The Apple iPad – A New Category of Device for the Semantic Age

Friday, 29 January 2010

hero_20100127On Wednesday Apple introduced the iPad – a 9.7 inch multi-touch device that bridges the gap between computers and smart phones.  They have priced it very aggressively  with the basic 16gb Wi-Fi model starting at $499 and the 64GB 3G model topping out at $829.

As technology becomes increasingly pervasive in all our lives we need to be able to interact with it more efficiently.  Computers are okay when you’re at your desk, but there’s so many times when you need to access the web where turning on your computer is too time consuming and your smart phone interface is too fiddly to use (yes even on the iPhone).

What is the semantic web?

The web we know today is designed for humans. We can efficiently navigate between 1000s of databases and accomplish tasks that would have been really time consuming only a few years ago, but these databases are not designed for machines so we often find ourselves have to struggle to interact with many systems to achieve what are, in principle, simple tasks.

Let’s look at an example.

The iPad on the move in the semantic age

In semantic age I might use my iPad as a GPS device in my car.

I jump in my car at 10am and select my destination from my address book, it’s a 4-hour journey so the iPad asks if I want to stop for lunch on the way. I choose a time and place that will be a nearby at 1pm and we set off.

As I set off it queries the database at to check for any areas that are moving slower than unusual and picks the best route based on the time of day I am travelling.
To keep me entertained, it chooses some music for me using my profile: cross referencing the time of day with the kind of music I typically play.

It already knows how much fuel I have in my car because every time I fill up it makes a note of how far I travelled since the last stop and it checks my credit card statement to see how much fuel I put in. Looks like I don’t have enough fuel to get where I’m going so it asks  where it can find the cheapest petrol on-route taking into account the cost of the detour – it just saved me eight quid by taking me on a ten-minute diversion.

As I cross into the congestion charging zone my it pays my fees for me right away – no sense waiting: it doesn’t get any cheaper.

I arrive at my destination effortlessly and pull into the nearby council car park. After stopping for a few seconds it asks if I would like to pay for parking and how long I plan to stay. My account is debited and Boris is happy.

And just for good measure, my iPad noticed that one of my friends, whom I haven’t seen for a while, is also in town today; so we exchanged emails and meet up for a coffee.

So with just a score-or-fewer taps on my iPad I have completed an array of database interactions that would take me the best part of an hour to achieve using today’s technology.
All of these things are possible using current devices (an iPhone or another GPS enabled smart phone)  but the human has to do all the heavy lifting. As the web evolves all these systems will be able to talk to one another and we will be free to sit back and enjoy ride.

More little tasks for us

Technology is providing us with an ever-increasing array of systems to make things “easier”. But it all adds up to more and more little tasks for us to do. More things I can’t be bothered to turn my computer on for.

The iPad is a great advance in human-machine interfacing. It’s a natural way to accomplish all these little tasks with a lot less effort, with a device you can have to hand and that is already sitting in standby mode waiting.

What the iPad is

The iPad does everything most people do on their computers every day. The “average user” doesn’t need vast amounts of storage or processing power, they just want to browse the web, watch a movie and send a few emails. If Apple are to be believed the iPad does all these things better than a  computer. And let’s face it – the interface of the modern computer has only had one major evolution in 50 years – the addition of a mouse wheel.

The iPad doesn’t do anything new – like the iPhone it does everything people really want but better. If you have used the multi-touch track pad on the latest MacBooks you will already have an insight into how slick this thing is going to be.

People will tell you that you can get all this in other devices with higher specs and lower prices – but that doesn’t mean a thing. I bought a MacBook Air – the lowest specced and highest priced laptop on the market – because it did exactly what I needed perfectly, millions of people have chosen the iPhone over more powerful devices for the same reason.

What’s missing?

For me the biggest disappointment both in the iPad and iPhone 3GS is the absence of a video conferencing facility. I can image a device like this would be perfect for iChat video calls with the family that you can make casually wherever you find yourself instead of sat in front of a desktop computer. A device like that would finally bring video calls into the mainstream.

But I guess they have to save something to make people upgrade in 18 months time.