Blog post

Apple’s iPad Could Do For Governments More than the One-Laptop-Per-Child

By Andrea Di Maio | January 28, 2010 | 11 Comments


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?

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  • Nope.

    Kids don’t need a shiny form factor. They need content. Content that is localized and educationally relevant. Yet another hardware device — one that costs 2.5x as much, or more — does literally *nothing* to solve the *actual problem*.

  • Keith Lang says:

    @Greg I disagree.

    Whatever has been done before seems to have failed. Even if Apple is too locked down for what you envision, it may inspire microsoft, google to produce similar devices.

    What kind of content did you mean? Textbooks? Wikis?

  • @Greg – I appreciate that the common wisdom in this area is always in favor of open and insexpevsive solutions, and I am not saying there is no room for them. What I am saying is that consumerization of IT has taken many by surprise already a few times. If you think about how many employees do want to have their iPhone supported for corporate email, or those who want to choose their own laptop (and – soon enough – iPad), or those who use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for professional reasons (without their own IT support folks even knowing about that), you should accept that user behavior may not be what you expect. In many countries kids have increasing attention disorders, and in order to keep them engaged you ned to speak their language, be in sync with their pace and – indeed – deliver your teaching thorugh channels that they – and not you – find compelling. iPad is a gaming and social platform as much as it is a reader and a player. I agree that the content is king, but that’s an issue with whatever device you pick. I would argue that with iPad you can have many more AppsForTeaching or AppsForLearning written by a crowd of developers (iincluding students and teachers) than with any other device

  • @Keith – of course I do agree, and I suspect that – as for the iPhone – Microsoft and Google will have to jump into the same pool. This cannot but be great for all those who have been so far on the other side of many digital divides

  • Ruth says:

    Andrea–If kids with short attention spans are your goal (as you said in the comments), then how is the best answer a device that doesn’t allow multitasking? I have an iPod Touch too, but I get frustrated even at that size and those sorts of functions that I can’t do more than one thing at a time. And to me, the iPad looks like a giant iPod Touch. (I even saw one tweeter refer to his iPod Touch as an iPad Nano. Thought that was chuckleworthy. But true.)

    And the lack of Flash? You can’t wave that away, especially when you’re talking about kids. Have you visited any kid-oriented websites lately? I have a four-year-old, so I get to do that a lot. Turns out an overwhelming number of the educational games and websites are Flash-based. Apple may want to tell you “there’s an app for that,” but if you’ve already paid $500 (not as low a price as you seem to think, at least not from this perspective) to put this in the hands of a needy child, who’s going to keep paying for the apps?

  • Albert says:

    I think the iPad is a missed opportunity. Other than a sexy book reader it is just a big iPod Touch. There is nothing in the content that makes this unique

    It will sell because it is Apple, but other ARM based tablets have a real fighting chance to have an impact on the market.

    Personally I see no reason to buy it. I have a netbook that meets my computing needs and for now I read books.

    Come back to me in 3 years time and we will see where we are at when Chrome OS is in place, HTML5 makes rich content easier and we expect connectivity to be available. We will then be looking at a generic device running a slim OS that can do all that the iPad can do for less than half the price.

  • @Albert – thanks for your comment. I have seen quite a few cartoons making the point that the iPad is just a larger iPod. In my post I was referring to people who are not natural users of technology (like senior citizens) as well as possible uses that may be transformational – not because of the device itself, but because of how it allows to do multiple things whose integration could be transformational: think about education, although some have commented that only open plaforms should be used there

  • georges says:

    How do you just dare to compare 500$ iPad with a 100$ OLPC ?
    What kind of educational concept do you just think the iPad can give ?

    This kids just don’t need to learn how to use an interface of an electronic device -actualy, this interface will be obsolete in 10 years-.
    They need to know what is beind this !

    With an olpc, you give these kids the opportunity to learn computing concepts an to produce softwares.

    With an iPad, you just give them the opportunity to … buy electronic devices !

  • @georges – My point was intentionally provocative, but I stand by that. I would argue that the army of iPhone app developer is quite a sizeable ecosystem, and the iPad is likely to expand this even further.
    It seems to me that your concept of education above is about “education to programming”: if this is what the OLPC is all about, I guess it is already dead. I thought the OLPC was about giving many more people the ability to USE and not to PRODUCE technology. The iPad (and other similar devies) has the potential to attract users who, for whatever reason, are either reluctact to use technology or reluctant to use technology for learning purposes: this inclues new generations of students in developed countries who do not find education a compelling proposition.
    As far as developing countries, I was clearly thinking about subsidizing their use: the iPad would remain more expensive than 100 USD of course, and not appropriate in all cases, but it has the potential to have a much broader user base than many think.
    I’d just like the conversations about “developing developers”, “open standards and open source” and “usability” to take place separately.

  • georges says:

    from olpc : “Their goal is to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves”

    And that is given possible with wifi imesh, does iPad offer this ?
    I also think programming is a part of it.

    >> I would argue that the army of iPhone app developer is quite a sizeable ecosystem
    Of team’s from the developped countries only, with a dev-kit and a total control of Apple on the inclusion in the AppStore

    I didn’t mention the “open standard and open source” aspect, as many comments already did, but it’s is a part of the topic and I don’t understand why it should be treated apart.

  • Trevor M. says:

    I am excited about the iPad and its use in education. I have written several posts on my blog about it. You can read about these at Look under the iPad category for all of my posts relating it. It is not intended to replace laptops or OLPC, but provides an exciting new format that has the potential to change education.