Yesterday most of us have been following the unveiling of the much anticipated Apple tablet, now officially named the iPad. My colleagues Allen Weiner, Ray Valdes, Mark McDonald, and others commented about the launch on their respective blogs. Among the many issues that are being discussed, one that pops up quite a lot is whether the iPad really is a totally new sort of device, or just a bigger iPhone or a smaller Mac.
I am definitely not an expert in consumer devices, but I’d like to make two points.
The first one is that when I bought an iPod Touch as a music and video player, it never occurred to me that it would become my newspaper reader and my primary Twitter client, as well as a toolbox, phonebook, map (and the list goes on and on). Still after more than two years I discover uses and applications that make it increasingly compelling.
The second point is one that Mark makes in his post. I had the same feeling he had, that the iPad could be the first device that my mother (who’s 82 and has a very bad relationship with technology ) would actually use. She lives alone, although not far away from us, and the only piece of technology she likes is a photoframe, where she can see a slideshow with hundreds of pictures of my kids throughout the day. I can see quite clearly how she could very intuitively shuffle through pictures, pick videos, and then use the notes tool to read what she’s suppose to do today, and then move to the bookstore and pick a book she’d like to read, and so forth.
Now, what does this have to do with government? Well, one of the evergreens in electronic government and digital society programs is how to overcome the digital divide. This has led to countless discussions as well as investments in Europe on digital TV as the best tool to engage senior citizens (not that I have seen many outcomes though) as well as the use of cellphones as more adequate tools for people to keep in touch with government. To address the digital divide in developing countries and disadvantaged communities, we have seen programs like Negroponte’s OLPC (One Laptop per Child) and an increasing interest for netbooks.
What the iPad could do is to help overcome lots of digital divides. People who do not feel too comfortable with a laptop or desktop, but also feel that a phone, doesn’t matter how smart, is still a phone. Elderly people with visual or cognitive impairment, who can find a much more natural form factor and interaction style than with other devices. Teachers or students who could use this to replace the big pile of textbooks and notepads they need to carry to and from school every day.
An important factor with the iPad is its price point. At 499 USD, this is affordable by many more of those who would not usually buy an Apple product and would not be prepared to pay a premium because.. it is Apple. Indeed there are some features missing, such as Flash support or a webcam. On the other hand, iPhone shows that applications make for the lack of Flash support (I do access most newspapers and other sites through iPhone apps), while a webcam makes sense when you sit in front of the device, for which there are already accessories like a keyboard, a stand and – soon enough I’m sure – tons of others, including webcams, mikes, and so forth.
What is intriguing about the iPad is not only the friendly user interface and the great Internet surfing experience, but also the likely usage patterns and the unlikely users. Many commented that this device will be carried around in the home (also depending on what accessories will be available to ruggedize it). But I would argue, it could be used by people who would never use a computer.
Some time ago I heard about the use of game consoles and GPS devices to both entertain and monitor elderly people with cognitive impairment. The problem is the user interface, as both XBox or PS3 and Wii are not too intuitive for an elderly person. But they are familiar with the gesture of turning pages or shuffling pictures, and touching an almost 10 inches screen that you can carry in whichever room is far easier than using a gamepad or a mouse. As the iPad is also a communication device, one can monitor what the person is doing, e.g. by using a bluetooth device that he or she would wear and would reveal their distance from the iPad. So, delivering social care to elderly people online is more likely to work through an iPad than through a PC or a digital TV (as some European tend to believe).
Education is a slam dunk. Governments that invest on more desktops or electronic boards may have to consider how a device like the iPad could transform the learning and teaching experience: rather than giving a check to kids to buy a laptop, they could give them an iPad.
But the device may make its inroad inside government too. I have been covering for some time, also in this blog, the theme of the blurring boundaries between the personal and professional life of government employees, through the use of social media. One of the typical examples I have been using is a social worker who needs to access non-profit communities, customer social networks as well as the traditional case management system to more effectively and efficiently deal with a case. As he or she is on the move, the iPad becomes an excellent example of a device that supports that blurring: social media, a bit of entertainment between two customer visits, access to agency information through corporate iPad apps, and a form factor and battery life that makes it far more usable as a mobile tool to support him or her in virtually every aspect of a working day.
The iPad has less than 24 hours and its possible uses from a government standpoint look endless. It is really true that life is full of surprises. Who would have thought about Steve Jobs becoming more relevant than Negroponte when it comes to bridging the digital divide?