Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPads and iPols

Wednesday was a big day.  While President Obama was preparing his State of the Union address, Steve Jobs was announcing Apple's new tablet computer: the iPad.  And I have to say, I wasn't exactly blown away.  

As numerous bloggers have pointed out, it seems basically like a giant iPod Touch.  Perhaps more shockingly, Steve Jobs didn't sell me on it either (you can watch his presentation here).  "It's thin," he says.  Ok, so what?  "If you rotate it, the screen rotates too, so it doesn't matter which way you're holding it."  Yeah, the iPhone does that too.  

Beyond its features, I don't understand the niche for it.  What does it do that you can't do with a Kindle or laptop?  The Kindle lets you read books without burning your eyes out.  A laptop is easier to type on.  And if you already have these devices, why buy an iPad?  

Despite these questions, I have little doubt that the iPad will sell.  Apple's loyal early adopters will line up outside Apple stores to buy them.  The media will cover the lines outside the stores, causing more people to think, "this must be a great product," and line up behind the early adopters.  It's a self fulfilling prophecy.

More importantly, while the iPad itself hardly seems revolutionary NOW, I have no doubt that the subtle changes it ushers in today will have major follow-on impacts on business, technology, and the way we live our lives.  Most obviously, the iPad fundamentally changes the way we interact with computer content: from manipulation of physical devices (e.g. keyboard, mouse) to control the content, to manipulation of the content directly.  It seems small now--maybe even inconvenient (I imagine the keyboard is nowhere near as effective as a physical one)--but who knows what innovations will be built on the shift the iPad has initiated?  20 years from now, will computers be Minority Report style interfaces where we whisk icons, graphics, and text through the air with a hand flick?  Based on the difficulties of interfacing with MS Office software, that doesn't seem like such a bad future.

The other important thing to note is that whatever the iPad lacks now, it's only version 1.0.  Apple doesn't presume it can anticipate all the device's flaws and potentialities in advance and bake those into a perfect, final product: it lets the device evolve over time.  Based on flaws it finds in the field and suggestions solicited from users, Apple will no doubt have version 2.0 out in 6 months that fixes flaws and adds new features.  Moreover, Apple understands that creative iPad users will figure out new ways to use the device so much better than Apple can, and therefore farms the job of improving the device out to the users themselves.  If there's a problem, a developer will write an app to fix it.  If a developer spots an unrealized capability the device has enabled, well there'll be an app for that too.

Which makes me think, why can't we take an approach like that to health care?  Why can't Congress work more like the App Store?  The House can pass the current Senate bill that does five basic things, then have the Senate develop "apps" to fix bill 1.0 through the reconciliation process.  Even better, allow health reform's users (e.g. doctors, nurses, patients, scientists, economists) to write "app legislation" to solve problems they spot as they go about their business, and make those "apps" available in a market in which smaller institutions (states, localities, hospitals, companies) can shop for ones that solve their own unmet problems as needed.

Call it the Apple approach to health care reform.  Of course, the second half of that is just a little unconstitutional, but I don't see why the House and Senate can't act as hardware manufacturer and app developer.


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