The iPad and computing's middle ground

How much computing happens between the phone and the laptop? We'll see.

It’s been quite a while now that cafes have been filled with laptops and people fighting over power outlets. More recently, those same coffee shops have added a crowd of people waiting for their drinks, nearly all hunched over their iPhones. Mobile devices take computing to new places.

I have to wonder where we’ll see iPads a few months or years from now. I bet some of the places they’ll show up aren’t yet obvious.

iPad CoverageOne simple example: Phil Schiller’s demo of the iWork spreadsheet app, Numbers, in the iPad launch keynote (iTunes link) showed a spreadsheet tracking a local soccer team. It’s a great demo. Would you carry a laptop around a soccer field? Would you want to track game stats on an iPhone while shouting encouragement to the players? Neither of those quite work, but the iPad, replacing the coach’s old clipboard, could easily make that environment a better one for computing. It’s a middle ground where the phone is too small and the laptop too big.

I’ve long loved Don Norman’s book, “The Invisible Computer,” which talks about computing as an embedded aspect of everyday devices. The iPad isn’t that; it does, though, move the ways we can use computers and networks closer to activities that so far have been difficult to reach. The computer is still visible, but it is also much more everyday than it was.

I’m excited about the iPad and what people might create for it. Apple does a fantastic job — better than anyone — at providing development kits that make developers’ work look beautiful. They model the best experiences in the apps they ship, and provide tools that allow any motivated developer to make similarly beautiful experiences for their own apps. The form of the iPad is one big change, but the examples Apple is setting, in iBooks and iWork and the rest, invite people to create,. I love that.

The uproar around the iPhone and iPad restrictions and patent enforcement issues is real and I sympathize with both positions. But to get to the future we have to imagine it, we have to see it made real. How many tech companies and entrepreneurs talked endlessly and nearly fruitlessly (no pun intended) about the mobile web and tablet computing before the iPhone and the iPad came along? Apple is great at giving up just enough freedom to settle complaints (witness the evolution of DRM in iTunes), and I suspect that will happen again here. Regardless of how it plays out, I think we’re seeing an expansion of the way we use and think about computing.

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