Apple escaped ‘lock-in.’ Can you?

Lost in all the buzz about the iPad saving publishing is the fact the tablet thing works as a real computer, too. Fast-forward the video above to 1:40 and you’ll see Apple SVP Phil Schiller demonstrate how to edit spreadsheets on a glass screen with finger motions. Our “ah-ha” came when we noticed that the iPad’s virtual keyboard changes based on user modality (3:04). If you’re working with formulas or numbers or dollars or text, the input fields adjust. The obvious question is whether Apple’s $500 iPad will cannibalize its $2,000 computer sales, or the sales of the broader PC industry whose Excel, PowerPoint and Word programs will run inside the iPad’s iWork suite.

Avoiding path dependence

But the deeper issue is whether Apple’s emergent design will break the lock-in endemic in laptops and PCs. Lock-in has several definitions: In technology, it’s the dynamic where one design is followed by so many subsequent designs dependent upon it that it becomes nearly impossible to change the original arrangement. Examples include U.S. automobiles with steering wheels placed on the left side, keyboards with a QWERTY layout, and Microsoft Word with “Toolbars” mysteriously nestled in the “View” drop-down menu instead of the “Tools” drop-down list where you’d expect it — all designed systems that are now nearly impossible to change because traffic patterns, hardware designs and millions of documents are locked in to the original concepts. But lock-in can also refer to mindsets, such as the escalating commitment of decision-makers to a bad course of action. Conservatives could point to a jumbled U.S. healthcare reform law; liberals could point to U.S. leaping into war in Iraq — all are outcomes of processes involving path dependence, where the options for decisions at any point grow more limited based on the commitments of the past.

You know. It’s too late to stop now.

Mitch Joel suggests that smartphones in the U.S. will grow to about 33% market share by the end of 2010, creating a plethora of new gadgets that could challenge the interfaces of the computers we’ve been stuck using for the past 25 years. Imagine that: the world of technology is going through a rare shift in which past lock-in is being broken, where radical new device usability could emerge, where “toolbars” might be located under “tools” where they belong. We all suffer from lock-in: The religious and political points of view our parents ingrained in us, the business committees pushing investments that follow other sunk costs, the temptation to follow a fad because our ecosystem of friends or colleagues have all jumped aboard and we can’t pan out to the worldview around it. The question is: should you evaluate your own life for paths you’ve gotten locked into that might need shifting?

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