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Why the iPad is not the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
By Vincent Chang - on 16 Apr 2010, 4:13pm

Yes, Apple's iPad has sold almost half a million since its launch. Apparently, it's so popular that Apple does not have the supply for the rest of the world, so here in Singapore, we won't be seeing it until the end of May. Already, I have seen commentators comparing it with Neal Stephenson's Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (If you're a self-professed geek and have no idea who Neal Stephenson is, shame on you).

Now as an avid SF fan, I'll have to strenuously deny the merits of such a comparison. No doubt, the shiny, liquid interface of the iPad that has critics purring, is amazing. It's easy to see how an excited user may leap and exclaim that it's our modern-day version of the Primer. But go past the wow factor and you'll find that under that attractive exterior, the guiding philosophy behind the iPad is diametrically opposed to that of the Primer.

The Primer (fictional it may be) is an interactive 'book' that teaches life lessons and acts almost like a parent to the child using it. The interaction is two-way. Meanwhile, the iPad is a device that we use mainly to consume media. Passive entertainment apps dominate the iPad market. Look at all the issues that users have commented on even getting the iPad to print or transfer files. These problems reflect that for all of Apple's rhetoric, the iPad is not designed to be a tool for creation, at least not the first version.

In fact, what comes closest to the Primer in principle, if not in technology, is the OLPC. As someone has commented before, the OLPC is "collaborative. It's self guided. It encourages exploration." It was conceived as a teaching tool with a noble goal of providing the disadvantaged with the means of self-education. It had an unique interface (Sugar) designed not to mimic the entrenched Windows model. Unfortunately, like many idealistic schemes, it has fallen far short of its goal.

ASUS arguably took the OLPC concept and ran away with a blockbuster and a new market - the Eee PC netbook. Intel's Classmate PC hijacked the concept and subverted it to propagate the Wintel model (OLPC was going with Linux and AMD processors) in less developed countries.

Perhaps the public will co-opt the iPad to do what the creators did not intend for it, but with Apple's tight fisted control over everything in its domain, the odds are low. Besides, the average consumer will be happily watching videos and reading comics on the iPad and who am I to say that's not the right way?

Vincent Chang

Vincent Chang / Former Senior Tech Writer

Vincent has written enough about tech to know that he doesn't know enough about tech. But that's not keeping him from going jargon-heavy about processors and mobos. After all, "you can't stop the signal".