With Technology, Abstraction is Inevitable

By  |  Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I swear I have no plans to dedicate this blog to links to John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, but he has another nice post up on the iPad and its implications. It’s worth reading whether you’re as giddy over the device as he is or are taking a wait-and-see approach–or even if you’re profoundly skeptical about the whole idea.

Gruber talks about the abstraction represented by the iPad–the way its interface shields the user from the minutia of the fact it’s a computing device in a way that no traditional computer does. He uses a car metaphor:

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.


Eventually, the vast majority [of computers] 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.

If he’s right–and I think he is–the change is going to be less revolutionary than evolutionary. With computers, interface changes are nearly always about abstraction.

Want proof? Here’s John C. Dvorak–an odd bedfellow for Gruber if there ever was one–writing shortly after the Mac’s release in 1984, using a comparison he credits to Will Hearst II:

What the automatic transmission did for the automobile is what the Macintosh will do for personal computers.

Or simply consider the last thirty-five years of personal computing and communications:

  • If you used computers in the mid-1970s there was a good chance you soldered your machine together yourself and programmed it using switches. You might even have designed it yourself.
  • If you used computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the experience was entirely command-line based, and you most likely accomplished some tasks by writing your own programs. You almost certainly didn’t have a hard drive, which meant that you were intensely involved in the management of data (switching programs often meant switching floppy disks–assuming you had the luxury of a floppy drive at all).
  • From the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, you may have used a graphical interface–but if you were on a machine running Microsoft software, you did so only on a part-time basis, and evidence of DOS’s non-abstract nature was visible throughout Windows (eight-character file names, for example). If you went online, it was likely via a command-line service such as CompuServe that was an entirely different world from your local operating system. And if you needed to upgrade your computer, it generally meant opening it up and installing circuit cards.
  • Beginning in the mid-1990s, almost everyone began to use graphical user interfaces almost all of the time–although even then, there were diehard command-line fans who sneered at GUIs. Thanks to always-on broadband, the Internet was just there; thanks to the Web, it was easy to use. And USB made it possible to perform a sizable percentage of upgrades without cracking your PC’s case.
  • The period from the mid-aughts to today has been a continuation of the one before it. Whether you’re using a local application or a Web service is increasingly irrelevant–sometimes you can’t even tell which is which. Even cables are getting abstracted out of the picture: Devices often talk to each other via wireless networks.

It doesn’t matter whether you like abstraction or prefer to get your hands as dirty as possible. The trend is inevitable, and there’s no reason to think it’s anywhere near completion.

There’s no way that Windows or OS X can ever become utterly abstract, though. Both platforms have roots that stretch back to the 1980s, and which eliminate any possibility that you’ll forget you’re using a computer.

The cruft is especially thick on Windows, which still can leave you having to deal with the Registry and various security hassles and even the fact that an application may consist of thousands of files stored in multiple places on your hard drive. But it’s there in OS X, too. These operating systems have been abstracted about as far as they can be.

With the iPhone, and now the iPad, Apple took a step that’s necessary for further abstraction: It started over.

The iPhone OS’s technological underpinnings are based on OS X’s, but Apple threw a lot out. And when it came to the user interface, it didn’t rework the Mac look and feel–it built something utterly new. That approach couldn’t be any more different from Microsoft’s strategy with Windows Mobile, which retains as much as possible of Windows familiarity, from the Start Menu to dialog boxes to the freakin’ Registry.

By starting over, though, Apple gave up much. On both the technical and usability fronts, there are an array of things it’s either chosen to ignore or is working on but hasn’t yet incorporated into the OS. Obvious example: cut and paste, a mundane system function which didn’t make its way into the iPhone OS until two years after the first iPhone shipped–but which worked really well once it got there.

In its current state, the iPhone OS is still immature–and at times, abstract and limiting feel like the same thing. The OS still provides very little in the way of customization options, and still provides few ways for applications to get at data stored on the device. The inability to listen to a third-party music app while using a different program doesn’t feel abstract in the least; it’s a nagging reminder that you’re using an electronic device.

