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The launch of a new machine

Apple's new iPad and its competitors have great potential to connect new people to the online world.


March 1, 2010  


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As a writer, I subscribe to a free e-mail newsletter called “A Word A Day” (www.wordsmith.org). In addition to a daily dose of wonderful words such as “borborygmus,” each issue includes a thought for the day.

On Feb. 1 of this year, the daily thought was this: “The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug — that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous, and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.”

“Useful, dangerous and habit-forming” could apply to every piece of modern technology in our offices, homes and pockets couldn’t it?

It should come as no surprise that this astute observation’s author was none other than George Orwell.

From Internet-enabled video game consoles, to e-mail and social networking, to mobile phones and data devices, the connected world exerts a powerful and seductive force over members of modern society.

Make no mistake: We are still learning how to control it. From auto accidents attributed to drivers or pedestrians distracted by their MP3 players or mobiles, to those who get fired because they called in sick then bragged about playing hooky on Facebook, it appears many of us have a lot to learn.

Now there is a new machine: The Apple iPad. It’s not the first tablet computer, but it does come with something never seen before in the segment: an instant market demand. Hordes of people — members of the Apple Army — will buy one, and only then figure out what to do with it.

Even before its unveiling on Jan. 27, reporters, pundits, Apple users and others burned great bundles of bandwidth speculating about what the iPad would or would not do. “It will change the world — or nothing at all. It will save publishing or kill it. It is wonderful — or a disaster. It is the future of computing — it’s just an iPod with a bigger screen. No, no, it isn’t either of those: It is a replacement for computing.”

That last observation, a replacement for computing, is the one that resonates strongest with me. But maybe “replacement” is not quite the right word.

Many of us could no longer live our lives even away from the office without our iUmbilical Cords.

There is no way we would replace our desktops and laptops with a tablet computer, not even with something as slick as the iPad appears to be.

But as people tight in the grip of the ever-present Internet, we tend to forget that even in the industrialized world — in Canada, the United States and other nations that live or die by the Knowledge Economy — millions of people are not connected. And they’re perfectly happy.

Many of these people have not been convinced that the Internet’s benefits are worth the expense of a computer system or the time it would take to learn how to use it.

Others may be interested, but have reservations about dealing with technology. Think about it, and I’m sure you will have no trouble identifying at least a few of them in your lives. (For starters, they are the ones you have to phone because they do not have e-mail.)

With its intuitive user interface and lack of user-serviceable parts, the iPad is less of a computer than an appliance. If it works like an iPod touch with a larger screen, it should be as easy for anyone to use as a microwave or television. As such, the iPad and its competitors have great potential to connect new people to the online world.

Interestingly, these new ‘Netizens may be those best able to enjoy technology’s usefulness, while remaining immune to its dangerous and habit-forming aspects.

We stand to learn much from watching whether, and how, they embrace these devices. CNS