Apple iPad could be hit among elderly users

The following article ran as an Op-Ed in the Daily Toreader on March 31, 2010

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My grandparents have a paradox on their hands.

They want the Internet, but they don’t want to learn how to use a  computer. For the last few years this has resulted in my parents getting  a call every now and then requesting them to look something up on  Google or Wikipedia.

Stripped-down Web access solutions for the elderly have existed since  the mid 1990s.

They first took the form of set-top boxes with a modem that hooked  into a TV. These could usually access an e-mail account and not much  else.

They later evolved into things like Microsoft MSN TV, first a dialup  and later a broadband solution offering Internet access and e-mail  through a television for a monthly fee.

Very few of these solutions exist or remain practical anymore. MSN TV  went defunct about five years ago and similar products that utilize a  pre-existing Internet connection still charge exorbitant monthly fees  for very basic functions.

On a recent netcast of his nationally syndicated radio show “The Tech  Guy,” Leo Laporte, tackled this very issue with a caller. Her question  was simple: in 2010, where can senior citizens turn for secure personal  access to the World Wide Web if they prefer not to use a full machine?

Enter the iPad.

In a matter of days, Apple’s latest consumer electronics bombshell  will make it into the hands of consumers who have pre-ordered it.  Initial demand estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 units reserved,  much higher than analyst predictions.

Apple is marketing the iPad as a unique crossover device for users  who want the convenience of the simpler iPhone OS interface with the  power and screen real estate of a netbook.

On his show Laporte suggested the device could become a hit with a  demographic Steve Jobs might not have expected it to, and I agree. The  iPad sports a number of features that could make it a surprisingly  effective to bring the Internet to elderly who have been holding out.

First, the iPad is far from a full-fledged computer and far less  daunting. iPhone OS is simple even by Apple standards, offering a clean,  uncluttered and very consistent experience across all its elements and  the apps it runs. Getting a handle on its basic functions is little more  than a matter of intuition.

Second, the iPad eliminates a major interface barrier — the mouse.  Interfacing with a computer by touching, dragging, pinching and swiping  the elements on the screen directly presents a much gentler learning  curve for users first getting used to human-computer interaction.

Third, the iPad’s large screen is perfect for senior citizens with  diminished sight. They can scale up text, zoom in on maps and pictures  and generally tailor the viewing experience to their own needs.

Finally, the iPad has none of the security risks associated with a  full-fledged computer. No worries about grandma crashing the machine  trying to help out a nice Nigerian man or buy some cheap medication.

Getting your grandparents set up with an iPad will be relatively  simple. Once the supply flow hits its stride, you could opt for the $629  3G-enabled model and give them the ability to hop online anywhere.  They’ll be the talk of bingo night.

Alternatively you could go for the $499 Wi-Fi enabled model and  either hope they can leach off a neighbor’s connection or set up a  minimal broadband connection for them. No settling a dispute about Jack  Nicklaus’ Major victory count while grandpa is having dinner at Cracker  Barrel, though.

I give seniors some flack here to be sure. But the simple fact is I  love my grandparents, challenges and quirks included, and I want to open  them up to the beauty and opportunity of the Information Age for  however many years they have left in this world.

There’s no telling where it could take them. Some friends of mine  have grandparents who have turned into bona fide technophiles after  getting online. One of them even started a blog and signed up for  Twitter before long before Ashton Kutcher was a blip on CNN’s social  media radar.

Old dogs can learn new tricks if the conditions are right. The iPad  just might be the device that breaks down the few remaining barriers to  entry for senior citizens when it comes to the wonderful world of  computing.