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.