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Processor episode 1: What should the future of computing look like?

A lot like a tablet

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The final line from Apple’s iPad commercial last November was probably meant to spark a reaction — and it was successful. After biking around the city using an iPad Pro to do her homework and generally hang with friends, a teenager’s neighbor asks her what she’s “doing on her computer.”

Her response: “Whats a computer?”

Lots of people found it smug, if not downright infuriating. I think that reaction is fascinating. The whole ad seemed pretty innocuous to me. That final line felt more like a wink from Apple than a manifesto. Of course she would know the answer to “what’s a computer?” The point of the ad was to be wry. It totally worked for me, but mostly because I’ve been thinking so much about the future of computing that I never took the last line seriously.

Here’s what that line is saying, and why I think it riled people up: it’s saying that the iPad Pro is so successful at replacing all those other devices — that it’s so clearly the winner of the future of computing — that our old ideas about what a computer is aren’t just wrong, they’re irrelevant.

But, of course, none of that is completely true. Whatever is going to define “post-PC” will surely (hopefully) not be solely defined by the iPad. If you really ask the question “what’s a computer?” honestly, the answers end up being facile. Is it a processor, RAM, storage, input, and display? Is it a “bicycle for the mind?”

From one angle, anything you can think of with a chip in it counts as a computer — your phone, your thermostat — but we all basically know what we mean when we talk about a computer. And I love that Apple is willing to poke some fun at those assumptions.

I also love that the iPad challenges our assumptions about how a computer should work. Apple doesn’t have a monopoly in that regard, though. There’s also, of course, the Surface Pro tablet (or is it a laptop now?) and Chromebooks with Android apps.

All of them, in their different ways, challenge the status quo for computers. Is an attached, clamshell keyboard really necessary? Is a mouse pointer necessary? Are proper windows necessary? Is the ability to install any app I want outside of an approved App Store walled garden necessary? Do apps need wide-ranging access to do whatever they want or can they be proscribed into certain safe sandboxes by the operating system?

Some of those assumptions (really, they’re hang-ups) are worth jettisoning, but as they start piling up, I start to get increasingly uncomfortable. If we’re going to try to define the future of computing, it seems worthwhile to demand that we hang on to some babies as we toss out the bathwater.

Here are my babies, at least insofar as we’re talking about computers with displays:

  1. They’re secure and automatically updated.
  2. They run modern (read: mobile, battery-friendly) apps.
  3. They also offer more full-featured apps with broader access to the computer,
  4. They. Have. Touchscreens.

I get that points two and three are completely in conflict. I also get that those points are vaguely defined at best. But hey — if Apple can casually ask “What’s a computer?” that’s my first casual cut at an answer.