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The Pad and the Pod

I had a conversation today where I was asked about the difference with a tablet versus a smartphone (or pad versus pod :).  This is something I’ve been thinking about, and some thoughts coalesced as I answered. I don’t think this is my definitive answer, but it’s worth wrestling with (learning out loud and all that).

The must-read for mobile designers, The Zen of Palm, shows data collected from years ago on the early Palm devices (Figure 1.3) which showed the difference between usage of desktops versus handhelds. The general pattern is that folks access desktops a few times a day for long periods, while handheld devices were accessed many times a day for very short periods.

I believe this is still largely true: we tend to use our smartphones and similar devices as learning/performance support as quick access to information.  While we might listen to music, that’s a different thing.   Yes, there will be times we access a video or read a document or even listen to a podcast, but the usual use is as quick access.

And I think we use tablets more like desktops.  We settle down with them for longer periods of time, and engage more deeply. They’re often about content consumption, and they may also be for content creation, in both cases more so than the smaller devices.  And I think it’s more than a quantitative difference, I really do feel it’s qualitative.  Yes, this blurs when we’re talking about 7.1″ tablets instead of 10″, but overall I think it holds.

Which naturally leads to the question of what’s the difference between a tablet and a desktop?  And here I’m on stranger ground.  I think one of the interesting phenomena of the tablet experience is the ‘intimacy’ of the experience. You’re holding the device and touching it.  It’s in your arms, instead of at arms-length.  And I believe, without having come up with empirical ways to document, that’ it’s a more personal engagement. It helps that the first successful instance, the iPad, has an overall aesthetic that’s elegant, so media look good and the user experience feels natural.  I hate the over-used phrase ‘intuitive’, but many inferences about how to use the device play out.

So, in a sense is the tablet a mobile device?  When it’s acting like a desktop: being used to take notes, for instance, I don’t really consider it a truly mobile device, but when it can be with you to meet needs that you’re unlikely to consider meeting with a laptop, and it can deliver some meaningful interaction that’s more immediate than you’d accomplish with even a netbook, a tablet definitely is a mobile device.  And there are plenty of those times.

Fundamentally, though they can share apps, I think a pad serves a different need than a pod.  I think the pod is more performance support and learning augmentation, while the pad is more full learning.  There is overlap, and each can act as the other, but if you’ve got both, I reckon you’ll find this to be the case.

Naturally, I’m still thinking that a real learning opportunity for the pad will be when they can be more than content consumption, and actually do meaningful interaction. Not just quizzes, which can be done now via mobile web, but immersive simulations and serious games.  And you can do that now, but  not in a cross-platform way. We need a standard, like ePub for ebooks, but one that supports simulation-driven interaction.  Flash could’ve been it, but the performance problems have been a barrier.  It’s not clear whether HTML5 will meet my desires, but otherwise we need something else.  When we’ve got that capability, we have a market to provide more meaningful experiences to learners.

The implications for design are to not be exclusive to either, but if you’re designing performance support, you might be thinking more pod, and if you are thinking more full task and full learning, you might be thinking more pad.  That’s what I think, what do you think?

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