iPad, Letters.app and Nerd Myopia

As anyone reading this blog is almost certainly aware, Apple announced the long-awaited iPad last week; and the tech world collectively lost their fucking minds. As I’ve already opined, I think that Fraser Speirs has written the best analysis of the collective pants-shitting and I would highly recommend reading Fraser’s article if you haven’t already. Flying somewhat under the radar during all this babble was another phenomenon which I think provides an interesting parallel to some of the ideas that Fraser articulates so well.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed references to something called “Letters.app.” For those unaware, here is some background. Earlier this month developer Brent Simmons put out a call-to-arms for the development of a new email client to fit the needs of “developers and power-users.” The argument being that all extant instances of email clients (specifically for the Mac OS, but presumably for all platforms) are lacking in some way that makes them unsuitable for “developers and power-users.” The goal of the project, soon dubbed Letters.app was to harness the skills and creativity of the indie Mac development community to build the perfect beast. Shortly afterwards, the project completely and very publicly imploded.

At this point I need to take an aside and clarify what I mean by “imploded,” as my asshole-sense can already detect the prepping of a thousand responses telling me that I am wrong. First of all, it is true that the Letters.app project is still under active development. Project president John Gruber (Daring Fireball) and project lead Gus Mueller (Flying Meat Software) continue to make progress and I eagerly anticipate seeing the fruits of their labors. I consider myself an email power-user and hope that Letters.app might fit my needs.

However, I maintain that a read of the archives of the (now closed) public discussion email list proves my assertion. The mailing list discussion is rife with contention, rigid-thinking, straw-man arguments and an overwhelming dismissal of the needs and requirements of anyone who disagrees with a given poster. In almost every case those dismissals are phrased something like this: “Letters must/must not do X because it is meant only for ‘developers and power-users’ and you don’t apply.” What is constantly missed, even in the face of it being pointed out, is that there are many people who are “power-users” of email who have never seen a line of code and who can barely reboot their computer. In one particularly ironic twist, at several points the proverbial “non-power-user” is described as a “bored secretary.” This, more than anything, demonstrates the myopia of some of the “indie developer” camp on the list. Having been a long-term denizen of the corporate world I can tell you, “secretaries,” or “Administrative Assistants” as we call them in the enlightened post-1960’s are almost always the largest consumer/producer of email in an organization, and have the most need for power features.

So, the question is: “What does this have to do with the iPad?”

I would argue that the same myopic dismissal of anyone who isn’t a developer, and IT person or a technology wonk as a “non-power-user” is as much responsible for the “future shock” that Fraser describes as it was the never-ending argument on the Letters.app list. It is easy for us, and I include myself in this class on two of the three counts mentioned before, to dismiss the needs of non-technical power users. I’ve even seen some of this attitude in iPad defenders when they extol the virtue of the iPad as a device for their kids, or parents, or anyone who is presumably “not good with computers.” Fortunately Apple isn’t so myopic.

Assuredly, the iPad will be a good fit for those users. I contend it will also be a good fit for corporate users who already have a primary desktop system and need a basic communication and content creation tool for limited travel. I contend that, with the proper third party applications, the iPad will be a good tool for many artists who work in the field. My Angry Mac Bastards co-host Peter Cohen is excited about the possibility of an “Aperture Touch” product in conjunction with the iPad Camera Connection kit. I myself and excited about the possibility of taking my writing on the road without the overhead of a full Mac OS laptop. People I know in the education segment, from K-12 all the way though higher education have expressed excitement over how the iPad may be integrated into their workflows. Not to mention the plethora of vertical market opportunities.

What the tech media tends to miss is that all of the user classes I’ve just mentioned contain “power users.” They’re just not necessarily power users of computer development and administration tools. As Fraser points out, people want to do “Real Work.” And for the vast majority of the world “Real Work” is not maintaining computers. Apple computers and operating systems have always been about enabling “the rest of us.” The iPad is just the next step towards that goal. I choose to embrace that future. The iPad may not be the device for you, but to deny that there is a vast market for it is to show the same myopia that led to inane suggestions for Letters.app such as requiring the user to run a mail server on their desktop just to enable local storage of email; something even most power-users would agree is just retarded.