Captain Picard Doesn’t Have an iPad

It should be of no surprise to any of you that I am a huge Trekkie. You are probably also aware that I am a total MacAddict. What better binding of bailiwicks than to blather about both?

Star Trek has been at various times credited with inspiring a number of modern gadgets, including the mobile phone (TOS communicator), the PDA and/or tablet (TNG PADD), and touch interfaces (TNG LCARS). The truth of that seems to be a form of loose inspiration (as is often the feedback between science fiction and technology). I’m going to focus in particular on the tablet iPad as compared to the PADD, because I think TNG missed on this in several key ways.

Depending on the specific “model”, a PADD might have:

  • A stylus
  • Separate touch/display areas
  • Various sizes of bezel/case
  • Different colors which indicate dedicated function

Steve Jobs famously said “If you see a stylus, they blew it.”, but a lot of these design choices come out of the realities of prop design – they needed to convey “futuristic” and “alien” in instant, simple, visual ways, and were not trying to build usable devices. Similarly, at the time of filming, they couldn’t embed live video into such a thin device, because the technology didn’t exist yet, so they either had backlit images or had to implement it in post-production with special effects.

Additionally, you’ll often see characters using PADDs in ways people don’t generally use iPads:

  • Handing a PADD to another person to give them a document (various main characters)
  • Having something “signed” by an officer (numerous nameless ensigns)
  • Using multiple PADDs in a disorganized pile (Jake Sisko)

I think for the most part this is due to the writers not having any conception of an always-on network. This is pretty understandable, given that the Web didn’t arrive for non-academics until the middle of Deep Space Nine’s run, and widespread WiFi and mobile data weren’t around until almost the end of Enterprise’s run (EDGE was just getting started in 2003, and Enterprise was cancelled in 2005). The idea of something like iCloud, where the current state of all of your documents is nearly instantly available on all of your devices, was apparently too impossible for science fiction. They didn’t even seem to have a concept of email or file transfer!

Also, I think that for most adults both mobile phones and tablets are 1:1 devices – you are the only user of the device, and you have only one of them. There may be brief cases of lending, and there are certainly plenty of people who have separate work and personal phones, but I believe these are the exception. Children, of course, make heavy use of the devices of parental units until they are old enough to have their own. As such, you wouldn’t hand your device off to someone else indefinitely for their use – you’d transfer state digitally. You also wouldn’t keep different files on different devices. In this way PADDs were more like futuristic notebooks or clipboards, not computers.

I’ve been using an iPad for almost two years, and even though I never got around to reviewing it, my uses have definitely differed from my predictions. I even named mine “PADD” (partially in keeping with my theme of naming Macs after Star Trek animals). I checked out the Retina Display today at an Apple Store – it really is astounding, in some ways more so that the iPhone 4/4S. In spite of all of the improvements, especially the screen, I don’t feel the need to upgrade from my original 16 GB Wi-Fi iPad to “the new iPad“. However, if mine turns out to be unable to support iOS 6, that would be a significant motivation for me to shift.

I like to joke about how using it means I’m living in the future, even a Star Trek future, but in many ways, what we have is better than what Star Trek imagined. I believe that Captain Picard would have been much happier annotating treaties, reading Shakespeare, and writing condolence letters for dead security officers… on an iPad.

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13 comments on “Captain Picard Doesn’t Have an iPad
  1. kindli says:

    I love the logic guys use to pick computer names. Gav’s named his computers after LOTR horses (although he has now expanded into locations & mythical bests, like his huge tower is Barad Dur & we also have Fell Beast), in keeping with the horse-theme my laptop is named “Thistle Whistle.”

    • Nicolas Ward says:

      It’s worse than I mentioned… the Star Trek animals are all Macs (well, Apples, I suppose), my Windows VMs (and work machine) are Star Wars animals, and my Linux machines are LotR animals.

  2. Segal says:

    I’m going to disagree on this one:

    “Handing a PADD to another person to give them a document (various main characters)”

    iPads are effing expensive (which is why people don’t give theirs to anyone else pretty much ever) and also rather bulky, if all you wear is a TNG leotard. Especially with the always online voice activated everything (who needs iCloud when they have LCARS?), I could absolutely imagine the ship owning a number of iPads and them only being trotted out when needed. At that point, handing off an iPad makes a lot more sense than always having one.

    As for signing, I think that’s usually the duty roster, and I could imagine wanting that in a readable format rather than just retrieved from the computer. And again, there don’t need to be a lot of copies lying around – I think it might strictly be a subset of the above.

    Jake clearly does not need more than one PADD.

    Also, holy spam bots.

    • Nicolas Ward says:

      Just cleared them out… it’s what I get for mentioning an Apple product. Twitter is even worse these days. I updated the spam plugin, and it got worse. Le sigh.

      I could imagine PADDs being more communal on the Enterprise, with presumably some sort of internal sensors verification of the current user so you get all of your settings and whatnot pulled down from the main computer… but as far as I know most iPad usage is 1:1, including in schools. The iPads may be owned by the school, and the underlying hardware you’re issued might change over time, but while you have it the iPad is provisioned uniquely for you.

      • Segal says:

        Right, but students use the iPads for schoolish things at home where they are bereft of the network (whatever network it is) – not a consideration on a starship. They also carry backpacks, and would TOTALLY steal their classmates iPads.

        I’m arguing that aboard a starship there are a) different expectations of ownership and b) different needs for technology.

        Now, I also admit that I’m trying to justify the fantasy. For example, no one on the Enterprise is every playing Angry Birds. A die-hard Roddenberry apologist might say that’s because they all prefer to walk to the arboretum or drink synthehol and philosophize. In fact, writers might not have anticipated portable gaming / facebook / etc. If Star Trek characters have access to Angry Birds and Facebook, they might just invent an iPad clip for their leotards and all have one, in which case you’d be totally right.

      • Segal says:

        Also, I wasn’t suggesting that when Geordi hands Data an iPad it regognizes the new user and changes settings. I was suggesting that when Geordi hands Data an iPad the user remains the same – “ENGINEERING.”

  3. Phunken says:

    Author state that the way we use the iPad is not how star trek treat their Padd. However I think the way they have multiple pads laying around like books is real. When iPad will be a common thing and the price come down to an affordable price you will see people will have multiple pads just like how people now abandoned CD but swap USB thumb stick for work and sharing files without feeling like they have to return the device because it’s cheap. You have forgotten that they do have iCload like system when they retrieved history record on their federation archive, it’s a collective of data kept from a central service. They have wireless connection before blue tooth, when they download files onto their Tricorder etc. star trek was ahead of its time when Kirk signed off on a Tablet, just like how you would signed off when you collect a package delivery from a courier.

  4. admiralbob77 says:

    Star Trek was clearly aware of the always on network. There was a 7th season episode where a 65 million year old ship gives them a computer virus, and everything from the holo deck to bridge displays is affected.

  5. David So says:

    And please never never forget that the “cost” of running a galaxy scale wifi is never cheap and easy, especially when you are facing the problem of “real time” transmission over the long distance, with the hostile aliens around.

    • Nicolas Ward says:

      I think the latency on subspace was something that shifted midway through TNG. In the early seasons, like on TOS, they were sometimes out of range or could only do video voicemail with Starfleet. Later it seemed like they could get live signal everywhere in range of a subspace relay.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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