When Steve introduced the iPad in 2010, he positioned it as a device that sat logically between the (then still fairly new) iPhone and the Mac. He asked the room, rhetorically, if there was space in peoples’ lives for a third category of device. To a captive audience, he explained Apple’s design philosophy as it related to their hot new tablet computer. He believed that in order for their tablet to be successful, it needed to be “far better [than the iPhone or the Mac] at doing some key tasks”. These tasks, as Steve enumerated them included: browsing the web, watching videos, playing games and reading ebooks.
After the announcement, PCWorld wrote off the iPad as “just a big iPod touch”. Taking the iPad at surface value, they weren’t wrong. The first generation iPad looked a lot like a scaled up iPod Touch, it used a similar processor and even ran the same operating system. What pundits at the time failed to realise was that the iPad was more than just the sum of its parts. Fast forward ten years after that introduction, and the iPad continues to sell well. It made up roughly nine percent of Apple’s revenue in 2020, sitting just shy of the Mac’s. It turns out that “just a big iPod Touch” can do a whole host of new and useful things that the regular, pocket-sized one was not capable of.
At base, computers are just tools and tools should vary in form depending on the job to be done. Often, tools can look and even function similarly. One could say that a drill is “just” a more powerful, electric screwdriver. Why would anyone use a screwdriver when they can use a drill? The answer lies in the fact that there are some tasks for which you’d want a smaller, less powerful, more delicate screwdriver. The same is true for our computing life. It’s valuable to have different devices that fill particular niches, rather than a single device that does it all. Consumers buy iPhones, iPads and Macs because, even though they are all computers, they each afford different types of valuable interactions.
I love my iPhone. It’s such a useful swiss army knife of a thing. However, there’s a real dark side to having a magic, glowing portal to the vastness of the internet in my pocket. I tend to allow it to consume every spare second of my attention, severely diminishing my ability to just be. I’ve often condsidered ditching my iPhone for a Nokia 3310 but doing so would rob me of the ways that I find my iPhone to be a genuine aid in my daily life. I regularly use it as a GPS in my car, to chat with my friends overseas or even to track a workout in the gym. I could certainly find other ways to achieve these same goals, but the experience of doing them on an iPhone is so damned good that honestly, I don’t want to. I’m caught in this limbo between finding my phone genuinely useful and feeling like it’s totally robbing my of my attention.
How might we reconcile these two ideas? Is there some middle ground that we can find that gives us the upside without the downside? I believe the answer lies in the fact that just because our phones can do something doesn’t mean that they should. If we are discerning, we can enforce boundaries around each of the devices in our computing life to ensure that we, the human beings, stay in control.
As Steve conducted the first demo of Apple’s iPad from an armchair on stage, it was clear that Apple believed their new device was the ultimate consumption machine. It was better at browsing the web, reading email and watching movies than anything they’d made previously. In the intervening years, the iPad (along with all of our devices) has become increasingly capable. Nowadays the iPad is a primary work computer for many people. As each device gets more capable, the lines between them become blurrier. I believe that we can consider the following grouping of activities in order to frame how we think about using our different devices:
|Communication||Smartphone||A group of activities that are related to engaging with other people and the world around us.||Sending messages, making voice/video calls, getting around (e.g. maps, ridesharing, public transport)|
|Creation||Computer||Activities that we undertake in order to create something new. You might think about this group as “things I do for work”.||Writing, coding, working in photoshop, sending email|
|Consumption||Tablet||Activities that are related to engaging with something that someone else has created.||Watching a YouTube video, playing a game, browsing the web or social media|
Once we start to think clearly about the purposes our devices fulfill, we can artifically limit our devices by limiting the software that we install on them. For example, I’d want to limit the apps that encourage consumption on my smartphone (as I think about it primarily as a communication device). I’d uninstall apps like Instagram and YouTube while keeping apps like WhatsApp and Google Maps. This way, I can be more deliberate with how I spend my time on these devices. I’ll be less tempted by my phone when I’m out and about, and if I want to engage with my Instagram feed I can pick up my iPad and more easily give that the fullness of my attention.
This framework won’t generalise to everyone and how they use their devices. Some people may not have the luxury of having all three devices. Some people may categorise apps differently depending on how they’re used. For example, I’ve chosen to remove Slack from my phone but keep it installed on my work laptop. This might seem contradictory, because Slack is primarily an app for communicating (the domain of the smartphone). I’d make the argument that it’s primarily and app for collaboration in service of creation (or at least that’s how I use it) and therefore I don’t want to be distracted by it when I’m not at my laptop. To a degree, these distinctions are semantics, but the purpose of this framework is not necessarily to be presecriptive about exactly what you should do. It should guide your thinking about what works best for you.
My hope is that by being clear about the purpose of each device in our computing lives, we claw back a little of our most precious resource: our attention.