Apple iPad: an Antisocial Device

by Sarah on January 28, 2010

Unless you’ve been deep in a cave for all of last week, you probably heard that Apple announced their new product yesterday, the iPad. Opinions about the device, including mine, have been somewhat split. I’m going to leave the general pros/cons discussions for somewhere else, but I wanted to discuss one aspect I find particularly interesting: In a world where devices and services are more and more socially connected, the iPad is strangely ANTIsocial.

Apple iPad

the Apple iPad floating in its humanless world (© Apple)

By leaving out two features—multiple concurrent apps and any kind of camera—the iPad opted out of any competitive social connectedness. It is far less social than the iPhone (or any smartphone), any netbook, and any console gaming system. The iPad is supposed to be a consumption device, but isn’t consuming entertainment a social activity?

The inability to run multiple or background apps means there’s no peripheral sociability. Many of us run IM, Skype, and/or Twitter in the background on our computer (or netbook), especially when we’re more casually engaged. The iPad, on the other hand, is strictly modal. There’s no way to IM with a friend while watching a TV show, or keep an eye on Twitter while cruising around on the web.

The iPhone doesn’t run background apps either, but the iPhone is a PHONE, which is inherently social. It also does SMS. In a world where Twitter sends you texts and email and Facebook have push notifications, even if you are not directly calling someone, the phone is in constant peripheral communication. And it’s doing all of that while in your pocket.

iPhone homescreen with a lot of notifications

It's all communication

It’s possible the iPad will allow apps to have push notifications with audible alerts, although right now there’s no indication that it will. But that interaction model seems more suited to a phone in your pocket than a device you are directly engaged with for hours at a time.

A web camera on the iPad could have made up for the lack of peripheral connectedness by enabling an extraordinarily deep social connection in the form of face-to-face video chat. I kept waiting during the presentation yesterday for Jobs to announce there was “one more thing,” a webcam embedded behind the screen, enabling direct eye-contact during video chat. THAT would be magical. (Also, I would bet that baby-boomers, a theorized target for this device, would adore such a feature.)

iPad mockup showing videochat with my son

Imagining video-chatting with my son

A standard camera could also have helped. On the iPhone, photos and videos are social objects because you can digitally share them instantly. Quick poll: which would you say you share more—photos taken with your phone or photos taken with a nicer camera (especially per photo)? The iPad regards photos and videos as media for consumption only. This is made even clearer by the absence of an SD card slot, which is most useful for making photos digitally sharable in the first place.

You can use the iPad to share photos with someone standing next to you—the photos are larger and the screen is nicer than on your iPhone. But… you always have the phone on you. When you run into an old friend and want to show them pictures of your kids, what are the chances you will you pull your iPad out of your backpack?

Did Apple realize they were ruling out so much social activity? It seems strange if they truly want to compete with netbooks. Or perhaps Apple is attempting to influence society and encourage us to take time away from the constant buzz of Twitter and social networks. What do you think?

P.S. I also have to chime on the name. My guess is that Apple chose iPad, despite its U.S. cultural connotations, because it transfers more easily to other regions and languages. Regardless, I wish they’d instead named it the iPage: a name that evokes their iBooks design (see below), and if the iBook is a computer, then this isn’t this like is a thin, light slice of that?

iBooks page

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Zeke Franco January 29, 2010 at 2:05 am

I was a bit disappointed by this announcement, but at the same time pretty excited about how this device may really be a new category of device we all may be using in a few years. I do like the idea of having a smart phone in my pocket, a laptop in my office, and tablet on the coffee table.

I think they will allow multiple apps to run in iPhone OS 4.0. The iPad is running 3.2. That’s a totally guess, but it seems that it would make sense to announce that feature as an operating system feature just like they did with cut and paste.

Are you going to get one? I’m still on the fence, but leaning toward getting one so I can admire all the software design details. If Panic Software releases a version of Coda for the iPad then I would totally by one. :)

Scott Rocher January 29, 2010 at 8:44 am

Good post.

I’ve always felt the same way about iTunes. Listening to music, sometimes, is a very social thing. I often find myself tweeting the song I’m listening to, or the lyrics I just heard. iTunes supports none of this.

The iPod (line) – same thing. This is where Zune has done some innovating. In realizing that music is social, they’ve created features that let you temporarily share songs and see what others are listening to.

