When I wrapped up the work on mobile computing that led to the metaphor of the lively sketchbook, it was not clear whether new tablet-type devices like the iPad would fall into the same category. Having now had a chance to study the iPad in use for over a year, it is clear that it must be counted as a mobile device. To distinguish between mobile and portable devices, we have to consider three distinct characteristics of mobile devices:
- Ubiquity: tablets, like smartphones before them, can be used in nearly any situation. By contrast, laptops and netbooks, while they can be transported between points, can only be used in a much more limited set of scenarios. Try using a netbook while riding a bus, or while walking around, and you’ll see rather quickly what I mean.
- Intimacy: tablets and smartphones blend into the persona of their user. Like a pair of glasses, after a while you don’t notice that the wearer is wearing them. By contrast, laptops never quite fade away and always create a barrier – as any researcher in the social sciences will be happy to confirm, the act of raising a screen creates a distance between interviewer and interviewee.
- Embeddedness: mobile devices quickly become an essential component of their owner’s thinking processes – in other words, they become embedded into how they do things, approach problems, interact with the world. By contrast, while experienced users develop similar relationships with their portable computers, the depth and effectiveness is never quite as dramatic. In effect, the type of interaction described by Garry Kasparov in this article, where the Gestalt of player plus machine greatly exceeds what can be accomplished by either one individually, is taken to a new level by mobile devices.
Given these three characteristics, mobile devices actively define a continuum in user activities, where information and tools relevant to what I was doing in the past flow continuously into my current activities and location, and in turn help define what I will be doing next. There is no “I’ll try to remember to look that up later” or “I wish I could rough that out now, but I don’t have the tools.” This capability can best be comprehended by education users – and probably all users – by shifting metaphors away from those used for traditional computers.
I created one such metaphor in the form of the “lively sketchbook”, which views mobile devices as powerful creative objects, operating in a fashion analogous to traditional notebooks or sketchbooks. The metaphor has held up well in my work over the past year, and has served as the basis for fruitful research. I have found that this metaphor works best, though, if it is supplemented by a second metaphor: that of the mobile device as “curiosity amplifier”. This metaphor, coined by John Seely Brown, focuses on mobile devices’ capacity to always present users with sources of information that can answer a question – and provide the basis for immediate exploration that can go beyond supplying data to building knowledge.
The simplest approach to thinking about the features of a curiosity amplifier focuses on the features displayed in existing apps that go beyond their counterparts on the desktop, and incorporate mobile-specific affordances – just to list a few examples worthy of exploration:
- Domain search apps, some general (e.g. Google Search), but some with a narrower focus (e.g. WolframAlpha)
- Media search and identification apps that rely on mobile capture of environmental images or sound (e.g. SnapTell, Shazam)
- Lifestyle search apps that are intimately tied to “what are you doing/want to do next”-type questions (e.g. AroundMe, Yelp)
- Participation in social networks “on the spot” (e.g. Instagram, Delicious Bookmark Discovery)
- News feeds (e.g. BBC News, Pulse News)
- Books, both as digitized versions of paper, but also optimized for devices (e.g. iBooks, Our Choice)
- Augmented reality, where information about the world is superimposed on the world itself (e.g. Layar Reality Browser, Wikitude World Browser)
The list of possibilities could go on much longer – but throughout, the key common element is that these are not just desktop apps ported to mobile devices: they rely intimately upon the defining affordances of these devices to provide enhanced and unique functionality.
The curiosity amplifier comes into its own most effectively when it is used to integrate multiple sources of information into a format suitable for mobile consumption. Two apps illustrate this aspect particularly well. The first one, Flipboard, presents info streams formatted as a magazine: if a source has a feed (which means most news sources, online magazines, social networks, blogs, wikis…), it can be digested and reformatted by Flipboard into a mobile-friendly form. The second app, Zite, does the same, but with one crucial difference: instead of presenting you with the information sources you already know about, it searches for other information sources that might prove of interest to you, and contextualizes and presents them appropriately. I knew I was going to like Zite when, after launching it, and supplying it with links to my bookmark archives and the blogs and Twitter streams I read, it proceeded to suggest an article that answered a question I had not gotten around to addressing yet – and two other articles that answered questions that had not occurred to me yet, but should have.
In my next blog post, I’ll return to the lively sketchbook and outline an app set that can serve as the basis for its implementation on the iPad, in much the same way that my earlier post did for the iPhone.