In the past week or two there have been some interesting thoughts posted about whether we are entering into a new era of computing where the experience is largely curated. Of course the 800 pound gorilla in this area is Apple with its iPhone/iPod Touch and now the iPad. All these devices run apps through Apple’s curated App Store which has generated lots of debate about whether this is a good thing or not. The entire computing process is mostly closed and carefully maintained by Apple. Yet, their devices and software are very popular and the company has grown enormously over the past few years because of this. And perhaps more importantly, they are really innovating in the mobile space and leading the way although Google’s Android is hot on it heals. So what is the big deal about curated computing and why should educators care?
Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps makes some good points about the usability experience of curated content and the computers that run them in her recent blog post and video. A more detailed discussion of her post occurred at Ars Technica where the over 200 comments are worth a look. Her point is this. For the layperson, curated computing greatly simplifies the computer experience. No folders to deal with, no desktop to clutter with files, no details about the operating system that need to be tweaked constantly. The experience itself is pretty straightforward on an Apple mobile device and increasingly we will see this on other mobile devices going forward. Less is indeed more, but you have to look at what more is. Our portable devices are powerful and growing more so everyday. But they still are not as powerful as the “other” portable devices, laptops. These still can run circles around an iPad or iPhone. They multitask, you can do just about anything on them that a desktop can do. In this sense, the Apple mobile devices are less when compared to a desktop or laptop. But where they shine with more is in two important areas: ultra mobility and a very nice user interface experience driven by a touch screen.
These two aspects are what makes these devices so popular. They are in a word, useable. Pick one up and you can use it right away. No manual, no head scratching for most. They just work. The apps that you run on these devices become the entire interface. Nothing gets in the way of the computing experience. Its just you, your content or information and that’s about it. Let you fingers do the walking and enjoy the experience. While Apple has for years said it makes computers for the “rest of us” or at least this is the idea even if it has left their advertising slogan. The iPhone and iPad really are computers for the rest of us. And this is why the developers are the ones screaming about Apple’s stiff curation rules not the end users. But while they scream, plenty are making good livings off their apps sold in the App Store. And for end users, the big benefit is the apps just work. So this is one advantage of the curated app experience. You are getting software that by and large just works and adheres to Apple’s User Interface Guidelines. On slim occasion I have an app that crashes or that just does not work as advertised but its rare. This is pretty nice and one less thing to worry about. Virus? Malware? Spyware? Memory hogging apps? Nope. Nada. Zip. Pretty nice. So nice, you probably don’t think about it very much. And I think Apple realized early on that a mobile device will get a lot more use than a computer on your desktop so it better work. And work well and all the time. There is no time for a crashing OS or sketchy apps. You mobile experience is too important for that.
This brings me to the second point that was really not brought out by Epps, but rather by response done by a Eliot Van Buskirk at Wired. Curated content is not entirely new. The Wired pieces mentions news, social networks such as Facebook, music services and specialized devices like the Kindle, a GPS and MP3 players as examples of curated services and products. They tend to do one or a few things very well and give the user a robust experience What is new is its prominence in todays world of endless choice. Curated computing experiences can help us stay a bit more focused on what we really want to do with our devices. They simplify the experience but in a good way. It is not really dumbed down, but rather very focused. Now, the App Store has hundreds of thousands of titles, so its not exactly easy to choose sometimes and some apps are pretty bad but they won’t bring down your machine. So while choice is good, too much choice is not so good. Curated choice might be the happy medium. Epps likens it to going to a museum where the curators put only the best pieces on display. Yeah, I guess its sort of like that. Sort of… one day we may find out that apps going through the App Store are actually vetted by computers sort of like how Google News is aggregated and presented. Who knows?
This issue of choice also is seen in Apple’s hardware lineup. How many different iPhones are there? Ahhh one. Two if you include the 3G as separate from the 3GS but they are fundamentally the same. And how many iPad models? Two. Wifi or 3G and again the devices are largely the same. Yes you can choose hard drive size but that’s not like choosing an entirely different device. And how many millions have been sold? Sometimes less is more. One day we may have a 100 or more Android phones and tablets out there. Is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll tell you this, it will confuse the heck out of “the rest of us” computing crowd.
So where does education come into this? Well, it means that increasingly our devices just work and will allow the computer to essentially get out of the way while we use the content and information it delivers in ways that are meaningful. Images, text, audio, video, animations, maps…all these content types become seamless on such devices. They become seamless largely because of excellent touch screen interfaces and curated apps. So for teachers and students, they can focus more on the content of their subjects and not be wondering why the spinning beach ball won’t go away on their computer desktop. For students, they can focus on the content and not how much RAM and how fast is your CPU. How many people can raise their hand and tell me how much memory and how fast the processor is in an iPad or iPhone? Does not matter. Only the solid state hard drive holding your apps and data is really of importance and even that will not matter in a few years when solid state drives get less expensive and larger. If students are investing in technology to help them learn, communicate, collaborate and create, then they need things that just work. This is the value of curated content and hardware.
There is a flip side to this of course. You have to trust and believe in the curators. If you don’t buy and drink their lemonade then you will go thirsty. I do think there is a place for un-curated apps on these devices (think jail broken iPhones/iPads and the Cydia store), but these are not necessarily for the “rest of us.” They are for the ones who are willing to chance installing something that can both add some cool functionality and potentially take down your device. I, for one, am glad these options exist, but for the millions of other people, they just want things to work and want enough functionality that they can get things done easily. Is that so wrong?