Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An African iPad: Part 1

ipad3 Earlier this week, my very first guest blog post was published in Loy Okezie’s blog. It is entitled “Why The iPad Doesn’t Impress And Why It Doesn’t Need To”. One of the reasons it ended up there rather than here was because I sold the idea to Loy before I decided to go full tech here on the Crossings. Having said that, thanks to Loy for letting someone else, me, write in his space. I mention all this because this week here I will still be sort of focused on the iPad.

As I wrote in the article, a lot has been said about Apple’s iconic tablet computer in a wide variety of media and from a huge variety of perspectives. There are extremes of adoration and approbation for the device and it isn’t even on the market yet. The only writer I know of who has written about it with an eye to its possible impact in Africa is TechMasai’s Munashe Gumbonzvanda and I am frankly not surprised. I really cannot imagine that at any point in time during the design and development process did Apple consider the needs of this continent. You and I that might want one (or at the very least are even willing to read its feature set) are the insignificant minority and Cupertino no doubt treated us as such. For the majority, it is another toy for those with more money than sense. It is a toy that is dependent on internet access, the ownership of a credit card, a debit card, or a paypal account, and a large disposable income.

And yet, at the core of the iPad could well be the key to Africa’s crossing the digital divide. Computing as we know it today is tied to the monitor, keyboard, mouse and whatever operating system you use. However you roll, Windows, Linux or MacOS X, the user experience and the learning curve are more or less the same. You have a start menu or launch pad for your applications which appear in boxes called “windows” and you did various things within said windows. Before you can use the computer you first of all have to figure out the pieces of the equipment, then you need to learn the OS, then you need to figure out how most applications work. We tout and celebrate what we call computer literacy and pad our CVs with a list of the versions of Microsoft Office we can use. Then when we finally figure out enough of the interface to be productive, we spent half our time configuring, installing, downloading, protecting and fixing the stupid equipment.

For those of us who work in IT, this is our bread and butter. However for the customers who interface with teams like mine everyday, they are resigned to, but unimpressed with and irritated by the fact that they need us to get their work done. The glory of the iPad and its predecessor the iPod Touch is that it can eliminate 90% of that interference and bring the user that much closer to their goal whether it is to consume content or, despite what many say, to create content. The iPad’s A4-size screen and it’s multi-touch interface are so intuitive that toddlers have figured it out (at least the iPhone). You don’t need expensive training to get people who are terrified of computers to use it. You do minimal configuring to get it working. Even if you are not familiar with the idiom of computing you can get productive very quickly. Perhaps Om Malik can best communicate the sheer sense of potential (even though I disagreed with him on Twitter).

The minute I touched the iPad at the Apple event a few weeks ago, I knew my world and my idea of computing had been transformed, irrevocably and irreversibly. I’m not sure why some of my friends, who have helped me shape my thinking about devices, Antonio Rodriguez for example, are disappointed with this device, whose potential is limited only by one’s imagination.

When I look at the iPad, I see a clean slate to reinvent pretty much how we think of media, information and in fact the whole user experience. Why do we have to think in terms of a keyboard — real or virtual? How can we not be excited about the very idea of a media experience based on touch?

Picture this: an African class room in some rural village somewhere. Each student has an iPad. The classroom material is distributed via Wi-Fi. Assignments are completed and submitted via the same means. The entire school library is available digitally, so no building needs to be dedicated to storing books (and this saves trees). Multimedia content is available on the device to illustrate farming machinery, remote geographies, performance art: audiovisual lessons that are easy to create, easy to disseminate and to review over and over again. They get all this without having a special class where they spend time learning computing instead of learning the things they really want to learn to do that computing has been the eye of the needle that they have to pass through.

Now you may laugh at this pipedream. Even the cheapest iPad at under $500 is expensive. It is a premium device – and the average urban African can’t afford one, never mind his rural cousin. In addition, despite my glowing praise, there are problems with the iPad that still make it less than what we need it to be in Africa. However, and here’s my point, we can have all the benefits and strengths of the iPad without its limitations.

We just have to design, and build, our own.

To be continued…


iPad image is copyright Apple inc.