All of this is a more significant issue with the iPad than with the iPhone. The new device’s larger screen is going to make it a useful tool for applications which will never be key ones on the iPhone, and many of which are familiar from PCs and Macs. We began to see that yesterday morning, with Apple’s iWork office apps. All three are vastly more ambitious than similar programs for the iPhone will ever be, and reminiscent of programs we’ve used on desktop OSes for decades.

Their interfaces were the single thing at yesterday’s event that excited me the most. At the moment, though, they’re hobbled by basic limitations of the OS they run on. On the iPhone, for example, not being able to print directly is either a mild irritant or no irritant at all–but if you plan to use the iWork apps on the iPad, it’s could be a major pain in the neck.

Will the iPad be permanently crippled by limitations inherent in the current iPhone OS?  Absent access to Apple’s software roadmap, it’s impossible to know for sure, and the company isn’t telling. I do have some guesses, though:

  • Rumor had it that Apple’s tablet would run iPhone OS 4.0, which would be announced at yesterday’s event. Instead, the iPad runs iPhone OS 3.2-by definition a relatively minor upgrade over iPhone OS 3.1, the current version that actually runs on iPhones. It’s therefore not surprising that most of the new features appear to involve getting applications to run on the iPad’s larger screen at all. But this we know: There will be an iPhone OS 4.0, and we’ll almost certainly learn more about it within the next few months. That’s when it’ll be logical to expect the major changes that Apple might make to reflect the existence of the iPad.
  • iPhone OS is never going to make everyone happy, because Apple is never going to try to make everyone happy. (Exhibit A: the lack of Flash.) In 2015, there will still be people grousing over the OS’s limitations.
  • Apple may never publicly say this, but my gut is that it expects the day to come when most or all of its devices run the OS we now call iPhone OS. (It’ll be called something else by then.) If so, the thing has gotta address many (but not all) of its current limitations. It’ll just do so piece by piece over the next few years. And, one hopes, in a way that doesn’t result in it eventually devolving into a clone of today’s OS X.

Apple, of course, isn’t the only company driving further abstraction of the computing experience. With Chrome OS, for instance, Google is pretty much trying to abstract everything out of the operating system except for the Web browser. (Apple limits you to the apps it chooses to offer through the iTunes Store; Google doesn’t let you run apps, period.)

I have no plans to eliminate traditional computers running traditional OSes from my computing regimen any time soon, but I’m glad both companies are scaring themselves–or at least some of us–with radical change. Which is why I think the iPad is a significant product even if version 1.0 is missing any number of bells and whistles which I’m not willing to live without just yet.


Read more: , ,

4 Comments For This Post

  1. MechaNikos Says:

    Very well put Harry. Abstraction is, indeed, inevitable. And although we’re far from experiencing a universal interface like the ones we see in sci-fi movies, anyone with basic understanding of HCI principles will agree that that’s where we’re heading to.

    The fact that I feel perfectly comfortable in front of a 12″ CRT, 80×25 VT100 terminal, doesn’t mean that the average person should get a degree in CS to be able to use a computing device; and computing is now ubiquitous. Flattening the learning curve by making the experience as transparent as possible is what -I think- is needed.

    In that sense, the iPad, whilst not being the uber-tech device almost everyone expected, is actually paving the way for the introduction of a new paradigm in interacting with a computing device to perform everyday tasks. One thing is sure: the shape of things to come is definitely a flat surface.

  2. Steven Hirsch Says:

    How appropriate that this inevitable march toward abstraction has seen the iPad introduced at virtually the same time that Sun Microsystems has ceased to exist as an entity. Sun, once synonymous with the internet and the leading unix vendor, now can achieve little more than fourth place in Oracle’s products page….

  3. ediedi Says:

    Gruber’s car analogy is a bit stretched. As with all his posts, he alternates between keen analysis and wishful-thinking hi-tech fantasies. This latest article comes closer to the latter.

  4. Kevin Krewell Says:

    I agree with your thoughts here. The iPad is also the descendant of those futuristic devices from Star Trek and 2001 we all thought we would get. Simple and purposeful to use.