Monday, May 17, 2010

iPad as Social Computer

We (Christina, Caitlyn and I) love our iPad, which is good, since we've been waiting for it since at least 2006. Much has been said about how, you know, revolutionary and magical it is; I'd like to focus on one specific aspect.

The iPad is remarkable for being the first widely available, general-purpose social computer. When we think of "social computing" these days, we think of things like Facebook and Twitter, but really, even though those sites are about people, you're still physically alone at your computer. No, by "social computer", I mean more than one person together interacting with the same device. The iPad makes this a joy: easy to hold in a way that both parties can see, accepting simultaneous input all over the screen, easy to pass back and forth, etc.

Of course more than one person can sit in front of a desktop computer, but you're still limited to a single input stream; you can't hook up two mice and have two cursors, for instance. Laptops are easier to pass back and forth, but they still have the same "one user" bias. The iPhone, with its multi-touch, theoretically supports multiple people, but the screen is so small it's not really practical. Game machines have supported multiple simultaneous users for a long time, and recent developments like the Wii and Rock Band have broadened the audience for this kind of experience, but those machines have yet to stray far outside the domain of games. The device that's come the closest to the iPad, in terms of social computing, is the Microsoft Surface, which predated it by several years, but while impressive, it's far from widely available and lacks the breadth of applications the iPad already has.

Another key point about most of those devices, from desktop computers to game machines to the Surface, is that they're rooted in one location, difficult to move to new contexts. While this certainly isn't necessary for a social experience, I think the fact that the iPad can follow you and your friends wherever you want to go gives it a leg up on becoming woven into your social life, rather than being a special thing you have to plan for.

What does all this lead to? I have no idea, but I'm enjoying the process of finding out, as the three of us use this new computer together in a wide variety of settings and ways.


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