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ATPM 18.03
March 2012



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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Dave Trautman,

Making the Leap

When my mother was young, the phone was a novelty, television did not exist, movies were black and white, dancing was the thing to do on a Friday or Saturday night, and most of your news came from the newspaper, with live events arriving by radio and foreign news shown in News Reels before a feature film. She grew up in London, England. She served her country by spotting planes and watched the development of radar and computers for use in wartime. She is 88 years old.

Imagine having your world shrunk by the invention of jet aircraft, which could exceed the speed of sound. Many said it was impossible to travel faster than sound. Imagine the decades-long transition from transatlantic voyages to transatlantic flight. If you were a teenager at that time, you would naturally think your world was changing rather fast. You had to learn to be mature and resolved during the Great Depression; keep your feelings to yourself, because everyone was suffering the same fate. Spanish Flu might have taken many members of your extended family decades before this.

Imagine losing close friends to war and having to move to a foreign country to live with the man you met and married after the war ended. In Canada, they were called war brides. My mother traveled across seven times zones by ship and rail to rejoin her man in probably the longest journey she had ever imagined.

It is very hard to imagine how life was changing during those mid-century decades. Scientific advancements, live-saving medical discoveries, heroic achievements in sport, and daring journeys of discovery were trumpeted in magazine and news constantly. Each year, another amazing advancement would mean more change in your life. New materials and new products came rushing at you. The St. Lawrence Seaway and Panama Canal are hailed as marvels of modern engineering. And then, late one night, you sit down and watch Neil Armstrong set foot onto the moon.

My mother has always been aware there were computers. In fact she came very close to being one of “those women” who operated Colossus to help decode secret messages. She ended up becoming a spotter but could have easily been trained to become one of them.

Computers were never a big deal for my mother. My oldest brother worked in the oil industry handling the network and database needs of a major company. None of my four sisters trained to operate any kind of computer—even as machines were being put into schools. I didn’t get involved until the early 80s. My relationship with computers has been chronicled here in previous stories. But today everyone in our extended family owns desktop and laptop computers except my mother. Her grandchildren are all constantly demonstrating a sort of parallel attention between real life and their mobile devices.

So, it came to pass where my mother was—for the first time in her life—living by herself. She’d always shared living space with other people from the time she was born. She raised seven kids and was now both a grandmother to eight and great-grandma to three.

10 years ago my mother was offered the chance to use a PC to play card games or write some reminiscences of her life. She gave it a good try, but the desktop metaphor baffled her. She had never really had a “desk job” of any kind. She never had to use a typewriter, either. So the idea that your world was organized around what might be on your “desktop” did not apply to her. She would politely let us show her something, but she did not have any serious need for a computer, so it sat unused for years.

My father, on the other hand, had been a leader in bringing computers into the organization he managed. After he retired, he learned to use a laptop to trade on the market, to read up on things, and to exchange e-mail with friends and family. My mother, however, patiently listened to people talk about all the ways this new Internet was changing life. She did appreciate what it provided to my father. Of all the marvels she’d seen throughout her life, this little information appliance sitting on my father’s lap day after day did not spark her interest.

I was at my local Apple Store on the day the first iPad was released (I have the T-shirt to prove it.) helping a colleague acquire one. Over the next few weeks, I noticed more and more grey-haired people in our Apple Store picking them up and poking them. I decided it might be interesting to give one to my mother. My family was used to contacting my father by e-mail, and they expressed their wish to continue using e-mail for my mother. Many of them live far from her, and it is not easy to speak to her over the phone as she is fairly deaf.

Now, when you proudly open an iPad box and hand a shiny new device to your aging mother she is going to beam at you no matter what she thinks of it. No matter what I pulled out of the box she was going to be happy to use it (if it made me happy). So, I was not expecting her to dismiss it; nor was I expecting her to gleefully declare it was just what she needed. I simply told her I thought she might enjoy using it for some small things. Mostly I was interested in whether she would like reading from it. My plan was to proceed very slowly.

In those first days I was able to use a neighbour’s open Wi-Fi to get a fairly weak connection to the Internet. I set up this iPad as if it were my own, using my iTunes account and MacBook Pro as the host computer. This way I was able to “manage” the machine for her, and no one else would be able to change settings, install apps, or delete information. Although this was a barrier to other family, who would have liked to show her things, it also ensured that no one would cause the machine to fail or lose her settings.

It took only a few moments to let her play with the machine before I could see the ease with which she handled it. Delicate fingers had to learn to be less tentative and more direct with their commanding touch. The swipes and page turns worked exactly right for her level of experience. I put card games on it, added some public-domain books, and included my Netflix subscription.

I waited a full month before I approached her to have Internet added to her utility services (at meaningful cost to someone on a fixed income) and to have Wi-Fi put onto it so she might be able to use this iPad with online services. I showed her how to put bookmarks on Safari for the things she liked to check up on. I used the button-making feature of Safari to put direct links to her hockey team’s Web site. I had Safari tabs for her news Web sites and one for lottery results. I put recipe apps on it, a shopping list app, and some other “fun” things she might use in her spare time. And I also put an iPhone app on it for connecting to her bank. It’s rather funny how the bank’s app is not optimized for the iPad but the 2× button really makes it easier for her to handle the login password and on-screen buttons. On any iPhone, this app would be hard for her to use.

