The Post-Personal iPad

Over at Ars Technica, they’re asking whether the iPad is a PC or not, with some debate over the semantic boundaries of the term: does a PC have to have a keyboard? Must it be directly programmable? Does it have to be an open system? It’s an interesting discussion.

Apple’s line, of course, is that the iPad is a “post- PC device.” Their belief is that it augurs a new era that leaves the old paradigm of window, icon, mouse and pointing behind. For my part, I subscribe to that theory, for sure. As I said recently, I fully believe that iPad is a transformative innovation.

But I also have a slightly different take on this concept of a device that is “post-PC.” It’s not just that the iPad is such a different kind of hardware and software from what came before it, but it’s also that people regard the iPad differently.


Sharing Is Caring

Not long after it debuted, a friend mentioned to me that he was struck by how an iPad left on a desk provoked no inhibitions from curious passers by. He noticed that his office mates seemed to feel no compunction in simply picking up an iPad that didn’t belong to them, tapping and swiping and pinching and zooming away without asking for permission. By contrast, it would be socially inappropriate — if not rude — for a coworker to pick up your phone, or start typing away at your desktop computer, or to open up your closed laptop.

As we’ve been working on our iPad app, we’ve seen some related behavior. In distributing test copies of our app to more and more people, we’ve been surprised by how many treat their device as a shared computer, something that belongs to both of the spouses or partners in a relationship, and sometimes to their children, too. We often hear about our testers not having immediate access to their iPads because their husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends have taken it with them on a trip, or because the device has simply been bogarted by a family member that can’t put it down.

Of course, this is partly because the iPad is so new and it has yet to make a convincing case for each person in a household owning their own. It wasn’t so long ago that there was only one PC per family, too, and it may well be that before too long everyone will have their own iPad, just as in many families today each family member has their own laptop.

Family Friendly

If iPad achieves that level of ubiquity, it may even prompt Apple to finally add support for multiple user accounts on a single device, a feature whose omission has always bugged me. If I could add another user account to my iPad today, I would probably take advantage of it immediately, so that I could set up a more toddler-friendly environment for my daughter (who can᾿t get enough of the iPad).

On the other hand, I think the fact that the iPad is so shareable is something really different, too, and the fact that it currently supports only one user account creates some intriguing repercussions. This characteristic suggests a new approach to software that isn’t as explicitly focused on a single user, but rather takes into account couples and families acting in concert — or acting individually, but in staggered or alternating sessions — to draw out a highly varied feature-list.

This makes the very character of the device much different. Looking at the apps installed on a given iPad may not paint a coherent picture of a single user in the way that peeking at the applications folder of a Mac does; on the other hand, it does give you an aggregate sense of the couple or the family that owns that device. I imagine this is even more true of iPads that have taken up residence as a family’s ‘living room’ computer; these iPads don’t travel outside of the home much, so they are much less attached to single family members in the way laptops and mobile phones are.

Actually, thinking about iPads in contrast to mobile phones, this unique communal quality starts to make more sense. Mobile phones are ubiquitous now and highly personal — we add more and more of us as individuals to our phone every day, and we expect to share them with others rarely if at all. So our phones are the devices reflect us as individuals, while iPads seem to be the devices reflect our closest relationships. This is where I think it’s more accurate to think of the iPad as not just a post-PC device, but as harbinger of a post-personal flavor of computing, one that is more perhaps cooperative, and more open as a user experience.

The complete implications of this paradigm shift aren’t fully clear to me, nor are they probably clear to anybody at the moment, but I think it would be fascinating to see Apple and third-party software developers fully embrace this concept: a photos app that grabs photos from all the iPhones in a family; a browser that reflects favorites and cookies based not on who is logged into the device at the moment, but who is holding the device at the moment; an address book that can be a true replacement for the family address book my mother used to keep in our kitchen drawer so that everyone could find the neighbor’s number. There are probably a million other subtle or not so subtle transformations of the user experience that make sense when the iPad is thought of in this way, and most of them we won’t really understand until we try them out. I’d like to see us try them out.

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9 Comments

  1. The iPad seems to have taken an orientation to apps installed, rather than users / roles. It is very task oriented and geared to one user throughout the UI. It would be interesting to see a tablet that completely challenges that notion by being a communal space, much as people put notes on the refrigerator when their schedules don’t mesh.

    I can see an interface with a shared area and private areas, laid out like a video game map — quick reference to communal area data, explorability of each personal area. Or with view filters: all photos, or a subset of photos by source / user. My own work right now is gravitating towards a collaborative environment where data and code are both distributed and generated by and among several devices / users.

  2. No reason either why it can’t just know who (possibly plural) you are – ‘login’ should not be necessary.

    My kid, on his own, created a folder for all the grown up stuff on our (and i do mean ‘our’) ipad and dragged everything in. I was nearby not watching him. I did wonder why he asked me how to spell ‘utilities’.

  3. This may be a West Coast/East Coast thing, but I would be pretty upset if someone grabbed my iPad without my permission.

    There are some apps that are meant to be shared by two users simultaneously, like Air Hockey or Converse, and sometimes you’ll hand the iPad over to show something, but I draw the line at having someone else actually use mine (we’re a two-iPad household).

  4. I have only ever shared a desktop PC, but with individual user accounts. Perhaps the inherent shareability of iPads is why they don’t need user accounts, and why the PC needs special extra functionality.

    I would have always said the opposite. The “i” prefix sort of implies that it’s a solitary device. Apple would obviously like to sell one whole iPad to each member of a household. Still, lot of people share iTunes accounts (might die out when iCloud comes).

  5. I’ve been wondering what things would be like if the ol’USA was in a financially more stable state when the iPad came out. $500 is reasonably inexpensive when you’re thinking that you can buy 1 iPad for the whole family or something the that effect. Buying 2 may be pushing it for most, especially not knowing how the device will fit into their computing lives.

    You could say the same about the iPhone, but it’s been around a while now and the utility has trickled down appropriately. Plus, cell phones, by nature, aren’t shared – with that pesky single phone number aspect and all.

    Just something the think about. What if the iPad came out Pre-housing crap.

  6. I admit to handing my iPad over for others to use, see, or pass around them in a variety of situations. There are only a few apps, that I wouldn’t want them to open—the primary being email. But I also use email more in the web browser now than in an app, for interface, but also because it doesn’t auto-login. If email, address book, and calendar all came with the option of locking, multi-users, and multiple accounts. (I login with a specific passcode, and it opens all my accounts, vs someone else logins in with a different passcode and it opens their accounts), I think a lot of people would be happy.

    Though I admit, I’d be okay with just a passcode on the app itself. A stated, do not open. But I admit to frequently thinking that apps like email seem out of place on a device that begs to be shared.

  7. >If iPad achieves that level of ubiquity, it may even prompt Apple to finally add support for multiple user accounts on a single device

    If the iPad becomes ubiquitous, wouldn’t Apple be *less* inclined to add that support, since everybody would already have their own iPad, so there would be less need to share?

  8. Andy: Well, yes. What I meant was, if iPad becomes more popular (‘ubiquitous’ was poorly chosen) and new users continue to use it in this shared way.