Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Are we going to be stick shift drivers amidst the automatic population?

Category: Editorial

An editorial piece taken from my personal blog goes into some thoughts on the computing platforms and how they are evolving.


I have been talking in analogy for the last few days. The common meme is relating the computing usage trends to that of the car industry. As I watch continue to watch my family use their devices, it does feel like things are changing. My mum continues to thrive on her iPad / Palm Pixi combo. She feels empowered to try the different corners of the experience. To download new experiences. She is having fun.


One friend suggested that it is like the shift (pun intended) that we saw when automatic transmissions were introduced. At first they were expensive and had some issues, but being able to have simple controls changed the way that people drove. It became so simple. There were people who cried that it would never take off. “People want the control of a manual stick shift system!” However, although we continue to see some die-hards, the vaste majority of the US population drive automatics (this isn’t true everywhere in the world). That battle is over. We will never go back.

The iPad experience is like driving the computing experience without the manual hassle. You don’t have to know how to install the engine to start out (install an OS), nor deal with (and worry endlessly about) the workings. In general, you just don’t need to worry about all of the abstractions any more. The notion of files. And, don’t get me started on viruses.

As my mother thrives on her iPad, I use it sparingly, mainly as an entertainment consumption device. Wait a minute: Am I am the guy who loves the stick shift and never wants to jump to an automatic? I am a little different from the religious chaps who claimed they couldn’t understand why anyone would want an automatic. Or looked down on those people. I understand why my Mum prefers the iPad experience.

I do find the iPad experience often frustrating however. My “why did the car shift then? it wasn’t time!” moments occur mainly around the restricted access to customization, and the inherent and enforced immersion.

First a small thing, which will unfortunately show off an how anal I can be:


I want to rename this to “BBC News”. I am the guy who winces when someone bookmarks a page and doesn’t rename it, thus having “ – a barish company that deals in widgets, gadgets, monkeys, and flubbers”. I want to jump in and rename it to “Foo” on the bookmark bar. More space. More room. Petty for sure.

Where it gets more real for me is in the lack of integration between applications. Being immersed with one application at a time can be a fantastic thing, I will give you that… even if I often would love to give a bit of screen real estate to me Twitter stream while working on another app right next to it. However, if you live in an immersive environment, you need great integration between experiences. I should be able to Tweet/Share from any application, and not have to close down the app, go to a Twitter client, and get back to the app that had content I was tweeting. A lot of this comes down to multitasking, but more comes from integration….. and putting intents on a stack. On the iPad I feel like I am jumping through doors without an easy way to go back.

The browser has some of these notions baked in. States have URLs that I can bookmark. I can go forward and back. I can search. I can fork off (new tab). Turns out, I really like those abstractions, and miss them when they are not there, and every single app tries to reproduce some of them. They are often cross cutting concerns. I don’t want the app developer to have to write code and choose where to put a “Share” button. I want the system to know that I have an account on Twitter and let me share with a simple gesture.

Back to the Web. I was a little stunned when a friend showed me the Speed experience on an iPad:


Yup, if you go to, you are automatically redirected to the App Store. There is no way to trick it (again: would be nice to have customizability and tweak user agents etc).

To the credit of the speed test developers, the website is driven by Flash, which won’t work…. so they are trying to do something good for a user. I get that.

However, I am scared to death to think of the Web going this way. You go to websites and get sent to apps directly. I *do* want user agents to tell me if apps are available (hence the App Discover experiment), but don’t force me into the world of apps. I also think that doing what YouTube does and take over a URL in a certain way can be a good thing. I would love to install handlers for mime types…. so a certain link always opens up my favourite Twitter client say.

I personally prefer many of the Web experiences to the “new” app experiences. (I talked earlier about the abstractions that I find useful). This could break the Web. Data that was shared at the ReadWriteWeb Mobile Summit showed that the same users often hit a site using: mobile website, full website, and application. We are context switching in real-time already. Different views are best for different use cases.

It definitely feels like there is a shift in the force. We need to get the balance spot on as we move to automatic transmissions. What should be customizable. What should be locked down. As developers as well as consumers, we need to make our voices heard. What do you think?

Posted by Dion Almaer at 5:43 am

3.5 rating from 2 votes


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I like the analogy, but the one place that it falls apart is in development. Auto engineers are not required to to drive stick or automatic to design cars. Software/Web Developers will always have to drive stick.

It’ll be easier to spot the developers, they will not only be the ones with the pale skin and scruffy appearance, they’ll be the ones with the big clunky computers.

Now, content creation will move to simpler devices, as the engineers create simple tools (like this comment box right here), that can be utilized from any device.

Comment by mogmismo — June 3, 2010

Interesting analogy with the manual versus automatic transmissions in cars. Funny thing is my car is an automatic but provides the ability to manual shift even without a clutch pedal. Best of both worlds. I would want a similar concept in my devices and it isn’t that hard to do.

Comment by travisalmand — June 3, 2010

That sounds more like welding the hood shut than an automatic transmission to me. I’m sure welding the hood shut has some advantages, particularly for the vendor and a certain class of user. However, the loss of control is far too great for the marginal gains afforded to an educated user.

