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22 November 2017

Apple: What’s a Computer?

Apple’s latest TV advert poses a challenging question.

Apple - What's a Computer?

Will a new digital-first generation really wonder “What’s a Computer?”

Despite years of innovation putting the Internet in the palm of our hands, the ‘personal computer,’ in its conventional sense, has not seen the same pace of change.

Still today the laptop, a clamshell device of large screen and large keyboard that therefore lends itself to portability, is the weapon of choice for most creators. With no replacement in sight for the humble QWERTY keyboard, invented way back in 1868, the form factor is almost impossible to obsolete.

Voice is probably the most tried answer, and yet it fails time and time over to catch on. IBM tried it with ViaVoice in 1997 and, even then, it actually worked pretty well. But as humans we don’t often have fully-formed novels in our heads, and speaking aloud half-formed thoughts just doesn’t make a great deal of sense to us. Take it a step further to software development and we can hardly be expected to utter sentences like “if openbracket x closebracket newline openparenthesis newline y newline closeparenthesis.” It’s simply quicker to type.

So what is and what isn’t a computer?

There was a time when, if you owned a PC, you could do anything. Watch a movie. Make a movie. Listen to a song. Make a song. But, ever since the advent of smartphones and the touch-based operating systems that inhabit them, there is now a strong sense of segregation creeping in between those who create and those who consume.

Are these two distinctly different approaches both ‘computers?’ Apple are keen to sell us the vision of creation on the iPad Pro and iPhone X, but is it just that – a vision, an idea, that in reality only acts to create consumers and curtail the freedoms to create that my own generation grew up with. Would I be where I am today if my first real computer had been an iPad Pro instead of a HP Pavillion?

Either we stand at the point of convergence, where creation and consumption will once again merge as touch-screen devices, including the smartphone (but really we need a new term for this, since the iPhone X is way more personal computer than the beige BT telephone that lived in the hall when I was a child), become pwned by creators looking to leave the old PC format behind. Or we stand at the brink of the new digital divide, where the vast majority of young people growing up today will never own a device capable of making anything that dares to go beyond the limited applications of that system, and so are relegated to consumer status for life.

A part of me hopes that the child in Apple’s advert goes on to build the next Facebook without ever discovering what a computer is… or was. But a bigger part of me fears that, as we get comfortable, lazy even, with devices designed for consumption, we will gradually lose our ability to create.

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