The Gift of Computing

My father-in-law, Bob, has absolutely no interest in traditional computers. There’s been one in his home for nearly fifteen years, but after several failed attempts at learning how to use it, he gave up entirely. His job never required him to use one and he was fine with that — he’d much rather pick up a phone and call someone or grab a book off the shelf than bother with a computer.

Things have changed over the past couple of years, though. He’s now retired and doesn’t get that daily dose of socialization that he become accustomed to over the thirty-five or so years that he worked. He spends most of days doing yard work or various home projects.

When the weather started getting cold this year — and the amount of time spent on yard work diminished — he began to express interest in new forms of communication. Everyone’s so busy these days that they don’t have as much time to pick up the phone and talk with him like they used to. Text-based messaging would be ideal, but again, he has absolutely no interest in using a traditional computer.

Bob hasn’t been quite so hesitant about touch-based interfaces, though. There’s been a handful of times that my wife would sit down with him and they’d tap their way through her iPhone — taking photographs, changing the station in Pandora, sending messages, and initiating FaceTime calls with family members that live out of town. He needed some coaching, but he was able to use the device without too much trouble. And most importantly, the use of direct input methods made the experience much less intimidating to him.

Another one of the hobbies that he’s spent time on since retirement is photography. He doesn’t have an expensive or complicated camera by any means, just an old, digital point-and-shoot. But he loves taking pictures of the wildlife in his backyard — the fox that routinely patrols the neighborhood, the deer that occasionally come off the hill, and the bears that he’s able to spy out the kitchen window. He loves taking pictures and sharing them with anyone who’ll look at them.

The problem with the sharing aspect of his hobby is that, without the use of a computer, he doesn’t have a good way of sending these photos to anyone. If he wants to show someone the fox or how many deer were in the yard yesterday, he has to physically show them the photo on his camera’s display or print them out at the local pharmacy. It’s less than ideal.

Hopefully this will all change next week. My wife, her sister, and I have pooled our money and will be giving him an iPod touch for Christmas this year. The iPod touch seems like the perfect device for introducing computing to his life. It’s pocketable, inexpensive, doesn’t require a monthly service fee like an iPhone, and replaces an existing device for him — his camera.

But we aren’t simply giving him an iPod touch and expecting him to figure it all out on his own. The device is going to be configured for him. Nearly every app on the iPod touch will be hidden inside of a folder on the second Home Screen. The first page of that folder will have nothing but the Settings app in it — making it difficult to find apps he hasn’t learned about yet by stashing them in subsequent pages. The first Home Screen will be completely blank with just two apps in the Dock — Photos and Camera.

Because the iPod touch is going to be pitched to him as a replacement for his camera, Photos and Camera are the first two applications that we will teach him to use. With these he’ll be able to take photos, record video, and share them over iCloud. iOS’s native iCloud Photo Sharing is already my family’s preferred method of sharing photos so he’ll also have access to years worth of photographs by my wife, her sister, and myself that he can like and comment on.

Once he’s mastered the features within these two applications we will slowly start introducing more apps into his Dock and Home Screen. We’ll start with Messages and move on to Weather, Calculator, Google’s PhotoScan, and anything else that he might be interested in.

Even if he never ends up moving past the Camera and Photos apps, it will still be a huge improvement over his previous setup. His photographs will look better and he’ll actually be able to share them and communicate with friends and family through shared photos’ comments. That’s something that isn’t possible for him without the iPod touch. But with any luck, these features alone will spark interest in other applications and he’ll quickly want to learn everything he can about this new, digital world.