Comment by abickford — June 3, 2010

I agree to a certain extent… However, I still think that there is a lot of confusion about what the iPad is for, or at least what Steve Jobs thinks it is for ;) It’s always been positioned as a media consumption device, and as such will always inherently have limited utility when compared to a more open computing device such as a netbook or laptop that runs a regular OS. And that (perhaps a bit perversely) brings a lot of freedom to new classes of users. I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and the people that have enjoyed playing with it the most are the senior citizens I’ve showed it to. These are people who don’t WANT or NEED all the features of a standard desktop experience, and also many times are frightened away by the apparent complexity. And what are they going to be doing? Consuming media, more than likely. Surfing the net, reading email, reading books, etc.

The cruise control analogy on the net also only really works if there is only one transmission manufacturer (Apple), since there is no way every site developer will do what the SpeedTest guys did for every single tablet/mobile device that might come along. The only ubiquity is still HTML/JS, so that’s where (in my opinion) things will naturally settle over the long term.

Comment by stockli — June 3, 2010

This is an interesting analogy. I’ve been struggling with this same concept – and more – how I feel about it.

There have been more than a few instances where I toss the iPad on the couch in frustration and go get my laptop because I want to *do* something – not just consume something. To me the iPad is a one way street (with a few exceptions – I think the mail app is quite good). It’s for consumption, not contribution.

So, I try to accept that the device is one-way, but the internet surely is not. The internet is all about interaction: comments, tweets etc. *Interaction*. (oh.. Flash – when used well – is all about interaction… I think I see where this is going).

For consumption, the device is brilliant. But for me, it stops there. And as someone who is used to being part of the “build” (a developer) the iPad, as much as I like it, pisses me right off.

But as you say, maybe I’m old-school and need to reorient my thinking?

Comment by CR4 — June 3, 2010

To the final point:

Apps are essentially websites that you are forced to pay for and bookmark before using.

I could see apps usurping website usage over time.

Comment by Baryn — June 3, 2010

For mobile computers to take off as your only computer, they will eventually need to cater to creators of content, as well as consumers. Adobe CS7 needs to work on iPhone OS, and the iPhone 6(4? 5?) needs to dock to a larger screen for creation/consumption purposes.

Comment by Baryn — June 3, 2010

Interesting analogy with the stick-shift. One major difference is that automatic transmission won’t hinder you from using the car in very much the same way as you would with stick shift. You can still drive anywhere. You only need manual control if you’re into very specific use cases. Race-car driving perhaps, and even then I’m not sure. A funny thing is that here in Europe (or at least here in Sweden), most people drive manual, while professional drivers use automatic. Quite the opposite of the difference between amateur and pro is in other areas (normal people want a point-and-click camera, while the pro photographer wants manual control).

Comment by vilcans — June 3, 2010

I’ve been driving an automatic for the last 3 years, and recently have been pondering getting a new car. Tried a few manual cars, and they’re great, I’ll be getting one! You sometimes don’t realize how much you miss something until it’s not been there for awhile.

Comment by jemmyw — June 3, 2010

Nice article

I’ll use GWT when New York Times photographers start using point and click cameras

Comment by AngusC — June 3, 2010

I used to shoot a Rolleiflex without a meter, but when it became too difficult to get film developed, I was forced to shoot with a digital P&S. The difference is not only the image quality but also the learning experience and understanding of the light.

The joy of Web and HTML is that you can look into the source and figure out how they work. Packaged “apps” give consumers an illusion of professionalism but remove the experience of learning and exploration.

It is easy to package an HTML5 app in Google Chrome extension or Facebook iFrame, but it would be sad if our kids become experts in “shopping” for apps but have no ideas about how computers work.

Comment by learnr — June 3, 2010

fyi – The upcoming iPhone OS Update is also introducing multitasking on the iPad.

Comment by nottinhill — June 3, 2010

@learnr: most programmers don’t know how a computer works anyway. How many programmers still know how a CPU works internally (including the physics involved), and how to write assembly for that CPU? How many web developers understand how the html they write gets rendered to screen, in full technical detail?
People still learn as much as before, but because there are more layers of abstraction, the knowledge doesn’t go all the way to the bottom. This trend has been going for decades. We’ve transitioned from electrical engineers, to systems programmers, to application developers, to web developers. The trend will keep continuing as long as it makes sense to pile on layers of abstraction.

Comment by Joeri — June 4, 2010

@Joeri, perfect point.

Learning itself is nothing but a process of abstraction that if you think of it as “how to program a person”. For example, the name Ajax means different things to a web developer than a soccer fan.

I am a believer of progress of technology and human mind. What bothers me is the trend of “consumerism” promoting passive shopping instead of active learning. (Shopping itself is also a great learning process if shoppers are open minded and given wide range of choices, that is why we need open web instead of walled gardens.) “Understanding how computers work” is at the conceptual level, i.e., awareness of the layers of abstraction and capability of switching gears for different tasks.

Comment by learnr — June 4, 2010

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