There’s no technical reasons why Apple would have to leave these features out. I think that to me, Apple doesn’t fully grasp the power of the open web, much less social (which is just one part of it).

But things are starting to change. Their acquisition of Lala is a huge deal. I can’t remember them ever acquiring a website — and a VERY social website on top of that. I’m ready for Apple to take these to the next level by injecting social into their products. They should start with the iPod audio player interfaces (iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Let us Tweet, Facebook, Copy a Link, Share With A Friend.

Also, Apple has already thought about your SD complaint and has a solution (at iPad Launch):

http://www.crunchgear.com/2010/01/27/apple-has-a-solution-for-the-ipads-missing-sd-card-slot-and-usb-port-adapters/

Here’s to a social future.

AJ Kandy January 29, 2010 at 8:47 am

Well, it’s no more antisocial than reading a book, and maybe that’s the point. I think it’s a little unwieldy to use as a casual video-conferencing device (which orientation do you want to use? Where do you place the camera? How do you deal with relatively random lighting vs. a stationary webcam setup?)

It is a little better oriented for media sharing — In easel mode, I see it as more akin to the Litl than a netbook or desktop computer. I foresee a lot of Bluetooth or WiFi-enabled “remote control” applications for it, too. One thing that’s interesting – with the lack of a camera, it also lacks the IR sensing capability to be used with an Apple Remote — will the iPod/iPhone Remote Control application will work with it?

Derek Gathright January 29, 2010 at 10:14 am

Good post. Sadly, I don’t think Apple considered the social factors much when building the iPad, they just used the iPod Touch as a reference. I’ve had a Touch for 2+ years and don’t remember the last time I used it for anything social. Sure I have my email set up on it, but when I have my Pre in my pocket, what’s the point? Yes, I have Tweetie installed, but again, what’s the point? The different experiences users have with an iPhone vs an iPod Touch is night & day. I think iPhone users, especially those who do not get the 3G model, will feel crippled when using an iPad.

Between the lack of features in the iPad and lack of a camera in the Touch, it amazes me how stubborn Apple is becoming. If they gave the Touch a camera, I would go out -today- and replace my ancient gen1 Touch. But they refuse to. If the iPad had multi-tasking, I go buy one as it makes a perfect “Couch” device. If the iPad had a camera, I’d buy one, my gf would buy one, and I’m sure my parents would buy one. But without any of those, I see little reason to try and fit the iPad into my already gadget crowded life, when it doesn’t offer anything new to me aside from a being a fancy PDF reader.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how Apple responds to the backlash when they release v2. Next year, if they don’t give the iPad a camera or allow multitasking, the backlash is going to be unreal.

Hopefully HP gets it right with the Slate.

Grok2 January 29, 2010 at 10:17 am

@AJKandy, @Sarah didn’t call the iPad anti-social (which to me has more severe connotations that just being not-social :-) ). Also the orientation can easily be dealt with by re-orienting the image depending on how you hold the iPad, but lighting is an interesting problem — the user will most likely easily fix it (“hey mom, I can’t see you clearly, can you move over to where there is more light?”).

But Sarah brings up interesting points…that made me rethink whether I want to buy an iPad. At some peripheral level I realised that the iPad was more deeply personal than social, but Sarah neatly explains why there is this difference…

Brian January 29, 2010 at 10:32 am

Do you use video chat? Conceptually of course it seems wonderful, but I’ve tried and failed to use it regularly for years. All my close friends and family have laptops with cameras now, and no one I know uses them for regular video chat. I think there are memetic things that need to change before the idea really gels in most folks’ minds.

A camera’ll be a nice addition to next year’s model. If it’s pushed as “the best way to communicate with other people ever” (e.g. a major feature) and the interface actively coerces you towards using it then it might actually succeed in changing how people communicate, but I think one at this stage would feel tossed in and be little more used than most folks’ webcams.

litl_phil January 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Right. A product like the litl webbook is built partly with a future of social computing in mind. We’ve started that in our sharing and device linking features but it is on our roadmap to build the social side of the experience.

