Since the debut of the Apple iPad in January, I've heard more than a few people say: "Oh, that'd be great for my mom!" Or father, grandmother, grandfather, great aunt, and so on. You get the idea: An older relative who's relatively clueless about computers, mobile phones, and pretty much any consumer tech introduced since, say, the 8-track.
Now, if you're retired, nearing retirement, or simply turning gray -- and you happen to be a digital wiz -- my apologies. I do realize there's no expiration date for tech mastery. If you're 95 and get your kicks by jailbreaking your great-grandkids' iPhones, this blog isn't about you.
It is, however, about a certain segment of the general population that finds today's personal computers -- laptop or desktop, Mac or PC -- a bit too intimidating. The senior-friendly Samsung Jitterbug cell phone -- which essentially mimics the functionality of yesteryear's landline -- is more their speed. Smartphones? Too small. Too many tiny buttons, icons, and menus.
The Jitterbug PC
Which leads us to the iPad. As a device that bridges the gap between smartphone and laptop, Apple's new tablet may be the ideal personal computer for technophobic seniors (or the tech-wary of any age, perhaps). The iPad is very light, weighing just one and a half pounds, and its (paper) notebook-like dimensions make it easy to hold and carry around the house.
Better yet, the iPad doesn't look anything like a computer. There's no telltale keyboard, clamshell design, or mouse pad. The visual clues that make the technophobe's blood run cold -- I can't use a computer -- aren't there.
The Big Remote
The iPad reminds me a little of those giant TV remotes designed for seniors. Both devices are jumbo versions of their conventional counterparts -- that is, if you accept the argument that the iPad is really an oversized iPod Touch. (OK, it's not, but let's save that discussion for another time.) And there are similarities between the oversized icons on iPad's Home screen and the oversized buttons on a jumbo remote.
Of course, the similarities end there. But as you can see, both devices do share a few ergonomic benefits for sight-challenged seniors.
The iPad is a sofa-surfing device, a gadget best suited for users who don't spend long stretches at a time at a desk, where a laptop or desktop would be more ergonomic. And it's not meant to replace a smartphone, a petite gadget built for mobility. Rather, it fills a niche that could meet the needs of seniors quite well.
No Keyboard, No Problem
But shouldn't a real computer have a physical keyboard? Not necessarily. The iPad is consumer device designed for Web-surfing, e-reading, photo-sharing, social networking, e-mailing, and so on. None of these tasks requires extensive typing, and the iPad's screen keyboard should suffice. If it doesn't, the $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard is always an option.
The iPad's multitouch interface may be intuitive, but its easy-to-learn attributes don't necessarily make it ideal for a keyboard-hating senior. Various studies have shown that elders have reduced sensations to touch, pressure, and vibration, all factors that may reduce the effectiveness of the touchscreen UI.
In addition, the verdict is still out on how well the iPad functions as an e-reader. The device's bright, backlit display sure does look pretty, but it's likely to strain the eyes of many a bookworm -- far more than the duller, drabber (yet ergonomically superior) E-ink screens found on the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers.
So is the iPad the PC for the AARP? We'll find out.