Steve Jobs and Cognitive Productivity

On the occasion of Steve Jobs’ passing, I am republishing (below) a couple of articles I wrote in 2010 for SharpBrains regarding Apple’s tablet. I also have a related anecdote to tell about Steve Jobs and some comments about his impact (past, present and future) on all kinds of knowledge work.

I wrote the first article in January 2010, just before the iPad was announced; this I did in order to express requirements for the tablet. Just after the iPad was announced, I wrote another article —this one to assess the iPad in relation to the criteria that I had previously set forth.

This pair of blog articles led to an email exchange from February to May 2010 between Steve Jobs and myself. On a Saturday (Feb 13, 2010), Steve invited me to send him a white paper on the issues that I had brought to his attention. And so, over the following exhilarating 7 days, I wrote and emailed to Steve Jobs a 33-page white paper specifying Apple’s opportunity to enhance their product ecosystem by better addressing knowledge workers’ cognitive productivity requirements (while leveraging cognitive science).  As I told Steve, I was honoured by him taking the time to engage with me. It shows something wonderful about his character that he engaged over email, albeit with his customary succinctness, with ordinary knowledge workers such as myself. 

When I wrote the first article for SharpBrains in January 2010, I was very disappointed with existing e-readers (software and hardware). I had long suspected that Apple would release a tablet that would finally address many significant outstanding problems. I am in many respects pleased with the iPad — particularly in light of the very diverse and challenging requirements it addresses. However,  there are major cognitive productivity requirements that still need to be addressed by the iPad and other devices in the Apple ecosystem. I’ve weighed competitors and also found them wanting in the balance. For example, ecosystem-wide fine-grained annotation is still not provided by any of the major vendors (e.g., to link strings in an arbitrary document, such as a received email, to a frame in a video on the Internet, and to write one’s comments in the tools of one’s choice, e.g., OmniOutliner). However, many of the tools developers need to build great cognitive productivity solutions are in our hands (or about to be, with iCloud). CogZest is working to leverage these tools to these ends — through simple but powerful software and workflows.

iCloud (if properly designed) has great potential to enhance cognitive productivity. Apple’s October 4, 2011 event disappointed many. We now understand the elegiac cloud hanging over Apple’s mind that day. One must realize, however, that IT is not just about hardware. In the words of the President of erstwhile Abatis Systems Corp., John Seminerio, in 1999, “It’s the services […]” Opinions about iCloud will change drastically, as they did with the iPad, after it is released. Consumers will yet again realize that they used to have major productivity problems which are now resolved. If you carefully watch the June 6, 2011, iCloud keynote address by Steve Jobs (starting 79 minutes into the presentation—footnote: one should be able to link directly to frames!) and think deeply about:

  • what you need to be able to do with documents and data across the devices you use,
  • why web applications like google docs are so drastically inferior to desktop apps,
  • why services like DropBox, MobileMe and EverNote just don’t cut it, and
  • some other related requirements and concepts

then you might start to get a sense of how revolutionary iCloud can be.

Before moving on to the articles, I’d like to mention a few things about Steve Jobs in relation to  cognitive productivity, affect and knowledge work — which are what CogZest is all about.

Steve Jobs helped the world to celebrate ingenuity. Millions now recognize and appreciate great product development in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. By the term ‘product’, I don’t just mean hardware or software. I mean all kinds of knowledge products: theories, principles, concepts, symbolisms, theorems, languages, courses, presentations, speeches, procedures, organizational and personal processes, organizational structures, policies, legislation, regulations, critiques, etc. All kinds of knowledge workers can take pride when they design solutions to properly address important requirements. So, in Steve Jobs’ name, let’s celebrate knowledge work in general.

Steve Jobs showed millions of young people, as well, that it can be cool to be smart, particularly if you apply your intellect and rationality with passion to understanding, characterizing and resolving problems in an honest, open-minded and rigorous manner. Steve Jobs, like great minds such as Winston Churchill, is a beacon at the apotheosis of cognition and passion. The cultural shift towards appreciating and cultivating ingenuity motivates large numbers of all ages to develop and apply their abilities to be great knowledge workers.

The iPad amongst other things delivers on a vision to support reading. Diana Walker published a telling image of Steve Jobs at his desk. Do the disheveled shelves behind Jobs imply that, like most great minds, he was a passionate reader and learner in need of tools to help him learn even more efficiently and effectively?

Luc P. Beaudoin

Here’s the re-post of my first article on Apple’s then upcoming iPad, Jan 26, 2010:

Will the Apple Tablet Support or Hinder Users Cognitive Fitness? (First published JAN 26, 2010, on

By: Luc P. Beaudoin

Rumor has it that Apple is going to announce a tablet com­puter, which may well become a rev­o­lu­tion­ary new way for users to read and expe­ri­ence all kinds of edu­ca­tional content.

