Gizmodo recently ran a piece about whether Cafe Grumpy will allow iPads in their coffee shop given that they currently ban laptops. The owner, Catherine Bell, says yes. She notes that, unlike a laptop, the iPad doesn’t present a physical barrier between you and the rest of the world. It’s a somewhat subtle, but important observation.

Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how the iPad is a more sociable device than the laptop or even the iPhone. I believe that one of its more important impacts will be to remove physical barriers between people, allowing them to share information and experiences.

So what is it about laptops and smartphones that make them less sociable?

Laptops present a physical barrier between people.

Laptops create a physical barrier between people

Laptops inhibit sociability because they are relatively bulky and must be awkwardly spun around so others can see. This puts a physical barrier between you and the person you are interacting with. The two of you can’t see the screen at the same time without squeezing next to each other and unless it’s someone you know well, this can be uncomfortable. If you’re not interacting with another person, the laptop acts as a signal to others that you don’t want to be disturbed (which may or may not be true).

Smartphones inhibit sociability because their physical dimensions are too small. They are explicitly designed for one person. Only one person can hold the device and, again, two people cannot look at the screen at the same time without being uncomfortably close.

The iPad, on the other hand, is roughly the size of a magazine. When  is the last time you felt like a magazine isolated you from the rest of the world (okay, maybe in your doctor’s waiting room, but other than that…)? Two people can stand or sit a comfortable distance from each other and view the screen together. It’s easy to hand the device to another person because it’s slender and light, yet leaves plenty of space to grab.


The iPad is roughly the size of a magazine and easy to share.

How will this change the computing experience? Rather than being separated by our devices, they will allow us to get closer. Instead of hunching over my laptop, my daughter can sit on my lap and we can view the tablet together to read a story or play a game. A sales rep and her prospective client can sit or stand at a comfortable distance from each other and view information together or she could hand the device to her prospective client to study the details more closely. She no longer has to sit across from the prospect and spin her laptop around.

The broad adoption of tablet devices like the iPad will remove the physical barriers our digital devices have introduced and should, in turn, encourage more “social networking” in the physical world (and more conversations in coffee shops).

Image from flickr, courtesy AnyaLogic

Alan Cooper has an excellent post on this topic as well: The Social Computer