular assemblers (or maybe when is a better term) this is what I think the a lot of first products would look like.

Arguably, it was the iPhone that really broke ground here, and Apple has really been going in this direction for a while now. Macbooks now look like a slab of metal. Desktops (of all kinds, from the Mini to the MacPro) have this solid look that hides all the mechanisms that make it work. They generally seem to be sculpted, not assembled. Compare that to PCs, which actually do look assembled even if they’re now more streamlined.

Apple’s products are tightly controlled, but that also means they are tightly integrated. Apple is fusing the software with the device beyond anything else done in the computer/tablet/phone market today. The hardware is an extension of the software, and viceversa. They are one unit.

We have been infusing electronics and software into everything mechanical for decades now, putting software inside straightjackets of metallic hinges and spring mechanisms with rigid I/O interfaces (input through keyboard, output through display, and so on). It is really in consumer devices where interfaces blend more naturally into form and function. In modern cars (particularly mid- to high-end) the integration of software, processing units, memory, and storage, is fairly seamless as far as car functionality goes (the often times horrible integration of touchscreens and entertainment functions is another story). We don’t really think about it until something goes wrong.

This is one of the key areas in which Apple has pulled off a significant shift. Microsoft tried, for years, to bolt new form factors and ways of interaction into an already bloated system of concepts, software and hardware approaches (the PC). The quality of Windows aside, that’s why Windows tablets don’t work – and as long as Microsoft insists on shoving 40-year-old interaction paradigms and 20-year old software into various devices and form factors, it never will. Nor will Linux, or any other random PC OS anyone can come up with for that matter.

This new paradigm requires a redesign from the ground up. And to really pull it off, you need the hardware to blend into the background, not to get constantly in the way, calling attention to itself, and to become malleable. For that, you need the materials and the design to match them organically. Thinking of the device as a single unit, rather than disparate components to be mixed and matched, is what lets you achieve that. Which in turn allows software to really become the ghost in the machine, and to start to take control of the physical realm of the actions – creating physical interactions, like swiping, out of thin air, rather than having to rely on hinges and springs (like, say, a mouse or a keyboard) to communicate highly limited interactions.

The Mechanical Age is at an end. The Software Age is just beginning.