Will it sup­port or hin­der our Cog­ni­tive  Fitness?

In this arti­cle, I describe the cri­te­ria that a tablet com­puter and its tech­no­log­i­cal ecosys­tem must meet in order for the solu­tion to make users more knowl­edge­able and smarter. To achieve these lofty goals, the tablet must be much more than an reader. The offer­ing must be an inte­grated learn­ing envi­ron­ment with which users trans­form the infor­ma­tion that they read, hear and view on the tablet into their own knowledge.


The key con­sid­er­a­tion in design­ing such a sys­tem is that pro­duc­tive read­ing is active read­ing. In other words, learn­ing involves a lot of think­ing, writ­ing, draw­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Learn­ing involves antic­i­pat­ing what the author will say, set­ting learn­ing objec­tives, detect­ing knowl­edge gaps, writ­ing com­ments on the doc­u­ment, draw­ing diagrams.

Unfor­tu­nately, today’s com­put­ers do not make this an easy task. Most browsers, for exam­ple, do not inher­ently allow you to anno­tate text (e.g., to make a note of what is impor­tant or you don’t under­stand). Anno­tat­ing requires an add-on, and the anno­ta­tions are usu­ally just text or high­lights that are trapped in soft­ware; they can­not be linked to other doc­u­ments, email or diagrams.

In order to be a suc­cess­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ment, the Apple tablet must match the incum­bent (paper) and also address the cri­te­ria listed below.

Beat The Incum­bent Com­peti­tor — Paper

First, Apple must take into account the major strengths of a tablet’s main com­peti­tor: paper. Despite its many draw­backs com­pared to com­put­ers, paper cur­rently has many advan­tages. Spencer (2006), for exam­ple, has found that her dis­tance edu­ca­tion stu­dents find paper to be more depend­able, flex­i­ble, and ergonomic. Spencer’s stu­dents pre­ferred to print com­plex arti­cles than to read them online.

Paper has a pre­dictable struc­ture and lay­out. It is easy to use and it has a def­i­nite start and end point. Most read­ers can very rapidly access any page of a book, use the table of con­tents, index to quickly nav­i­gate. Read­ers don’t have to wait for a page to load, they can turn it. Also, paper is less busy and less dis­tract­ing: it does not beep while you are concentrating.

More­over, users can write on their own paper to their heart’s content.

These fea­tures present chal­lenges to read­ing and learn­ing technology.

Check­list for a Tablet Com­puter to Make us Smarter

In this sec­tion I focus on some of the fea­tures that can make a tablet a use­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ment. This goes beyond hard­ware, and deals with cog­ni­tive soft­ware and services.

