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Alan Zisman on the Mac

iPad Promises to Free Users from Files and Folders and Drives

- 2010.02.23 - Tip Jar

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When Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, and the rest were walking the Yellow Brick Road, they found the Enchanted Forest a scary place indeed, filled with "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

For too many computer users today, the equivalent chant might be "files and folders and drives, oh my!"

I know some of us have gotten good at saving files and finding them again when we want them, but for lots of computer users, this remains a puzzle, along with far too much of what it takes to keep our personal technology up and running, to say nothing of productive.

Software and hardware is generally designed by the people who are comfortable with file systems, installing device drivers, and all the rest, and who, despite generally good intentions, usually don't really understand how frustrating their products can be for far too many people.

For over a decade, Windows has provided users with My Documents, My Music, My Videos, and similar folders, but many users still manage to store everything on their (cluttered) desktops. Windows 7 tries to help users with what Microsoft calls "libraries" of categories of files, making them appear together regardless of where they are actually located on your hard drive. I'm not sure it helps.

Some applications have simply taken the user out of the loop. Does it matter to Mac users how Apple's iPhoto, for instance, organizes their image files behind the scenes, as long as they can open them and see thumbnails of all their photos?

iPad with New York Times appIn January, Apple - to no one's surprise - announced the iPad, a tablet computer, as had been widely expected. Wildly over-hyped before the announcement (though not by Apple, which managed to manipulate the media by saying nothing in advance), afterwards much of the media claimed to be disappointed, focussing on what they feel the iPad is lacking.

Many proclaimed it "just an over grown iPod touch" with no built-in camera, no hard drive, no standard USB ports, and no memory card slots. Less attention was paid to what else is missing: Like an iPhone or an iPod touch, it keeps the user at a distance from all those messy things - files and folders and drives, device drivers, software installers and uninstallers, and the like.

These have divided computer users into two classes: a minority who "get it" and everyone else, forced to rely on the technophiles for help.

iPad running new Mail appI haven't gotten my hands on an iPad; in fact, as I write, no Canadian release date has even been announced. (And remember, Canada got the iPhone about a year after our American cousins.) I don't know if it will prove to be "magical" and a new category of product filling a middle ground between smart phone and laptop, as Apple's Steve Jobs proclaimed.

Most of what we do with computers is either content creation or content consumption. Apple showed off a few content creation applications for the iPod - a new version of their iWork suite of word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, and an inexpensive third party paint program already available for the iPhone. But its strength is going to be content consumption, browsing the Web (at least those parts of the Web that don't use Flash); keeping in touch via email, Facebook, Twitter, and the like; reading ebooks; watching video; and listening to music.

And I suspect that when I finally get my hands on one, I'll find it good at those tasks, somewhat awkward if I want to use it for writing or keeping financial records, but superb at letting people use it without needing to be aware of files and folders and drives. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver February 16 - 22, 2010 issue #1060

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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