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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  • Paul Souders

    If the iPad were more rugged it would be perfect for a variety of industrial or outdoor applications. I immediately thought of all the clipboards and field data gathering I’d seen & used in my life: in factories, environmental testing, census/marketing data, the military.

    I thought especially of my former profession, archaeology. If you could rig the right kind of wireless to provide sensitive location tracking (better than 1cm over 100m) it would positively revolutionize the field. Data recording, especially determining provenience, consumes much more time and labor than actual digging and requires excellent technique. And at a certain point you have to batch data for statistical analysis, because regardless of technique you lose precision with tape measures and theodolites (this is why the holes are square)

    It would need a camera though.

    You could probably seal the current model against a certain amount of moisture, dust, chemicals etc. by sealing the case or transferring to a new case. I wonder if the glass face is too fragile for rugged use.

  • Alex Tolley

    I’m not so sure about the conclusion for the iPad. Is the magic ingredient mix the tablet form factor, the touch screen and the wireless connectivity (some have it, some don’t) or something else?

    If we see 3G iPads significantly outselling unconnectable iPads, then we will know that connectivity is important and manufacturers and carriers can address the connectivity issues (e.g. price) for laptops and netbooks.

    If the touch screen is important, then I would expect laptops and netbooks with touch screens and better screen + keyboard form factors to emerge. We already have them with swiveling screens, yet they don’t sell well.

    Personally, the closed app system just does not sit well with me at all. It makes the system into an appliance, rather than a computer, which seems to limit its use dramatically IMO for niche applications. Are archeologists really going to get useful software if it has to be submitted to the App Store?

  • David Megginson

    “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.”

    Isn’t that true of any tablet computer? We’ve had many years of experience with these.

  • Ariel Diaz

    Interesting post. I expounded on one of your analogies thinking about why and where people use clipboards, and if the iPad can replace a lot of those usage cases. Details at

  • bowerbird

    marc said:
    > a middle ground where
    > the phone is too small
    > and the laptop too big.

    the critics who have maintained
    there is no need for a machine
    that will fit this particular niche
    are going to look _very_stupid_
    once the apps start coming out
    which take full advantage of it…

    we’ll wonder how we ever lived
    without this tablet form-factor…

    and steve jobs will be praised
    once again for being a visionary.

    i happen to believe that the
    true visionaries are the people
    (like myself) who saw this niche
    back some 10 or 20 years ago…
    when steve was pooh-poohing
    the newton, because it was the
    baby of that sugar-water-guy…

    (and don’t get me started on
    the deficiency of bill gates as
    a tablet “visionary”, please!)


  • Janny (bookpublisher)

    I always have my kindle with me and I pull it out of my purse while waiting in lines at the grocery store, DMV or wherever. Waiting at the dentists office I even was reading it while sitting in a traffice jam on the H1the other day. I put it in a ziplock and read it in the hot tub. I can’t see doing that with the IPAD.

    I don’t think it will kill paper books anytime soon either. Every few years I read The Lord of The Rings trilogy and 20 years from now I will still pull out my old paperbacks I got from my father. The smell and turning the browning pages for me is part of the experience and as much as I love my Kindle I will never get that same experience reading certain stories on it. I just gave my daughter my old copy of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and she is turning the same pages I did when I was in 7th grade and that means a lot to me. For some people cracking the spine of a new book and the feel of the paper is something they will never give up and I don’t think they will have have to for a very long time.
    My first book being published by Schiel & Denver in Houston will have ipad capabilities:

  • They need to make a windows version of the ipad.