Two weeks ago a man called Mark Nitzberg did a lovely thing - he sent me an iPad from California. Mark's a board member at the Akvo Foundation, where I spend much of my time right now. He wants to know what I think about it - how it changes the way we use computers, whether it's any good, and whether you can read a book all day on it. So I've been giving it a whirl. I'll write more about the actual device, and what the big deal is over the coming days. But the thing is, I can't really describe the iPad to you until I do a bit of a recap - a few snippets of my perspective on the evolution of personal computers. So here goes.
In 1993, I got a job at Apple Computer. It wasn't in Cupertino, or even (as you might expect as a Brit) in Stockley Park, near Heathrow. It was in Warsaw, Poland.
Set on Jana Sobieskiego, a particularly bleak stretch of road out in the Warsaw suburb of Mokotóv, Apple Poland HQ was above a hat factory (filled with scary old ladies), and an Amway franchise (filled with scary Americans).
I was there for about a year, and learned a lot. Apple, "in between Jobs", so to speak, was struggling. Although its state of limbo was one of those things that I only really understood with hindsight. I was surrounded by technology. I shared an office with two guys. Marcin and I would throw paper at eachother all day while doing "marketing". Andrjez, a wonderful kindly man, would sit at a Mac Quadra 950, carefully designing Polish fonts to be used in Mac System 7. Because his computer had a 33MHz Motorola 68040 processor, it was actually categorised as a super-computer, requiring a special import license into this fragile new democracy, just four years beyond the collapse of communism.
I had a Powerbook 170. With an active matrix black and white screen, it was the absolute business - a dark grey wonder that was full of original ideas. It had the keyboard set back close to the screen, and a "track ball" - a dead-ringer for a pool ball - set on a ledge at the front of the computer. It had folders dotted around the desktop, and I could write wherever I was because it was genuinely portable, with little feet that twisted around at the back. I could connect it via "Appletalk" to other computers. I think we even had staff electronic mail running.
It's difficult now to describe just how dull most computers were back in the early '90s - after an '80s childhood of BBCs and Spectrums, Killer Gorilla and Donkey Kong, the personal computer future had fizzled into a way to run a digitized version of the 1970s office. I could type my own memos, print things off myself, decide where to save things and what to call them. I could even now take my computer with me to other places and use it there as well. While I was there, I could make things bold - or even italic. I could do all the things people could do in the 1970s, without needing support staff.
One day what looked like a pizza box arrived with a monitor on top, that had speakers. It was a Mac Centris 660AV, the first computer to be imported into Poland, as far as we knew, that could show video snippets and play music clips. It had a fancy innovation called a DSP, which stood for Digital Signal Processor. That meant it actually had another computer processor inside, which handled most of the video and sound. The clips were pretty tiny on screen - and the sound was okay but we all had CDs, which seemed much more useful, because they connected quickly to your hifi. So most people would say, "well what can you do with that?" And to be honest none of us had a good answer. It also had something called "GeoPort", which meant you could use a modem, so the computer could connect through telephone lines. But we didn't really use that.
One of the guys was also toting an Apple Quicktake 100 digital camera. Most people couldn't understand the point of that, either. I think it cost about $400 (to put this in context my Polish salary then was $200 per month, and that was above average). It could hold 8 photographs at 640x480 resolution. Which you couldn't do much with. Even bleak early '90s Mokotóv was blossoming with colourful Fuji and Kodak and Agfa signs above shops, where you could take your film camera and get prints developed, sometimes while you waited. So people would say, "Why would you want a digital camera when a film camera is really cheap and more useful?"
In early 1994, I was given an Apple Newton Messagepad. It was tiny - well actually it wasn't. It was an alien size - quite long and bulky. But it just had a screen - and no keyboard. Well actually, it had a stylus, a plastic thing that you knew you'd lose. And you would attempt to write on the screen and watch it convert each character into words. I took it out to a dinner with American and Irish friends that night and passed it around the table. Everyone thought it was fun, but noone could really make it work properly. And by the time it got back around to me, the batteries were dead. It was a digital notepad, for which there was no need.
Late that year I went back to London and worked for Apple, then Compaq, then Dell then HP, later in the '90s.
Apple and all the others spent a long time playing around with technologies that weren't yet really ready. But all this stuff is ready now. When I first got hold of an iPad two weeks ago, it felt like an alien size, but as an iPhone user it's all so familiar to use. But it is really different to any other computer.
The point of the iPad is that people can actually watch and read material off the internet. They can do it for ten hours. They can do it without sitting poised like a typist. That first Apple Powerbook 170 I had was bold enough to put a trackball at the front of the portable computer, and let the keyboard sit behind it. Apple's now been bold enough, and clever enough, to remove the keyboard altogether. A year ago this would have been premature. But now the internet is easy to use by just clicking around most of the time.
Microsoft's tablet computers, sold half-heartedly by PC makers, were insufficiently developed and timed too early. In computers, as in most things, timing is everything. Apple's timing is impeccable.
People who say the iPad isn't any good are the people that think the world is worse now than it was in 1955, or 1965, or '75, '85, '95 or 2005.
It isn't. It's a better world. The iPad is great - a product absolutely in tune with its time, not too far ahead or in any way behind. And it'll make the next ten years much more interesting. Just watch – or read, or follow.
Mark Charmer is founder of The Movement Design Bureau.
Photo: the Sign / Movement Design Bureau kit museum in Bermondsey includes a Powerbook 160, a close relative of that PB170 I mentioned earlier. London, 5 May 2010.