Apple iPad: the Most Important Product of the Decade



Incredible technology products have emerged in the last 10 years, from Web 2.0 sites to Twitter, GPS-enabled smart phones to cheap pocket video recorders.

On New Year’s Day, 2001, blogs were still largely unknown to the public. RIM had yet to launch the BlackBerry, and Palm hadn’t yet announced its Treo. Blu-Ray was still several years in the future. Google hadn’t even started working on Gmail. A 3.1 megapixel camera cost $700. Almost nobody had heard of social networking.

There’s no question that technology has completely changed our world in the past ten years. But if I had to pick one product that was more impactful and more culture-changing – in other words, the most important technology product of the decade, it would have to be the Apple iPad.

The measure of importance has got to be the degree to which a product has changed culture, and also the degree to which it has influenced other products. And by both those measures the iPad wins hands-down.

The only product that comes even close would be MySpace. It was MySpace that popularized the essential ingredients for social networking, ingredients that Facebook used to truly change the way people live and interact.

But the iPad is the most impactful product of the decade not for what it has already changed, but what it will change in the decade to come.

The full impact of this change will first be felt in less than a week. When CES 2011 begins on Jan. 6, it will become clear how much the iPad is influencing the direction of computing. An overwhelming tsunami of me-too touch tablets will wash across the industry. There will be cool ones and lame ones, cheap ones and expensive ones. But all of them will be influenced by the design of the iPad. Most of them will exist only because the iPad exists.

It is inevitable that iPad-like touch tablets will one day shed their cell phone operating systems, and acquire full fledged desktop operating systems. Applications developers, and especially games developers, will optimize their interface design for multi-touch. The mouse will be dead before the coming decade is over.

The iPad represents nothing less than the first real 3rd-generation personal computer.

The first generation devices, such as the Apple II and the DOS PCs, sported command line interfaces. You memorized words, then typed them in at a “prompt.” Initially, the output was almost always a screen full of text.

The 2nd-generation devices have WIMP user interfaces – windows, icons, menus and pointing devices. The history of these graphical computers stretches from the Xerox Star, Apple Lisa and Apple Macintosh 128k right on up to the PC you’re using today. Even Microsoft Windows based Tablet PCs — though tablets and mouseless – are WIMP computers running WIMP applications, but with a tablet interface layer.

We have been using 2nd-generation WIMP computers for 30 years now.

The first of the 3rd-generation computers emerged in 1997 with the Microsoft Surface device, the Apple iPhone and other phones with MPG user interfaces (multi-touch, physics and gestures).

These early MPG devices were important, but they were not general-purpose computers. The Surface is a proprietary and vertical device used primarily for marketing. The iPhone is, well, a phone.

The iPad, on the other hand, is the computer that changes everything. The iPad’s user interface, App Store model, and above all usefulness as an all-purpose MPG computer for the masses truly changes everything. In just a few years most of the computers that most people buy will work pretty much like the iPad. They’ll just be bigger and more powerful.

And MPG computing makes enormous sense, because it’s far more “human compatible” than WIMP computing. The use of a mouse over here to control a pointer on a screen over there is an abstraction. There’s a clunky piece of physical mechanics serving as an intermediary between you and the stuff you want to manipulate. MPG computers like the iPad, on the other hand, enable direct touch. It’s so basic and intuitive that a baby can do it.

The iOS ecosystem in general, and the iPad in particular, has sent the industry scrambling to copy. Suddenly, everyone’s got to have a multi-touch user interface. Everyone has to have an App Store. Everything’s gotta be a tablet.

Even if you never buy an iPad, your world will be deeply influenced by it. ATM screens will become multi-touch. Windows and Linux PCs will be sold as giant touch tablets. More software will be purchased in an “app store” model. Clamshell laptops will gradually become yesterday’s news.

The iPad also represents a rare case where the first culture-changing system is also the one that dominates the market. The Xerox Star was the first GUI PC, but failed in the market. MySpace pretty much invented the modern social network but is being clobbered by Facebook. Palm pioneered the smart phone but is now at an also-ran in the market. Usually, the copycats win.

But that’s not the case with the iPad. The iPad was the world’s first general-purpose MPG computer and will continue to completely dominate the market. That almost never happens in technology.

Of course I could be wrong about all this. We just might never have a 3rd-generation PC movement. User interface design may be the only area of computing to never evolve. WIMP computers might be with us forever. The mouse may linger on far beyond obsolescence like the fax machine continues to do.

But I don’t think so. I think the revolution is here. I think the iPad is changing the way we interact with machines, and will influence thousands of other products.

And for that reason I believe the Apple iPad is the most important product the decade.