It seems a bit peculiar to us that Apple did not do more with this and also with cloud computing in the iPad (not that we’re complaining). The iPad approach to its operating system is quite conservative really, whereas the litl webbook is the first cloud-based webbook. Actually, litl has a three-tiered architecture – part of our experience is local, part is on our servers, and part is in the cloud. This has some real advantages as a platform for doing more in the future with social computing. See our CEO John Chuang’s comments on litl and the iPad here: http://bit.ly/b7hc5z

Phil Welch January 30, 2010 at 12:48 pm

You’re supposed to sit on the couch and share it with another person, showing them your vacation photos or cute kitty videos on YouTube or a movie or something. That’s a lot more “social” than abstracting human contact behind text messages and webcams.

The problem is the idea that “social” technologies necessarily mean telecommunications. There are a lot of technologies for talking to people who live far away from you, what’s missing is technologies for socializing with people in person. In this sense, maybe having a big screen with 178 degrees of viewing angle fulfills more unmet social needs than just another IM client or VOIP app or videoconferencing technology. You can already videochat with your son using any number of products. What other product is there for your son to sit on your lap and look through a photo album with you, swiping from photo to photo with his hand?

I personally hate when I’m spending time with someone in person while they continually interrupt our afternoon together to respond to text messages and phone calls. If my friend is sharing their vacation photos with me or showing me their favorite YouTube videos on their iPad, why would I want that to be interrupted with constant pings and alerts every time their favorite celebrity posts to Twitter?

Valeska O'Leary January 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I don’t think the iPad is marketing techies and all those criticizing it. I know a lot of business people who are not comfortable with technology and fight everyday with their computers trying to produce a document, navigate the web, or simply check their emails. I believe that’s the intended audience. I just can’t wait to see my mom using the iPad. It’ll be a big hit. Bravo Apple for once again creating it’s on market.

Sarah January 31, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Wow, thanks for all of the great comments, everyone, and I’m really sorry I didn’t get a chance to respond sooner.

First of all, I am actually very optimistic about the future of the iPad. I’m pretty sure it will feel amazing in your hands, that the price point is low enough that they’ll get big initial sales, that using it will be fun, and that Apple will evolve it intelligently, as they have done with all their other products. And, as Brian said, I’d be willing to make a hefty bet that some camera will be in the next gen of the product.

@Valeska & @Phil, I’m also not convinced that it’s necessarily a BAD thing that the device isn’t really designed to be social (in this version). I definitely think it’s interesting and noteworthy, but will it matter? I don’t know. Probably not. I know it’ll be great for personally consuming media. But I just can’t shake the feeling that a camera would have been a big hit. One of the main benefits a computer provides is connectedness. You certainly couldn’t imagine the iPad without built-in email. If Apple made it easy to use, which I believe they could, don’t you think baby-boomers would jump at the chance to video chat with their kids and grand-kids?

@Brian, yes, I use video chat, because I have a kid. I never used it before he was born, but now we use it all the time with both sets of grandparents and other distant family so they can see my son, and he can see them.

And @Phil, I agree that the iPad is revolutionary in its one-on-one (or small group) social aspects. I’m excited about the new possibilities it opens up. But I don’t think face-to-face and distantly social are mutually exclusive.

The authors of a Thoughtful Interaction Design said, “Whenever a digital artifact is designed, the designer will affect the degree of connectedness among people as well as between people and artifacts, whether intentionally or unintentionally.” I mostly wonder if the decision not to embrace greater connectedness was intentional or not.

Richard February 3, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I agree that the IPad could dismantle the social interactions that we hold today. Apple is really missing some key flaws that could enhance the products value. Having a product that enhance your social interaction in any shape or form can increase value to the product and even so business, just look at Facebook or even Twitter.
Social interaction is key to success, just being able to video-chat with someone in a face to face basis or even watching TV simatenously blogging about what your viewing can close our social interactions even closer.

Ted40110 February 4, 2010 at 2:01 am

That’s a totally guess, but it seems that it would make sense to announce that feature as an operating system feature just like they did with cut and paste.

Fritz Desir February 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Thanks for the post. I think though Apple is precisely aware of everything you’ve so eloquently stated and is releasing the product anyway. Why? Well I think at the heart of it is clearly it’s a business decision trumping an optimal user (human/social) experience. Remember these are the same people who released a revolutionary phone/messaging device with NO cut and paste and guess what we all bought it anyway.

I think this will sell and sell well Apple will reap the rewards, iterate and release what they should’ve released in the first place and the most ironic part is that we’ll still (as designers we are a somewhat discontented bunch) want more.

And for the record I’m an Apple fan and was a proud of owner of the first two gens of the iPhone. Keep the good posts coming! – Fritz

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