The Family Tablet: How New Devices Foster Communal Computing

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If you’ve read many of my columns here, you know that I am a fan of the tablet form factor. I believe tablets to be some of the more important technology products of our age. Most of this belief is rooted in the concept of touch computing and the addition of natural user interfaces to a truly mobile computer. But unlike notebook PCs, tablets bring an element to computing that has not previously existed: the idea of shared computers or shared screens.

About a year after the iPad hit the market, we did some market research with those who had embedded the iPad into their lives. One of the findings that piqued my interest was how often many of these consumers shared their iPads with others. I became intrigued by this because it is not generally a behavior found with a product like a notebook. Notebooks, in particular, are extremely personal. My notebook contains my stuff, and if it gets shared it’s generally for a quick function like web browsing. Notebooks, although portable, are not what I would consider shared computers. Most consumers have one, which is theirs and no one else’s.

(MORE: The Tablet Story Is Getting Stronger)

The iPad, and tablets in general, represent a very different model. They are personal, of course, but many we spoke to about their usage of the iPad explained how the device was not just thought about as personal but also as communal. People were buying the iPad not just for themselves but often to bring value to other family members. Of course if someone lives alone this is a little different, but those who lived with another person or had others living under the same roof agreed that the tablet was often used frequently by others in the household.

I think tablets are more interesting than usual when applied in a family setting. In a column earlier this year, I pointed out how touch computing can help eliminate many barriers to computing — specifically the learning curve of a mouse and keyboard. Those who are younger or older or not otherwise tech savvy find that out of the box, the iPad can be used to its full potential. With technology and touch computing in particular, this is the promise of a natural user interface. Because of this, tablets fit nicely into family environments.

Even those using the iPad for business mention to us how apps would be installed on their iPad for people in their family. Many other consumers we spoke to were adamant that the iPad was specifically being used as a communal screen rather than simply one for an individual.

Two recent examples showcase this trend. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablet with its FreeTime feature is a solid step in the right direction toward family tablet computing. This solution offers parents the ability to set parental controls for their kids so as they enter FreeTime mode, children are presented with a kid-friendly user interface and access to only approved applications and abilities. Parents can also set limits on how many hours per day kids can play games or watch videos.

Another example is showcased with the new Barnes & Noble Nook HD line of tablets. Barnes & Noble took Amazon’s important FreeTime concept even further by introducing profiles to the Nook HD. This allows consumers to set up a number of different profiles for each family member. This way, when a particular user logs in, they see only the books, magazines and applications that are of interest to them. Another well thought out part of profiles is that if two people are reading the same book in different profiles, the Nook HD will keep each person’s last read point for them so that they’re not constantly trying to find where they left off. User profiles deliver powerful features and are the best example to date of how a tablet can deliver on a shared family computing experience.

Ultimately, this trend around communal/family tablet computing may be the biggest value of the rumored iPad Mini (or whatever it may ultimately be called). In my opinion, Apple will need to clearly differentiate a smaller iPad in ways not just based around price and size. Those will be important, but ultimately I believe the iPad Mini needs to bring with it an experience not found on the iPad, iPod, or iPhones. This could mean custom and unique software — specifically experiences that cater to families and the trend of multiple people sharing a single tablet rather than each person owning one.

Over the next few years, I am hoping that there will be quite a bit of innovation around the hardware, software and services for communal devices. Up to this point, most products are focused more on the individual consumer than the context within which the consumer lives (i.e., a family). We use this term personal computing for a reason. Many computers are, in fact, highly personal. However, on the horizon I see an important shift taking place: an opportunity to make devices that cater to a communal experience rather than just being designed for one person.

MORE: No Turning Back: Tablets and the Era of Touch Computing

Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every week on Techland.