ipad or netbook?


Some of the common questions which accompanied the launch of the iPad were, ‘what exactly is it? How is it different from what we already have? What can we actually do with it? When something such as the iPad comes along, which doesn’t fit neatly into existing technology compartments, it causes some confusion and debate. One way of dealing with these disruptive products is to position and compare them to what we already have, that which we understand and are comfortable with. Consequently, the iPad has been equated to the current crop of netbooks which have risen in popularity over the past few years, and so some schools may be wondering which would be the right choice for their learners.

t is important to make a clear distinction between netbooks and the iPad, or there is a danger that its potential for teaching and learning could be missed by a misunderstanding of how the device differs from what is currently available. Firstly, a netbook is a smaller, cheaper and less powerful version of its older sibling the laptop. It has the same ‘clam-shell’ form factor, the same operating system and people use it largely like a laptop. They range from very cheap models like the Asus range, through to more expensive and better built examples from Sony. The point is that they are scaled down versions of what already exists in order to offer portability and economy. They run mainly the same applications, although it is difficult to do any meaningful work with audio and video, and can access the web as their name suggests. In effect, the activity and behaviour of those who use them has not changed and therefore what is produced and created is likely to be little different from before.

The iPad is different from this in a number of important ways. Firstly, the form factor. It is not built to be a smaller version of a MacBook and clearly does not resemble a laptop in its design. This makes a big difference in how people physically use the device, as its design encourages users to hold it close to them, rather than use it just on their lap or desk. In this way it becomes more of an extension of their body rather than a separate machine. Now you may think that is a slightly bizarre statement to make but just look at how many if not most young people ‘feel’ about their phone. They carry is everywhere they go, usually sleep with it, use it to connect with the outside world and it almost becomes part of their personality. It is unlikely that many people feel the same way about their laptop in such a personable way. The form factor and design of the iPad puts it in a space which has more in common with the mobile phone than a laptop or netbook and I can see a time when people feel the same about their iPad as they do their phone. For a school this could mean learners relating to their iPads differently, wanting to look after it and being careful with the device.

There are a couple of other aspects to the tablet form factor which make it distinct from a netbook. The fact that the iPad is a ‘one plane’ device, ie. there are not vertical and horizontal planes like a netbook, means that the screen does not act as a physical barrier between the learner and the teacher or other learners when working in a group. This is important as it means eye contact is more easily maintained. Also, there is no need to keep looking away from the horizontal keyboard up to the vertical screen to check on spellings and layout, as the keyboard is part of the screen.

A second important difference is the operating system of the iPad. Rather than try to run a desktop class Operating System (OS) on a small portable machine, Apple has written an OS which is designed specifically for mobile devices. The system requirements of a mobile device are different than a traditional computer with battery life being one of the key issues for people when away from power outlets. Consequently we have an OS on the iPad which is agile with no extraneous desktop code, specifically written to give long battery life and to take advantage of functionality offered by mechanisms such as accelerometers and the use of finger gesture for input. In short, it is a mobile OS for mobile devices. This will become even more significant in the future as mobile computing becomes the dominant activity for most computer users and Windows, already long in the tooth, becomes difficult to adapt to changes in mobile technology and people’s needs of devices.

Thirdly, although netbooks can claim the advantage of running the kinds of applications their desktop/laptop cousins can and therefore offer some continuity and compatibility for users, this actually constrains the functionality of the device. By definition, netbooks offer just more of the same in a smaller and cheaper (and arguably less well-built) package. It is therefore reliant on the traditional monolithic software developers to write applications for desktop and laptop machines which it can then use for its functionality. The iPad application is quite different. Although there are some overlaps between desktop/laptop software such as iWork, Google Earth and so on, generally speaking the apps in the App Store are original and have been written specifically for mobile devices. This is important for at least two reasons: they are written for mobile computing and it is an ever-changing creative landscape. Applications written by developers for the iPad are designed for the needs of hand-held computing and can take account of dimensions such as device location, battery drain and screen size. Mobile computing creates new demands for devices and software and the iPad OS is written for that purpose, netbooks do not take account of this situation in the same way. With 200,000 + apps the landscape for software for Apple’s hand-held range is creative, exciting and progressive. Developers are creating some of the most amazing applications which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. They have seen the potential of Apple’s portable devices and OS and taken advantage of the situation by recognising that people’s computing needs are changing. Applications are now both reflecting these changing needs and also introducing new and innovative ways of using devices within an exciting and innovative symbiotic relationship. Netbooks seem somewhat static and staid in comparison.

A fourth major contrast between the two items is how tactile and engaging the iPad is compared to a netbook or any laptop. This is due to the use of fingers and gesture touch as the means of input into the device. The fact that there is no trackpad, mouse, stylus or cursor makes such a difference to how the user engages with the device. The tip of a finger may seem somewhat ‘blunt’ compared to the fine control a mouse cursor or point of a stylus offers, yet with well-designed applications this becomes less of an issue. By way of a contrast, controlling the iPad with direct touch from the user makes using the iPad such a different, involving and pleasing activity. It is likely that more and more mobile computing devices will adopt this form of input as it also offers greater flexibility than a fixed keyboard. For example, swapping languages can be simply a software preference with Apple’s mobile OS (now called iOS) whereas a physical mechanical keyboard has fixed characters and lacks this form of flexibility.

Apple was not the first company to launch a tablet style computer, indeed it was Microsoft who promoted the form-factor early this century with its stylus-driven ‘Windows XP Tablet PC Edition’ OS. Despite the snappy title, the OS never really took off and the format has largely been dormant until the launch of the iPad. A major reason for this was that the OS Microsoft used was a stunted version of Windows which was inappropriate for a tablet device. It was based on needing a pointing device for input to move the arrow on screen, which necessitated the use of a stylus or mouse. With the iPad and iOS, we now have a tablet style computer on which the physical design, OS and applications work seamlessly and produce a device which works and offers users a new type of mobile computing. The launch of the iPad is a paradigm shift as significant as the transition from command line input to the mouse. This is why it is difficult to understand and pigeonhole. However, comparing it to netbooks is likely to limit its potential for teaching and learning. Netbooks offer a school more of the same of what it already does, the iPad offers the potential of transformation in technology - new methods for new learning.

iPad v Netbook