Why Modern Computing Devices Drive Us To Distraction

It's easy to build something that's more powerful than an iPad—and very, very hard to do it without introducing complexity.

Over at Medium, MG Siegler has a nice piece likening the iPad to a typewriter. He means the comparison to a defunct piece of technology as a compliment: Writing on an iPad with an external Logitech keyboard, he says, strips away all the distractions of other applications and web services and lets you focus on your thoughts and the words.

I know what he means. For almost three years now, I've used an iPad with a keyboard as my primary computer. About 85% of everything I've produced for publication in that time, I've pounded out on my tablet.

I like the fact that iPad apps run in full-screen mode and usually aren't overwhelmed by interface clutter or features I'll never use. I like the fact that I don't have to spend much time maintaining my iPad, and don't have to futz with stuff like anti-virus software. I like the fact that my iPad has built-in LTE wireless Internet which is (AT&T willing) available the moment I turn on the tablet. And I absolutely love the fact that I dependably get 10 hours of battery life on a charge, which means that I can be smugly productive while those who tote notebooks are frantically hunting for wall outlets.

In short, an iPad with a keyboard—my current fave is Belkin's Qode Ultimate Keyboard case—is the closest thing I've found to the ideal general-purpose PC for me. I still run into folks who tell me I'm nuts, but there seem to be fewer hidebound naysayers than in the past. And more people like MG Siegler.

Belkin's Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case, my current iPad keyboard of choice

For all the overwhelming influence the iPad has had on other gadgets—ranging from a bevy of Android tablets to PCs running Microsoft's touch-centric Windows 8.x—it remains unique as a minimum-distraction platform for tasks such as writing. In part, that's because other companies which take on the iPad usually do so by adding features which Apple has willfully chosen to leave out—such as Samsung's Galaxy Pro tablets, which can run four apps on screen at once. Even if you're a grand master of streamlined interfaces—which Samsung is not—more features mean more complexity.

And once a computing platform has introduced something, it's almost impossible to take it out. One user's distraction, after all, is another one's invaluable feature; removing existing functionality becomes a tough call which tech companies are rarely willing to make. That's why Microsoft is still wrestling with the challenge of designing a version of Windows which simultaneously feels like it was designed in the modern era and is alluring to the majority of people who were more or less happy with previous versions of the operating system.

The iPad is as distraction-free as it is for three reasons:

  • It's still a relatively new platform which started out simple and didn't have to worry about keeping existing users happy;
  • Apple, more than any other major tech company, errs on the side of not adding new functionality until it's had ample time to think it out;
  • The iPad reflects Apple's precise vision, while most other computing devices suffer from the unsightly seams which are inevitable when one company doesn't both design the hardware and write the software.

Keeping a computing platform focused is, of course, a never-ending battle. Every time Apple upgrades iOS, it risks winding up with an iPad that's both more powerful and more distracting, which means that the simplicity I treasure only gets harder to preserve.

Apple's upcoming iOS 8, which is due this fall, is wildly ambitious, and looks great. But I'm hopeful that all of its ambition stays out of the way until I need it. If we ever get an iPad which can't reasonably be compared to a typewriter, I'm not going to consider it progress.

[Image: Flickr user Ben Jeffreys]

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8 Comments

  • Elena Genuos

    There's nothing wrong with complexity. In fact Apple has consistently had deficiencies in their laptops because they're too obsessed with stripping them down, making them thin and sleek.

  • spjholland

    Everything you wrote about the iPad (esp. third paragraph) is true of Apple’s range of desktop and laptop computers. Jony Ive famously said that he was more proud about what had been left out of the iPad than what had been included.

    Fortunately for Apple, unfortunately for consumers, Apple’s competitors have a history of copying without ‘Getting It' – just look at how MS shamelessly ripped off Apple’s GUI over the years, but without any of it’s élan or elegance.

    Apple’s secret is that they work ceaselessly to take extremely complex problems and make the solutions seem simple to the user – so simple that it’s almost impossible to imagine computing any other way. MS tried this argument when Apple sued them for ripping off the Mac GUI in the 1980s: Apple’s mouse was so essential to a computer why, it would be like designing a car and patenting the steering wheel. MS, of course, hadn’t thought of the mouse first. Apple’s competitors just aren’t smart enough to keep things simple.

  • Mengxing Shen

    I am, unabashedly, a geek. I love the complexity, the command line and lots of knows to turn and buttons to push. So the iPad just doesn't float my boat. I bought one the week they were first released an try as I might I never get much use out of it. I use my phone for every day, but when I need a computer it's a laptop for me. www.officiallakestore.com

  • Hi Harry... love your work and your appearances on TWiT.

    I am, unabashedly, a geek. I love the complexity, the command line and lots of knows to turn and buttons to push. So the iPad just doesn't float my boat. I bought one the week they were first released an try as I might I never get much use out of it. I use my phone for every day, but when I need a computer it's a laptop for me.

    But I agree for normals, that the simplicity of the iPad is a brilliant device.

    Cheers!