Friday, January 29, 2010

Johnny the Supervisor and his Magic Clipboard: an iPad Parable

I have been putting up a couple of posts on the iPad and reading a lot of reviews and from the responses it is pretty clear that people just don't get what it is and what it isn't. If you start thinking of it as a netbook then some features seem inexplicably missing, but if you start from the standpoint of functionality, of what you would want it to do I think it all comes into focus. So I am going to tell a story of a black plastic clipboard that could.
Johnny is a mid-level supervisor at a medium size firm and like a lot of supervisors splits his time between his office where he does what he has to do and then out with his people training, coordinating and communicating. On the day in question he walks in the door ten minutes late (train was delayed) and finds his boss waiting for him with a shiny black clipboard to replace his old brown manual one. When Johnny asks why the change the boss says "This is a magic clipboard." When Johnny asks what it can do, the boss says "Pretty much whatever something that size and shape could do, Just ask.' Then handed Johnny the clipboard and walks away.

So Johnny starts thinking and talking aloud. As a supervisor pretty much everything runs by the clock. As he says 'clock' one appears on the clipboard, and not just any clock, but a customizable world clock with alarm functions. Then of course you don't supervise for a single day, you need a scheduling calender. And one appears on the clipboard. As Johnny walks he mentions other tools he uses on a daily basis: 'training manual, employee manual, company personnel policy' each shows up on the clipboard and then reduces to an icon. 'Phone list', 'org chart'. 'Supply catalog' 'Company Product Catalog'. Hmm, 'Outside Contacts/Rolodex'. Suddenly Johnny's office bookshelves are looking emptier and emptier as is his physical desktop.

Johnny stops to talk to a couple of his team about an ongoing project and says 'Project management tracking' and that application which had been back on his office computer displays on his magic clipboard. The company has an automated J-I-T inventory system, why not have a window into that? Presto. Then Johnny asks for and receives the four or five key professional texts and directories he needs on a regular basis and there they are. Johnny has a clipboard with a dozen or so icons, each representing a tool he uses every day.

After doing some rounds Johnny steps back in his office and sees some family photos on his desk. How about having more of them all displaying on his magic clipboard. And it happens. Okay what other tools does Johnny use on a daily basis that can be provided by a magic clipboard. How about something that tracks his portfolio? Bink. Records, schedules, and TV times for his favorite spots teams? Bink. Bus and Transit Schedule? Bink. Local weather projections? Bink. Local TV News alerts? Bink. All when not needed retreating to a neat little icon on the screen.

Okay Johnny has work and the world kind of covered with those 20 icons, time to spread out. How about a Facebook application? Done. Johnny likes crosswords, what if he had one touch access to unlimited crosswords? Done. Johnny also plays a mean game of Chess, how about a beautifully rendered traveling chess board? Done.

So we leave Johnny with his magic clipboard that is one at the same time and all by selecting a single icon at a time a work reference library, a time management system, a project management and inventory tracker, a customized news/weather/sports/stocks aggregator, a social networking tool and a source of diversions for his breaks in the forms of games and puzzles.

But neither Johnny or us has to stop there. The iPhone software running the iPad comes with multi-language voice recognition, it should be easy to turn it into an automatic on the go translator at least for simple daily personal and business transactions. Imagine being able to go up to anyone speaking a standard world language and having your clipboard translate it into spoken and written English. That is kind of a mind blowing possibility but nothing I see would prevent it even just using today's technology.

So lets put on another hat, that of the college kid. You got a magic clipboard, what would you have it do. Well for starters you might want a combination of alarm clock and class/social schedular. Plus maybe a full screen Facebook Wall. Copy of the college course catalog and schedule, along with a library catalog window would be nice. As would be a customized TV, movie, club and concert schedule. Of course you want your music and your videos, two more icons for that. Then you might as well load your textbooks, at least the heavy ones, on plus some reference books. Suddenly that backpack is looking oddly empty. Add in another couple of icons representing your own news sources and you have a pretty cool student clipboard. Or in his case iPad.

What else would you want? Most people could use some sort of mapping/directions function which in this case is built in. And of course most people would like a full page Internet browser, also built in. But after that the choices are only bound by your own interests and hobbies. Interested in dining? Download or scan in restaurant menus. Cooking? Download cookbooks, recipe applications, and a cooking time. Bird-watching? Load on a Field Guide. Hiking? Get a set of USGS Topos loaded on, the clipboard already has onboard GPS and a compass function. Want to learn a foreign language? Add a language module.

What the iPad represents is an information machine, it allows you with a few simple steps at the beginning to have dozens of customized information sources for every facet of your life from the minute to wake up to its alarm clock to the minute you fall to sleep to its music. In between it can act as a totalizing scheduler and reference library and media player and social networking tool.

Okay what about the drawbacks? Well some are illusory to start with but lets go down the list:
1) No Flash Player capability. Well that is mostly a listening issue/pissing match between Apple and Adobe, both companies are making it clear that Flash Applications will be able to run on the IPad and within iPhone/iPad Apps, expect this to be resolved by product shipment.
2) No Camera, No Video. Well the form factor of the iPad makes it pretty awkward as a point and shoot camera anyway, Apple is already making adapters ready that take either a USB cable from an existing digital camera or alternately an SD Card, so that seems to be a non-issue. As to video I would think I 3rd party Bluetooth solution should be readily doable.
3) No USB. Well this is not quite true, the sync/recharge cord is USB and there is already a combination dock/keyboard to plug the iPad into to make it a passable desktop.
4. No Physical Keyboard. See three above. The onscreen virtual keyboard seems reasonable enough to me, and if the iPad can simply plug into the dock/keyboard it should be possible to attach it via adapter to any other traveling USB keyboard. Plus there is always wireless via Bluetooth.
5. No Video Out. Well there seem to be plans to allow hookup to an exterior monitor, but really how many people have a need to connect a Netbook up to a monitor to start with?

Summing up I think this Magic Clipboard once understood not as an office computer in the wild but instead of as an accumulation of life and business tools customized right to the actual daily needs of the user will be seen as indispensable for anyone reliant on text and audio based anything. And who among us doesn't reach for a TV Guide, a menu, a Bus Schedule, a manual, a catalog or something during the course of the day? Who doesn't check the news or need to look something up? And not only does the iPad allow you replace all those guides and schedules it does so in a way that is even more easy and elegant that the original


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