Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

22 April 2011

The Pad and the Pod

Clark @ 6:06 AM

I had a conversation today where I was asked about the difference with a tablet versus a smartphone (or pad versus pod :).  This is something I’ve been thinking about, and some thoughts coalesced as I answered. I don’t think this is my definitive answer, but it’s worth wrestling with (learning out loud and all that).

The must-read for mobile designers, The Zen of Palm, shows data collected from years ago on the early Palm devices (Figure 1.3) which showed the difference between usage of desktops versus handhelds. The general pattern is that folks access desktops a few times a day for long periods, while handheld devices were accessed many times a day for very short periods.

I believe this is still largely true: we tend to use our smartphones and similar devices as learning/performance support as quick access to information.  While we might listen to music, that’s a different thing.   Yes, there will be times we access a video or read a document or even listen to a podcast, but the usual use is as quick access.

And I think we use tablets more like desktops.  We settle down with them for longer periods of time, and engage more deeply. They’re often about content consumption, and they may also be for content creation, in both cases more so than the smaller devices.  And I think it’s more than a quantitative difference, I really do feel it’s qualitative.  Yes, this blurs when we’re talking about 7.1″ tablets instead of 10″, but overall I think it holds.

Which naturally leads to the question of what’s the difference between a tablet and a desktop?  And here I’m on stranger ground.  I think one of the interesting phenomena of the tablet experience is the ‘intimacy’ of the experience. You’re holding the device and touching it.  It’s in your arms, instead of at arms-length.  And I believe, without having come up with empirical ways to document, that’ it’s a more personal engagement. It helps that the first successful instance, the iPad, has an overall aesthetic that’s elegant, so media look good and the user experience feels natural.  I hate the over-used phrase ‘intuitive’, but many inferences about how to use the device play out.

So, in a sense is the tablet a mobile device?  When it’s acting like a desktop: being used to take notes, for instance, I don’t really consider it a truly mobile device, but when it can be with you to meet needs that you’re unlikely to consider meeting with a laptop, and it can deliver some meaningful interaction that’s more immediate than you’d accomplish with even a netbook, a tablet definitely is a mobile device.  And there are plenty of those times.

Fundamentally, though they can share apps, I think a pad serves a different need than a pod.  I think the pod is more performance support and learning augmentation, while the pad is more full learning.  There is overlap, and each can act as the other, but if you’ve got both, I reckon you’ll find this to be the case.

Naturally, I’m still thinking that a real learning opportunity for the pad will be when they can be more than content consumption, and actually do meaningful interaction. Not just quizzes, which can be done now via mobile web, but immersive simulations and serious games.  And you can do that now, but  not in a cross-platform way. We need a standard, like ePub for ebooks, but one that supports simulation-driven interaction.  Flash could’ve been it, but the performance problems have been a barrier.  It’s not clear whether HTML5 will meet my desires, but otherwise we need something else.  When we’ve got that capability, we have a market to provide more meaningful experiences to learners.

The implications for design are to not be exclusive to either, but if you’re designing performance support, you might be thinking more pod, and if you are thinking more full task and full learning, you might be thinking more pad.  That’s what I think, what do you think?


  1. Clark,

    I think your reference to intimacy with the device is a critical differentiator and one that learning professionals designing for mobile must be aware of. In addition to content design for screen size and context, intimacy implies a different emotional connection to the device not experienced with desktops. Frankly I am not sure exactly how or what this connection is but I’d like to explore it more and better understand its significance.

    Comment by Mark — 22 April 2011 @ 9:09 AM

  2. I agree with the idea of the difference in experience between the tablet and, say, the Netbook is compelling for school students (and maybe for other learners too). Students just don’t get excited about Netbooks in the way they do about the iPad.

    Made up figure but maybe 10% of apps so far are really taking full advantage of the device capabilities for creation. You are right about the shortage of tools in this space. Management in an enterprise is a downside too (but not for the “owner”).

    A tablet that talks to a phone (iPhone plus iPad for example) is a winning combo I think and I wonder if we can realistically converge them, probably we need both as you imply. However, efficiencies are possible as we identify which one does what best.

    Certainly an interesting space.

    Comment by Richard Jones — 25 April 2011 @ 6:29 PM

  3. Quinn,
    I agree that the experience of pad and pod is DIFFERENT, but I still think the pad is mobile and very unlike the desktop. I strongly suspect that the pad will win out OVER the pod in terms of learning. I think phones are great for looking stuff up…but with a pad, I can look stuff up – and then delve deeper if I need to. The pad (at least for me) creates a more compelling user experience ,too – even when I am just looking something up. My phone’s small screen is, quite frankly, a pain. It’s hard to read, it’s not how I really want to watch anything, and it’s best use is the quick hit (an address, verification of info, directions, etc.) With my pad…I’ll spend more time reading, comparing, etc. Given a choice – I’d also much rather play a game (learning or otherwise) on a pad’s bigger screen than the tiny screen of the pod).

    Comment by Sharon Boller — 13 June 2011 @ 1:28 PM

  4. My husband and I are in our 70s and have trouble keeping up with all this technology. He wants to buy me a tablet, pod, pad or something for my birthday but we don’t know anything about them other than watching friends use them. Can anyone tell me briefly what each of them does so we can make an educated choice? We have a caravan and presently take our laptop away with us but feel perhaps something like a tablet would be more useful and convenient. We’d appreciate some help here!

    Comment by Lyn — 18 December 2012 @ 4:25 PM

  5. Lyn, look at subsequent posts: http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=2851 on the Tablet Proposition, and http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=3001 Extending the Tablet Proposition. See also this: http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=2253 Intimacy and Immediacy. Daughter bought an iPod touch, but I’d get an iPad or mini. Go to the Apple store and play with them!

    Comment by Clark — 18 December 2012 @ 4:35 PM

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