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An Inconvenient Complexity

The voices from a certain segment of the developer classes cry out that the iPad has left out too much. That the simplicity of the device has cut them off from the toolsets with which they’ve become comfortable and productive. There’s no keyboard, no mouse, no windows, no multitasking, no hierarchical file system. Perhaps they state the obvious when they say it’s not the laptop they already have. The device, they say, is too simple to be useful. The computing environment is too vertical. Somehow this crowd imagines a linear incremental evolutionary development from personal computing as they’ve always known it to a simple tablet device. A simple device that includes all the complexity and clutter to which they’ve become accustomed. Of course we know the fate of the complex tablet device they’re describing— it never caught on. That wasn’t what they wanted either.

There’s another segment that says that this new iPad device won’t inspire the tinkerer, the maker. The person who, as a child growing up, reveled in taking apart things to see how they worked. There are no screws to let the user open up this device and have a peak inside. The device is both too simple and too complex. The integrated design and manufacture of the product is at such a high level that there’s not much for the tinkerer to play with. This crowd believes the iPad kills play. But tinkering and play is always a relative matter. With the iPad, tinkering is simply displaced— it moves up the stack to the level of web/cloud and native software. Tinkerers, if they are tinkerers, are not so easily dissuaded.

A third segment thinks that the iPad will re-incarcerate the audience. Social media and various crowd-sourced content sites have transformed the audience from passive observers to active participants. But, the iPad is deemed an evolutionary step backward, an evil plan by the incumbent media companies to preserve their dastardly business models. The device, they say, is purely for consumption of media— it’s a screen, much like a television. Because it lacks the traditional input tools, the keyboard and the mouse, it can’t and won’t enable the user to interact or create. Multi-touch is a gesture of consumption, not one of creation. Those making this argument defend the “new media of the internet” from the next generation of innovators and the kids who’ll learn to type on glass.

In each of these cases there’s a defense of an inconvenient complexity. The complexity must be preserved to extend the stability of the existing ecosystem. There’s even a moral edge to maintaining the status quo, as if embracing this new platform was a kind of degenerate act. And instead of the device that’s available today, a non-existent device of the future is peddled in its place. A device where choices don’t have to be made, where everything you want, everything you have, and everything you can imagine exist in a simple package. Of course, if you wait long enough, the thing you’re looking for might just come along. Either that or you’ll run out of heartbeats.

In the end, what the simplicity of the iPad allows is more participation by more people with real-time personal and social networked computing. By eliminating levels of complexity, the barriers to practical and emotional engagement with the device are reduced below a significant threshold. But we’re only in the year zero, as the platform expands and matures, as competitors flesh out variations of the theme, new levels of complexity will emerge.

Published in culture design markets media money music network simplicity


  1. Like the web, it will first be overwhelmingly oriented toward consumption, then it will grow as a production device. Video and audio editing may be the forerunners, and then text (code) will follow.

  2. The major insight is that it is a consumption, not a production device. The status quo doesn't give up easily.

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