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Rise of the Silver Surfer

“If there’s two things I wish I could’ve done sooner, the first is give up smoking and the second is buy an iPad.”

My grandmother said that to me during a visit last year, all the while looking down at her iPad, swiping through page upon page of archived census information about a great, great uncle she was researching. The iPad had given her the ability to trace family history with exceptional detail, something that had been a passion of hers but one severely limited without Internet access. To say the iPad has revolutionised her life is probably not that far from the truth.

You see, long before the iPad, the closest my grandmother ever had to a computer was in the early nineties when she purchased an Amstrad NC100, a portable word processor that could run off a few AAs. It was a device aimed at those who didn’t want (or need) an expensive laptop but still required a portable typing solution.

It was basic, even by early 90s standards, but it was easy to use (the advertisements Amstrad ran in the newspapers even used the slogan “If you can’t use this computer in 5 minutes, you’ll get your money back”). Instead of fumbling with keyboard shortcuts or a menu hierarchy, certain keys were colour coded so you’d actually press “yellow” and “red” to access the word processor. Sufficed to say, with that level of ease at which you could just start writing something, my grandmother went on to use it as a word processor daily for almost 7 years.

Sadly, the Amstrad eventually stopped working and wasn’t replaced. It had been long since discontinued and by then computers were even more complicated than ever before so the thought of having to learn how a real computer works was a little too daunting for her to consider. The years past, technology evolved, until one day she decided to find out what this Internet was all about.

At the advice of certain family members who shall remain nameless, she bought herself a sub-par Windows laptop from the local Tesco supermarket in 2005. After several dreary weeks trying to learn a whole new concept from various different people, all with their own ways of doing things (imagine trying to learn the guitar by visiting a different tutor each week), she gave up, tired and frustrated, and the laptop was retired to a drawer where it remains to this day.

The problem with desktop computing in general is that there is still somewhat of a prerequisite to know how an operating system works. Go to the OS X Mountain Lion page on Apple’s website or Windows 8 on Microsoft’s. The first thing you’ll see on both is that they advertise “what’s new” – a comparison of what this latest version has over the old one. But what if you’ve never used the old one? Apple offer an amazing training experience through their Personal Training service at your local Apple Store… if you’re able to get there. You might be lucky and have a couple of Apple Stores all within driving distance or you might be unfortunate enough that it’s just too far away to attend.

My grandmother isn’t particularly tech-savvy but she’s very smart, she just has about as much interest in how technology as automobiles. She doesn’t really care how it gets her from A-B as long as it does. There are a lot of people who just want to get into the internet without feeling like they have to earn a degree in computer science.

The complexities that put off more mature users from desktop computing don’t exist in iOS, the experience was designed from scratch to be as user friendly as possible. Examples of this include the lack of a filesystem, only one app on the screen at any one time and little in the way of customisability. Some people would see these as a limitation, that because the device is extremely powerful it should do all these fancy things, but I disagree. What we might see as a limitation, others would see as a lack of complexity.

For users who just want to do something with their iPad, they just see each icon as a task, not an app or a feature. They just want to press a button to go on the Internet (Safari), a button to send an email (Mail) and a button to write a letter (Pages, though up until recently my grandmother was writing letters to send using Notes, complete with Marker Felt font).

It’s often assumed that a device lacking in certain features is always at a disadvantage but the fact that the iPad, and iOS in general, has started off small and only adds features that are truly useful to everyone (not just nerds). Samsung’s marketing department can mock iPhone and iPad users all they want about the fact their parents use iOS devices but I’d say that speaks volumes about the wide range of users Apple’s devices can provide for.

My grandmother became very interested in what the iPad could do for her once my mother and her began looking up old family history via census information and wedding certificates together. This was one of the reasons she’d been wanting to get online for a long time but was always put off by the aforementioned complexities. It was because of the simplistic nature of iOS that she picked up using my mother’s iPad surprisingly quickly. So much so that she ended up buying one herself only a few weeks later.

Nowadays my grandmother spends most of her days (and nights) on the iPad1. She’s been so engrossed with it that she has invested in the entire ecosystem such as buying an AirPrint-compatible printer and making FaceTime calls whenever she can. She’s even joined Facebook, regularly shops and banks online, books flights and has even started selling items on eBay. I’d wager that she uses the iPad more than most of us yet if you ask her what malware is, she’d have no idea.

  1. I suspect giving up smoking has helped with this since using the iPad occupies your hands.