Flat Computing or why the iPad really matters

I am one of the lucky few in Belgium that got their iPads very early. It must have been one week after they became available in the US that my iPad-pusher shipped them to Belgium, stuffed away in a container filled with cowboy-jackets and leather boots.

I am one of the lucky few in Belgium that got their iPads very early. It must have been one week after they became available in the US that my iPad-pusher shipped them to Belgium, stuffed away in a container filled with cowboy-jackets and leather boots.

I have to admit I was fan even before I actually laid my hands on the device itself. For weeks I tried to convince critics that there was nothing wrong with the “iPad just being a big iPod Touch”. I even compared it with “the Porsche Panamera being just a big 911 Carrera”, only more practical, with four doors, consuming less, offering more comfort, and remarkably faster. If you where a Porsche-fan, would you complain? Don’t think so.

Another nagging question is why one would actually need just another new iDevice. Does it actually serve any real purpose, other than showing off?

It’s now three months that I am using my iPad, and I stress the word “using”. My estimate is that 80% of what I am actually doing on the iPad is business-related. In meetings, I never take out my Macbook Pro anymore (unless I am giving presentations). I make all my meeting minutes with Evernote (with permanent sync to my desktop computer and the computer of my colleague). The iPad is the perfect device for mail, calendar, contacts, social media, RSS-feeds, … And I have recently started to write a book, just using the iPad, no other computers involved.

So what kind of device is this iPad anyway? Many analysts place it in between computers and mobile phones, but I think that doesn’t make much sense. I think we are seeing the beginning of an entirely new type of computing, what I would like to call “Flat Computing”.

The form factor of the device makes you literally hold your work, media or entertainment in your hands or on your lap. You don’t hold it like a regular computer or mobile phone, you interact with it in a very recognizable way, as if you are working on a book or magazine. The device is literally flat, but also in a conceptual and even philosophical way: it creates transparency between the user and his environment. Contrary to when you use a regular computer or mobile phone, a tablet doesn’t create a physical barrier between the user and its environment.

Often, your tablet is lying flat on a table. It has a very good screen with a wide viewing angle, making it easy for everyone to actually follow what you are doing. Forget about discretely checking your mail or browsing the news in a meeting, everyone sees what you are doing. You can’t hide anything from other people around the table, and that’s a good thing: you create transparency and you even pull people into your own experience, regardless if this is work or leisure.

Everything you do on the iPad invites you to interact more with your immediate environment. You pass the information, application, game, content, … literally from one user to the other, from one hand to another.

And we already see this translated into great apps that can be used by several people on one iPad, or by different iPads and even iPhones, working together.

One of the finest examples is Scrabble, that you can play with a group of people around one iPad, or even use your iPhone as a personal tile rack. There are already racing games where the iPad shows the race circuit and you steer your own car with your iPhone. Again bringing people closer together around one digital device, within one square meter. Another cool app that illustrates this power of flat computing, is a translation app that allows people to type in sentences on both sides of the iPad, each in their own language, seeing the translation in the middle of the screen.

Imagine the power if (business) apps would all have similar capabilities, where people gather around a table, each with a tablet, flat on the table, as one huge extended virtual workspace. I write down an ideas on my tablet and when zooming out, I see the workspace of my colleagues. I can throw my stuff to other iPads where someone can continue to work on it. By attracting people to gather around a tablet, it becomes a very social device, with high transparency and high portability. Technology is no longer separating us from other people, it is becoming the glue to do new things together. And the power of the tablet is that it is making it happen in the physical world, where real people interact with each other.

I would advise every business to get tablet-ready. Start thinking about building your own apps (when relevant for you or your customers) or at least, start considering to redesign your existing websites.

I am not going to start on the Flash-not-on-the-iPad-because-Steve-Jobs-has-strange-ideas debate, but in general, I think it is a wise idea to just start rebuilding your sites to be optimized for tablets. Basically, a site that looks gorgeous on an iPad, looks gorgeous on a normal computer too. If your video or application works blazing fast on an iPad, it will be fast on your computer too.

And talking about apps: I must have downloaded two hundred of them by now. Some games (mainly for my daughter), lots of media apps (Le Soir, NYT, Newsy, NPR, Wired, Sports Illustrated, …), and a lot of other great stuff that I rarely use. And they all looks very promising: most of the apps are well-made, adapted to the iPad and they offer a great user experience.

The “issue” that Mr. Steve Jobs believes he should save the world from controversial content, will probably resolve itself sooner or later. At the current rate of sales, the iPad promises to become a de facto standard in the tablets market. This semi-monopoly position will give the necessary ammunition to regulators to force Apple into more openness. I am convinced that the necessary pressure from Europe, Canada or other “antique” countries with some renaissance-values left, will soon brake the ban on some types of content. After all, a computer company should not be involved in censorship. To end this little piece on the iPad, I can only confirm that both my iPhone and Macbook are still feeling a bit lonely. I have hardly touched them over the last 3 months, and it seems like this is permanent: I don’t go back using them, even now the iPad is no longer the newest and coolest device in my home. And this probably answers the question on why you should need one: tablets are just the next logical step in the evolution of computers and communication. So the question is not if you need one, but rather when you need one.

By the way, I wrote this post in my … iPad.

Jo Caudron

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