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Every time we start or resume a computing task, there are startup costs. These costs are rarely considered to have any impact but they can be significant. Here’s a scenario…

You just walked into a Starbucks for an afternoon latte and a tall glass of WiFi to catch up on email and reports concerning a recent client visit. You get your coffee treat and reach into your computer case to pull out a Windows XP notebook. It’s in sleep mode but fires up slowly giving you time to take a few sips. Setting aside the various systray apps that take a little time to spool up, your notebook is ready for work in less than a couple of minutes.

In contrast, a sales rep who works for your biggest competitor strolls in with an iPad under her arm, the tablet tightly embraced in the slim, but very practical case. She sits down with her coffee, flips open the cover and with a gentle tap of the home button, she’s ready to work. Less than 16 seconds has passed since taking the first sip of her drink and the latest email is queued up for responses.

While these two comparisons are relatively equivalent in terms of process, one is about 65% more efficient than the other. You might say that the improved efficiency with iPad is both insignificant and immaterial since it boils down to a very small advantage that occurs only a few times a day. A minute and a half gained by one person ten times a week is simply not going to impact the bottom line; ergo, this almost imperceptible advantage is no reason to consider ditching a laptop in favor of an iPad.

However…

To develop a comprehensive understanding of iPad’s impact on productivity, we must look a little deeper, specifically at task startup and task switching friction but also in the context of productivity opportunities lost. It’s not important how much faster iPad is ready to work unless we consider how many more times iPad is utilized because it has virtually no task startup or task switching friction. To get a sense of this dynamic, I decided to track my own experience over a one month period.

Methodology

imageA reasonable approach for measuring iPad’s influence on productivity because of its low task startup and switching coefficient required a simple methodology recording all work opportunities taken during a specific time frame. Important to this analysis was the need to contrast iPad work in comparison to the likely (or unlikely) situation where i might have used my Laptop. To get a statistically significant data set of work opportunities, I tracked occurrences for every context where I used iPad for work related tasks over a 22 day period – roughly a month’s worth of business days.

Every time I opened my iPad to tackle anything related to work, I recorded the task, the duration, and most important – what portion of this task and work context would have been performed by my iPhone or notebook prior to the arrival of iPad? Here’s what my observed behavior showed.

imageThe data shows that of the 26.8 hours I spent performing business tasks on iPad, I would have used iPhone for 8.4 hours of those tasks prior to the existence of iPad, and 7.2 hours of the total iPad usage would have performed on my notebook. This leaves a net gain of a little more than 11 hours of work activity that I managed to wring out of 22 business days.

Graphically we can spot the peaks and valleys where iPad is likely to capture opportunities lost for mobile professionals. While this data is localized to my own experience, I suspect it foretells a similar story for most business people who are trying to maximize the opportunity to use time more wisely and get work done.

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If we look carefully at the nature of startup and task switching costs it becomes evident that the overall productivity influence must be measured by the opportunities lost as a result of computing inaccessibility due to the the high-friction accessibility aspects of most portable computing devices. But measuring low accessibility due to high friction is a delicate balance determined largely by the capacity of the devices in question. For example, iPhone’s accessibility friction is extremely low, but its capacity to perform complex work tasks is also constrained primarily by its screen size. In contrast, a Windows XP notebook is fully capable of just about every work task, but suffers from bulkiness and high task switching and startup costs – you need ample space on a desk, it needs to boot, connect with WiFi, launch apps, etc. As such, we tend to think twice about firing up a notebook unless one of two conditions exist; (i) extreme urgency, or (ii) lots of time available to take advantage of the startup costs.

iPad is not so much more productive because of its form-factor or apps as much as its unique design and agility allows business people to steal fleeting and unanticipated moments for getting real work done.

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