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.
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.