After her Internet access was installed, I came over to sign her onto the provider’s mail service. While I was filling out screens, she asked me if I could sign her up for Facebook as well. I have to confess that I think my chin dropped when I paused to take in her request. Here I was gently lowering her into the deeper waters of e-mail, and she was wondering if she could just jump into the turbulent currents of social media. I set her up right away. She had heard from others that this was a good way to stay in touch with grandchildren. She was right. All of them shared all kinds of things through Facebook, so it was natural for her to be able to monitor the traffic and see all the pictures.

I put out a call to all the people I knew to be on “the Facebook” with an invitation to “friend” their grandmother. Most of the reaction was similar to mine; slightly shocked. A few were suspicious this might be a hoax, but I assured everyone it really was “Mum” on “the Facebook” and she wanted to be able to see what everyone was doing.

For the next while there was much joy in Mudville. She didn’t really get the idea of online chat, so I didn’t press that. And the early iPad version of Facebook was just an enlarged iPhone app, so it looked rather odd to me. But she learned how to navigate around (getting stuck sometimes in the pictures area), and she quickly learned not to sign out.

I set up the mSecure app for all her passwords—which could also contain financial and other details. My sister dialed in the entire list of Mum’s medications, along with details of other medical conditions. It was extremely useful to hand an emergency response person the iPad showing her full list of medications when she had to be rushed to the hospital for an infection. And when she flew to see my sisters, the air crew were fascinated with her iPad. It made her a minor celebrity for a time as she showed them what it could do.

She’s “friended” a number of other people who have discovered she is on “the Facebook”—some who knew her years back and others who worked with her. She also shared images with a distant relative in New Zealand and learned of the boyfriends and breakups of her grandchildren.

Many a time she has confessed to finding herself up late at night playing solitaire on the iPad; or not realizing how much time had passed as she read her iBooks. She’s dabbled in Words With Friends but did not take to it as readily as my sisters have. She has never gotten the hang of watching Netflix movies or the local TV streaming apps. But once I put the BBC iPlayer on the iPad it quickly was awarded “most-favored app” status while she enjoyed many wonderful stories only the BBC has available.

She’s never taken to reading “the news” on her iPad, but she does look up stock market action on one particular app each day. She checks scores for hockey and football (Canadian football) while also looking at sport stories for tennis. So, having the NY Times or even the local newspaper apps hasn’t attracted her to more reading. Her use of the iPad is a casual activity and not a “lean forward” experience. She is just as typical as everyone else who augment their TV watching with iPad lookups.

She holds it and uses it with sufficient skill and accuracy. I rarely have to re-teach her how something works. Sometimes an app update will change something in the interface, but once she’s been shown where the change was made, she quickly adapts to the new way of navigating. In fact—once the iPad app for “the Facebook” was released—she taught herself to go exploring through the interface and is much less “lost” in the options.

I am most proud of my mother learning to use the online banking app to pay her bills herself and to monitor the balance of her accounts. She’s slowly learned the nomenclature of banking and finally decoded the security steps required to use the app. It’s great to watch her take control of things in her life that my father always did for her in the past.

Over the past year I placed a few “kiddie apps” on her iPad for when any great grandchildren might visit. There are pop-up book apps and some simple games, a SimCity app, and a train set app. About a week after I put the train app on her iPad, she confessed that she found herself playing with it for most of an evening without realizing it. These are the same seductions most of us have forgotten about early gaming experiences. A simple game with simple objectives and rewards draws one into the scenario; we are easily totally absorbed long before we realize how much time has passed.

Today I believe my mother has successfully made the leap from a pre-computer aptitude right into the post-PC era. Everything she needs to do can be done on her iPad. She hasn’t had to turn her world upside down, re-arrange furniture, set up a home-office, take software training, or even learn to use a camera. She isn’t issuing memos to staff, compiling data for research, or building budget spreadsheets, and she certainly isn’t creating value-added Web experiences, or writing a blog. She’s a consumer of digital entertainment and information. She is using her portable device to access things of interest to her and to manage the fairly simple life she is living.

Every once in a while she will say something to me which betrays her understanding of just how marvelous and, dare I say it, magical her new digital lifestyle is. Yet she knows what’s going on in the world which interests her. She’s able to enjoy authors she’s always wanted to read. She’s getting more aware of the impact of mobility on people’s lives. Once afternoon she told me my father would have just loved to use an iPad.

As I compare my computer experiences to my mother’s adoption of the iPad, I marvel at just how easy Apple has made it for people to use it. I’m also reminded of an article from Glenn Fleishman (of TidBITS) where he talks about mirror neurons in the context of an interface that’s easily apprehended by a new user. Although I know about mirror neurons (and their role in limbic resonance) in the context of human social organization, it hadn’t occurred to me this was so clearly demonstrated in my mother’s leap from a non-PC to post-PC era. But today it’s obvious.

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Reader Comments (2)

Grover Watson · April 1, 2012 - 20:44 EST #1
I was at a friend's house the other day, marveling at how easy his 2 year old son navigated on his iPad 2, which he bought after I convinced him to buy a 24 inch iMac. That fact that your Mom took to the ipad like a fish to water simply reflects the genius behind the device.
Dave · April 4, 2012 - 13:30 EST #2
Thanks for the remarks. It is about the genius of making something so completely familiar that we don't even realize it.

Touching something just makes sense. Using a stylus does not. And having a smooth response from the machine is terrific feedback for learning.


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