This probably should be entitled the future of hands-on computing, but the two are closely related.

After playing with the iPad for a few days now, and experimenting with different apps, I think this does present a big step forward in mobile computing, and how this “third device” is going to affect how we work.

One of the main problems with laptops and desktops is that the screen separates you from everyone else in the room.  It is a physical barrier, but it also says to our monkey brains- “That person is focusing on something other than me and the environment.  I better leave them alone.”  This is why I often bring a notebook and pen to conferences instead of my laptop.  In addition to being lighter, it creates less of a barrier between me and other people, facilitating conversation and interaction instead of barring it.  Think of being in an interview.  Somehow, someone looking at data about you on a computer screen seems depersonalizing, but if they are reading notes on a pad or notebook, it seems like just a memory jog or reference tool.

The iPad, as a tablet, works like a piece of paper in this way- it creates less of a social barrier between you and other people.  I found this out yesterday when I was trying to edit a document on the iPad while my kids were at guitar lessons.  All the other folks in the room, grownups, kids, and the like were drawn to the iPad and we talked about what it did, what its limitations were, and what I thought it would be good for, and that the bigger screen really is a game changer in many ways.  While the played hell with my getting work done, it was immediately clear that socially, the iPad keeps you more integrated in your environment and does not divide you away from others.    It will be interesting to experiment with the keyboard once it arrives, and to see whether adding a vertical element (making the iPad more like a laptop) re-creates the social barrier- I suspect it will.

This idea of dropping barriers and enhancing visuals can be vital to business.  My brother in law, Gregg Somerville, is a yacht broker in Florida, and we spoke about how this could help him.  Besides the day to day email functions, we spoke about how you could show pictures and video on it to clients on the fly; connect to other brokers through social networks and look for new listings if a client wasn’t happy with what they had seen so far, etc.  The larger screen allows him to really show video and pictures on the go that just didn’t work as well on a smart phone of any sort, and for him, it may make the difference between a sale and no sale, to have the information instantly available when needed.

The apps, of course, allow for on the go management of information, billing, clients, contacts and everything else you can imagine.  The bigger screen lets you draw and visualize things in a way that goes beyond what was capable on the iphone alone.  It’s intuitive touch interface makes it feel like a hands on tool, almost like that feel and engagement I get from pen and paper versus typing, and I have to say, I like it.  It’s making me rethink how I interact with technology, and how important hands-on can be.  Just look at the multitouch interface Jeff Han has developed, and how using your hands to manipulate and view data in different ways changes the way you think and interact with the material.  It makes me wonder how long it will be until multitouch, Jeff Han style, will take to get into an iPad or slightly larger sized machine, and how it’s going to change the way we interact with data and information forever.

While the iPad and other tablets may not have full laptop/desktop functionality, for many situations, that’s not a problem.  If I’m working on a proposal, for example, I want quiet and alone time, and a laptop or desktop provides me with that more isolated experience.  But if I’m working and collaborating with others, working together on a screen that can be shared and open, like a whiteboard with a memory, is incredibly useful.  It invites social collaboration.  It invites tweeking and brainstorming and sharing, that seems awkward when one person in the room is there trying to type note furiously or capture the moment instead of being involved in the process.

The hidden gem of the tablet and of the iPad is the removal of social barriers and collaboration in person.  And that’s why it means a dramatic change in mobile computing- it takes the “tech”- the complication and the friction out of working “together” on computers in person, and instead, makes the process social, like smartboards do in the classroom.  The hands-on aspect is more important than we all think right now, and is going to be integral in the development of mobile computing and data manipulation and management.    Size is also important and as much as people think it’s not all that big a deal, just think how different a 15 inch TV and a 60 inch TV is to the TV experience.  It’s not as irrelevant as we might at first assume.

What do you think?  Have you payed with a multi-touch screen?  Having played with one at Educon 2.2 and spoken with Jeff Han, I’m convinced that the future will hold a lot more “hands-on” manipulation of data than ever before, on both small and large screens.  Am I wrong?  If you think so, Why?