31 Aug 2012 13:38 GMT
When the iPad was first announced in January 2010, Daring Fireball's John Gruber explained Apple's purpose with an interesting analogy.
Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.
That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.
That’s not to say there aren’t trade-offs involved. Car enthusiasts (and genuine experts like race car drivers) still drive cars with manual transmissions. They offer more control; they’re more efficient. But the vast majority of cars sold today are automatics. So too it’ll be with computers. Eventually, the vast majority will be like the iPad in terms of the degree to which the underlying computer is abstracted away. Manual computers, like the Mac and Windows PCs, will slowly shift from the standard to the niche, something of interest only to experts and enthusiasts and developers.
Gruber is a smart guy and I wouldn't bet against him when it comes to Apple, even here. But there is a problem with this analogy. It's much more convincing if you live in North America than in Europe.
In Europe, and especially here in the UK, manual transmission cars aren't niche, they're the norm. It's hard to find definitive statistics, but the estimates I can find suggest that more than 80% of cars registered in the UK have manual transmission, compared with less than 10% in the US.
It's not particularly clear why things are so different in Europe. I expect it has a lot to do with the things Gruber himself identified: control, cost and fuel efficiency – especially fuel efficiency, given the higher price of petrol in Europe.
But the European car market demonstrates that the current popularity of automatic cars in the US was not inevitable; or at least, it wasn't an inevitable consequence of technological progress. It wasn't something that had to happen given the intrinsic technological properties of automatic cars. Under a different set of cultural and economic circumstances, manual transmission could have remained the dominant technology in the US, despite the availability of automatic cars.
What does any of this have to do with the rumoured forthcoming iPad Mini? Gruber's 2010 article expressed the expectation that devices like the iPad would become the future of personal computing, in the sense that they would ultimately replace desktops (and laptops) as most people's primary computer.
That's one possible future – and given the growth in iPad sales it's a plausible future. But it's not an inevitable future. It doesn't follow automatically from the technology. In terms of the transmission analogy, we don't yet know whether the future of personal computing looks like North America or Europe.
Which way it goes once again depends on cultural and economic factors. Their role is reflected in the question of whether people come to think of the iPad as something they should buy in addition to a desktop computer or instead of a desktop computer.
To me this is the most interesting question about the iPad Mini: does it make the iPad look more like an additional computer, or the only computer you'll ever need?
There is a hidden risk for Apple in releasing a smaller iPad. The more successful it is, the more it will cannibalise sales of the larger iPad, and the more it could end up looking like a neat peripheral rather than a computer in its own right. Apple may enjoy higher iPad sales in the short term, but it could undermine their long-term goal of overturning the desktop hegemony.
Right now, no-one is selling a seven or eight inch tablet in anything like the same volume as the iPad. Tablets that size simply haven't taken off in the same way. An iPad Mini could change that. But it could also shape the way the public thinks about tablets, and what they think they're for.