The iPad and True Social Computing

Like more than 3 million others, I recently bought an iPad. I have given myself a lot of reasons to do so from making life easier for my shoulders (no more packing my laptop and all its cords with me), an interest in changing the way I work (slowing down), and because it is the latest innovation that could be used for health and research purposes.

And they’re pretty neat.

But behind all of the bells and whistles and justifications for using the iPad, the thing that sold me on it more than anything was that it may be the first social computer.

Watch how people interact with the iPad and you’ll see something that goes beyond a slimmer touch-screen computer and you see a social engagement technology. People gather around them and its shape and size allows it to be passed back and forth, resized, and shifted around in a manner that allows people to truly interact with it socially. And by socially, I mean as people, together, in one place. Place itself is also different, not just because it provides an attractor for physical interaction, but because its web platform allows that physical interaction to connect to the online social world at the same time.

Last night this was demonstrated as I went to dinner with some friends. I brought my iPad with me as a couple of my dinner mates wanted to see one in action. What transpired was an interactive, engaged and often hilarious series of interactions between us, the iPad and videos, text and pictures we pulled from the web. Unlike a laptop, which creates a physical barrier between people and their space (the screen goes up to block your view, the keyboard goes down to cover your table), the iPad can be manipulated in a way that it becomes far less intrusive.

The computer is sharable and something that can be passed around, which also means that the person who brings the computer isn’t tied to it and can let others work with it.

The prospects for using this in both personal and professional life are tremendous. Imagine how much more likely we would be to engage in genuine sharing of an article, or book (e-book I suppose) with another in the moment if we had tools that reduced the physical barriers that make computing so isolating? Imagine creating opportunities for newcomers to a country or a social circle to use these sharable tools as a method of transcending barriers to social engagement or information. Consider it.

What would you do if you could draw people in and communicate outward with a technology that allowed you to do 90% of what your laptop does, but is immensely more portable and sharable?

There are few technologies that deserve the title “game changer” but I think the iPad is one of them.

8 Comments on “The iPad and True Social Computing

  1. I concur with your assessment that the iPad is a “game-changer”, likely in ways that we haven’t yet imagined. I too have experienced passing around the iPad to show pictures to my parents and siblings …. very, very different experience from showing them on a laptop.

    I use my iPad everyday and continue to find new uses for the device. My biggest beef is lack of file system … or, better stated, an easy to way to share documents among applications. Doesn’t have to be a file system but the sandboxed approach that has each application maintaining its own documents is quite limiting for me.

    Michael Martineau

    • Martin, Thanks for your comments and taking the time to share them.

      I’ve struggled with the file system too. But that, in some way, seems to be a gift. It’s gotten me to radically simplify what I do with my files, which frankly have been out of control for a while. I’ve started using Dropbox as a virtual file system (in addition to Mobile Me, which is great if a little pricey for what you get). I’m living an experiment to try and be mobile as much as possible. So far, I’m doing OK, but there are limitations and I know I’ll curse the fact that it doesn’t have a USB drive or some normal file system someday.

      Yet in the interim, I’m relishing having only a few documents on the go instead of dozens — which is what having all that power does to you. The simplification of the iPad has gotten me to re-think things and that isn’t all bad.

      • My first name is Michael, not Martin 🙂

        My biggest struggle with lack of file system is dealing with files that get changed by one application. Take the Dropbox / iAnnotate combination that is giving me fits at the moment. I can instruct DropBox to open a file in iAnnotate but that action actually transfers the file to iAnnnotate. I now have two files, one for each application. Any changes I make to the file in iAnnotate (such as adding annotations to a PDF file) are not reflected in my DropBox files. iAnnotate developer says that they are looking to add DropBox functionality to iAnnotate but this approach will get problematic as there are more and more applications between which I need to share files. Some means of sharing files is needed.

        Michael Martineau

      • Hi Mike,

        Thanks for the correction on the name — sorry about that. Oddly, the very fact that the iPad doesn’t (yet) allowed multitasking and multiple window views means that I don’t have the same screen up when I hit reply. Add to that the fact that I was making plans to meet Martin Buxton from the UK at the same time, and that probably explains things (maybe) 🙂

        I haven’t used iannotate and will look into it.

        I’m a Mac user and that is my default, but more and more I’m looking for things that work cross platform. I just got back from Vancouver where I was doing some work that required I bring a PC laptop (I could have used Parallels or something, but it slows down my Mac too much). I like Dropbox because it works relatively similar across platforms and the web. Any tool that does that is something I’m interested in looking at.

        Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on the blog.

  2. Cameron:

    I don’t have an iPad yet, and won’t get one for several iterations (let them add the front-facing camera, more storage, drop the price, etc.), but I suspect, based purely on intuition, that the social effect is novelty. When the first iPhone came out, everyone had to touch it and play with the multi-touch screen. Now, every other person has an iPhone, a Droid, or a Pre; they’re common tools.

    I think the same thing will happen with the iPad, which is not to say it’s not a game-changer.

    • The very fact that everyone is evidence that a device is a game changer, that it has impacted our life and how we do things to such a degree that a large number of people get one.


    • My initial thoughts were the same: this is just another shiny gizmo-of-the-moment that will get people eyeballing it just like 3-D TV did, the iPhone and so on. However, I’m thinking that this will be different in the long term. Yes, some of the attraction is due to the novelty, but there is something fundamentally different here.

      The iPhone / iPod Touch was close, but the limit there was screen size. You still need to wince to look at content. The iPad is far more natural for sharing. It’s not unlike a magazine, where people go “look at this…” and hand it over to people. The difference here is that people can manipulate the content.

      Time will tell whether this is a fad, but I’m betting that its not. Either way, I’m looking forward to finding out.

      Cheers, Cameron

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