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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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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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