When Steve Jobs announced the iPad, Apple’s newest technological marvel, jaws dropped. Almost two full months after the announcement, blogs all over the internet are still debating whether this is the worst mistake Apple’s made in the past ten years or whether it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

One of the arguments that has sparked much debate amongst those in the tech world is whether Apple’s strategy of simplifying the user experience is a positive thing. I have argued that the iPad is a step in the right direction in terms of minimizing the confusion that comes with computing for the average user.

There is one issue, though, that I personally have not seen mentioned in other posts. And if Apple does not have a solution for it, it could cause a lot of heartache and frustration once people really start using their iPads.

Trash Talk

In 1982, when Apple created the Apple Lisa user interface, they implemented what they called the Trash can. The trash can is essentially purgatory for files a user no longer wants. Once sent to the trash, the user has the option of restoring the file back to its original place, or annihilating it completely from the computer’s hard drive. Unless there is a backup of a user’s system from before the file was sent to the trash, there is essentially no way of restoring that file once the trash has been emptied.1

This metaphor was carried over to Windows 95 in the form of a Recycle Bin. Perched on the desktop of countless millions of averages users was this bin which, when empty, looked empty, and when it contained files, looked full.

There is safety in the Trash Can metaphor. I know that in order to really delete a file from my system, either on Windows or on Mac OS X, I really have to work at it. Yes, there are times when files are accidentally deleted, but for the most part if I realize my mistake before I empty my Trash, I know the file is safe.

No More Safety Net

This all changes with the iPad. The iPad (and, perhaps, the iPhone before it) completely changes how we think about computing.

The iPad hides the filesystem from the user, meaning the user no longer has to search through “Folders” to find their “.docs”, “.jpgs”, or “.mp3s”. Want to find a letter I wrote the other day? Open up Pages. Want to see the picture I took of my dog the other day? Pop open Photos. Need a song to play while waiting for the bus to arrive? Click on “iPod.”2

However, what if I delete that letter and want to find it again? Or what if your child gets ahold of your iPad and deletes your favourite photographs? Where do you turn to recover that lost data? If you have synced your iPad to your Mac or PC since creating those files, then hopefully they have been backed up and can be retrieved again. Some people, however, are suggesting this could be the only computer they need. Where will these people back up their files?

Apple does have one possible solution: iWork.com. There is the potential that Apple will allow you to sync your iWork for iPad documents to iWork.com, effectively backing them up every time you save a file. However, what if the file is deleted from the iPad? Does that change sync to iWork, causing the file to be irretrievable? Or would it work like Dropbox, where revisions are saved on the server even if a file is removed from the device?

That still leaves photos and music. There’s a chance photos would be backed up through MobileMe, and perhaps iTunes will end up in the cloud. Less than two weeks from early adopters receiving their iPads, we have not heard word on any of these fronts from Apple.

I worry that this is one area where hiding the filesystem on the iPad could have detrimental effects on a user’s experience. If I am an average user, my experience has taught me that deleting a file from a folder doesn’t really mean the file is deleted; it’s in file-purgatory. If I bring this mentality to the iPad, though, it could result in devastating losses of data.

  1. This is how the Trash Can and, on Windows, the Recycle Bin work now. Back before System 7, the Trash can deleted its files whenever the Finder session ended. It wasn't until System 7 that the user was given control of when items in the Trash can were completely removed from the hard drive.
  2. Another thing that the iPad will begin to abstract away is the idea of owning an .mp3 or .m4a file. Users will go to the iTunes store on their iPads to purchase songs. What do you think that will do our society's attitude towards owning music? The record execs won't even know what hit them.