opinion In November 2007, when then-Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd promised every Australian student between years 9 to 12 would receive a laptop if he took power, courtesy of a new billion-dollar Federal Government grant, the iPad was little more than a twinkle in Steve Job’s eagle eye.
Although the existence of the mythical Apple tablet had long been rumoured, debated and agonised over by millions of Cupertino-watchers located around the world, it would take several more years before Jobs would eventually take to the stage and reveal his “magical” tablet to the world.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it should have been impossible to miss the signs that Apple was once again planning to revolutionise the consumer electronics market. The increasingly commoditisation of components used to create the iPad had already been made clear by the explosion in netbooks, which had seen manufacturers take existing pricey laptops and downsize them into a cheaper and more portable form factor for lighter use.
And the release of the iPhone some twelve months previously (although not in Australia) had already starkly demonstrated that mobile phones could be so much more than devices for placing calls. The iPhone, in fact, was never principally a telephone. It has always primarily been used as a mini data tablet, of a similar type to the tricorders so loved by Star Trek enthusiasts. And we’ve even had them before. HP’s appropriately named iPaq is a notable example, but many will remember Apple’s previous tablet, the Newton, which was loved by many but died a slow death in the late 1990’s. The iPhone was merely the new Newton, with a mobile phone chip attached.
When you take all of these factors into consideration, the birth of the iPad was inevitable.
However, in late 2007, it was, of course, impossible to know all this. Netbook fervour was in full swing following the release of the ASUS Eee PC, and everyone — just everyone — had to have a netbook for more relaxed days when they didn’t need to carry around a full-featured laptop and were away from their desk.
And Kevin Rudd’s Labor election team bought into the incredible levels of marketing hype in as big a way as it could.
For the first time, policy advisors reasoned, it would be possible to fully unleash the potential of technology in education through universal access to critical tools — at a price which goverments could afford. A meagre billion dollars — pocket change for a big-spending Labor Federal Government — would put this new class of laptops in the hands of every senior student in Australia.
What a glorious dream!
As an election policy, Labor’s Digital Education Revolution was a gift from the gods. Coupled with the National Broadband Network initiative, it allowed the party to appear forward-thinking, visionary. Terms like “investing in the future” were being thrown around with aplomb and you could almost feel a better, more connected future arriving on our doorstep.
However, as it turns out, the netbook revolution was a furphy, a false alarm; the consumer electronics equivalent of a boy frantically crying “wolf” and creating mass panic. The real revolution, when it came several years later with the iPad, crept up on us. Tablets, not netbooks, are now the order of the day for a second or third computing screen for Australians — and they may soon become the primary computer that many of us every day.
The problem with netbooks, as the Sydney Morning Herald chronicles in a landmark article by seasoned technology journalist David Braue (a regular Delimiter contributor) yesterday, is that they are just too damn slow.
“Like thousands of other year 10 students, Luca Vignando has had his NSW government-supplied netbook, provided under Labor’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) funding … Microsoft Word and OneNote work OK, but Vignando says bundled multimedia applications like Adobe Photoshop, Dreamweaver and video-editing tool Premier Elements run at a crawl. Students needing to do more than basic text editing often give up and seek out faster computers elsewhere.”
The difficulty with netbooks, as the entire IT industry is now aware, was precisely their chief selling point. By compromising on power and speed, the price can come down. But when you need that power and speed … you had better have a more powerful laptop on hand, or a desktop PC.
The Sydney Morning Herald article mentions the incredible fact that the NSW Department of Education and Training is installing the latest version 5 of Adobe’s weighty Creative Suite set of tools on its Lenovo machines. To any IT professional this will seem incredible. Those who’ve been around the tracks for a while know that every time Adobe releases a new version of CS, the software gets fatter, heavier, and will often require a new PC to run — just like new versions of Windows (well, except for Windows 7, which is a dream).
To think that you would even bother to try running CS5 on a netbook with a 1.66GHz Intel Atom CPU, a mere 2GB of RAM and a 10″ screen is nothing more than a bad joke. Even my 2010-era MacBook Pro — with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB of RAM — has problems with Adobe’s latest suite. And this machine is a far cry from being a netbook.
The iPad paradigm, of course, changes all of this. Apple’s tablet never attempted to be a desktop PC. Steve Jobs and his crack team of stylists and engineers clothed in black skivvies created a much more limited device which changed the way we think about interacting with technology – rather than attempting to port the ageing desktop metaphor into a new form factor.
What really killed the netbook, however, was the fact that that form factor is now extending itself from its limited basis into almost every area of use which PCs have called home for decades. As we learn more about tablet computing, we are using it more. And education is right at the forefront of that revolution.
Early trials of the iPad in educational institutions such as Melbourne residential college Trinity over the past year in Australia have starkly demonstrated the value of tablets in learning. A natural fit — as is taking place at the University of Adelaide — is to port textbooks to the device — but content creation tools such as Photoshop are also available, and the ability to discover, share and annotate information, so critical in the educational context, is also incredible.
The flock of Android tablets is a little behind the eight-ball at the moment, but I’m sure Mountain View’s brood will eventually catch up.
Now you can’t really blame the Rudd camp for picking the wrong horse, in a race where the iPad hadn’t even yet entered the paddock. And you have to give Labor a great deal of credit for being willing to invest so heavily in technology for students in the first place. We’re sure the implementation of netbooks for Australian senior students has had a hugely positive effect in many ways on their education.
However, let’s not kid ourselves that this was the right decision. Had the politicians waited several years and spent its money on tablets instead, Australia’s education system would have been the envy of the entire world. The dream of universal access to the total sum of human knowledge through one handheld device; the ability to communicate that knowledge to others in a natural way, and the ability to interact with it and learn its power — that is what the iPad offers students and teachers.
What netbooks offer them, primarily, is a cage; a solid operating platform bastardised into a form factor which is somewhere between a tablet and a full-fledged desktop PC. Netbooks are not intuitive, they’re not powerful enough for the uses which they have been set, and they’re ultimately doomed. If you really want a netbook, add a Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, as I did over the weekend. You probably will find you start using your laptop less and less.
Of course, the caveat to all of this is pretty obvious.
There is simply no way that we can anticipate whether we will be looking back at articles such as this one in 2-3 years and noting how naive they were, for believing that iPads and other tablets would represent much of the future of computing. If Steve Jobs’ team could destroy the netbook with one single product launch in only a year of sales, there is no reason to suggest that something even bigger isn’t just around the corner. That has always been the quandary for technologists — at which stage in an unfolding revolution do you jump on the hype train?
But we’re betting the iPad will stay around longer than most people would think.