  1. The tablet should have a per­sonal task man­ager. Peo­ple are most pro­duc­tive when they set goals for them­selves that are SMART (spe­cific, mea­sur­able, achiev­able, real­is­tic and timely). Learn­ing is an activ­ity like any other, and would ben­e­fit from such a sys­tem so that when learn­ers approach a chap­ter, for exam­ple, they can set their learn­ing objectives.
  2. The tablet should have a detailed user-activity mon­i­tor. The sys­tem should be able to quan­ti­ta­tively mon­i­tor the amount of time the user spends on each learn­ing resource (each book, each chap­ter, each page) and each type of activ­ity. It should be able to report such facts as: how much time have I spent surf­ing the web as opposed to read­ing? How much time have I spent read­ing actively (tak­ing notes, etc.) vs. read­ing pas­sively (skim­ming)? How much time have I spent draw­ing dia­grams vs. watch­ing youtube? What is my read­ing rate? This can allow the user to set new goals to be more pro­duc­tive in how they learn and use their tablet.
  3. The tablet should have an exten­sive anno­ta­tion sys­tem. This would enable active read­ing. Users should be able to make notes about all kinds of infor­ma­tion: e.g., to select some text in the browser doc­u­ment and then make a com­ment about it. The notes should be attached to the con­tent. Users should also be able to anno­tate PDFs, edi­tor doc­u­ments, dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tions, dia­grams basi­cally any­thing. Wouldn’t it be use­ful to be able to pause a movie and make a note that is anchored to a spe­cific frame or seg­ment? One could then jump to the parts of the movie or pod­cast describ­ing impor­tant mate­r­ial, and skip the rest. Or make a note in a spe­cific part of a physics dia­gram to indi­cate what you don’t under­stand some­thing that can be done on paper. Users should be able to tag not only entire web pages, but any item (such as part of a sen­tence), and they should be able to re-use com­mon tags (e.g., Don’t under­stand, Impor­tant), and eas­ily link items to new or exist­ing tasks (Review this). Users should even be able to over­lay their own links from exist­ing con­tent to exist­ing content.
  4. The tablet should con­tain a rich graphic orga­nizer, so that users can cre­ate con­cepts maps, doo­dles or struc­tured draw­ings. This will allow users to lever­age their visual motor capa­bil­i­ties as they learn. The reader could sum­ma­rize a page with a draw­ing linked to that page.
  5. The tablet should con­tain a pow­er­ful out­liner. An out­liner allows users to orga­nize their thoughts in a hier­ar­chi­cal fash­ion. Users can col­lapse, pro­mote, demote and move entire sec­tions of a doc­u­ment very eas­ily. An out­liner sup­ports think­ing, writ­ing and cre­at­ing sum­maries of lec­tures, books and videos. The anno­ta­tion sys­tem should also embed the out­liner, and allow out­lines to be linked to any content.
  6. The tablet should con­tain a spaced learn­ing (self-testing) sys­tem. We remem­ber much bet­ter when we prac­tice recall­ing from mem­ory. Beyond rote recall, ques­tions can require com­pre­hen­sion. Users (and con­tent providers) should be able to asso­ciate ques­tions with each chap­ter (or page). And users should be able to gauge for each resource what their degree of learn­ing is as mea­sured by the space learn­ing sys­tem (com­bined with the other mon­i­tors men­tioned above). Ques­tions should be link­able to exactly where the answers are found in text, mul­ti­me­dia, etc. And why not allow users to directly add dic­tio­nary entries to their self-testing data­base, so that they never have to look up the same word twice? After cre­at­ing ques­tions, users should be able to enter a review mode to inter­act with their ques­tions and link back to the appro­pri­ate con­tent when desired.
  7. The tablet should be part of a larger sys­tem beyond the tablet. Apple should pro­vide sync­ing ser­vices to allow users to move back and forth between the tablet, an iPod and a note­book or desk­top. Nei­ther the con­tent one pur­chases nor the anno­ta­tions and con­tent one cre­ates should be trapped on the tablet. The dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment should allow for the same book pur­chase (license) to be avail­able on a num­ber (e.g., 3) of dif­fer­ent devices. If one’s tablet is lost or bro­ken, one can still pre­pare for that pre­sen­ta­tion or exam by switch­ing to another machine, with­out los­ing a beat. Sim­i­larly, the sta­tus of the tasks one sets on the tablet should be updated when one moves back to one’s tra­di­tional com­puter. This could lever­age MobileMe and iTunes.
  8. The larger sys­tem should also sup­port col­lab­o­ra­tion. For exam­ple, users should be able to share their anno­ta­tions and other con­tent they develop, so that they can review doc­u­ments and other resources together and learn from each other.
  9. Con­tent should be very afford­able, easy to obtain, and served with an intel­li­gent rat­ing sys­tem so that qual­ity con­tent can dis­tin­guish itself from the rest.
  10. There needs to be a mute func­tion, so that with one action, all dis­tract­ing noti­fi­ca­tions can be silenced, allow­ing one to con­cen­trate on one’s cur­rent task.

The impor­tance of a com­plete solu­tion can­not be ­overstated. It is essen­tial that users should be able to seam­lessly move from their tablets to their lap­tops with all their con­tent intact. This way they will be able to flex­i­bly lever­age the strengths of each platform.

I believe such an inte­grated learn­ing envi­ron­ment can ulti­mately make users smarter and more cog­ni­tively pro­duc­tive. Once Apple releases more infor­ma­tion on its new tablet, I will eval­u­ate it accord­ing to these cri­te­ria to help answer the key ques­tion, Will the Apple Tablet Sup­port or Hin­der Users Cog­ni­tive Fitness?



Adler, M. J. (1927) How to read a book. New York: Touchstone.

Ban­dura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exer­cise of con­trol. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Ban­dura, A. (2001). Social cog­ni­tive the­ory: An agen­tic per­spec­tive. Annual Review of Psy­chol­ogy, 52(1), 1–26. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.1

Beau­doin, L., & Winne, P. (2009). nStudy: An Inter­net tool to sup­port learn­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion and research­ing learn­ing strate­gies. Pre­sented at the CELC-2009 Cana­dian e-Learning Con­fer­ence, Van­cou­ver, BC.

Eric­s­son, K., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term work­ing mem­ory, 102(2), 211–245.

Nes­bit, J. C., & Ades­ope, O. O. (2006). Learn­ing with con­cept and knowl­edge maps: A meta-analysis. Review of Edu­ca­tional Research, 76(3), 413–448. doi: 10.3102/00346543076003413

Nis­bett, R. E. (2009). Intel­li­gence and how to get it: Why schools and cul­tures count. New York, NY: W. W. Nor­ton & Company.

Perkins, D. (1995). Out­smart­ing IQ: The emerg­ing sci­ence of learn­able intel­li­gence. New York, NY: Free Press.

Ren­ear, A., DeRose, S., Mylonas, E., & van Dam, A. (1999). An out­line for a func­tional tax­on­omy of anno­ta­tion (p. 30). Prov­i­dence, RI: Brown Uni­ver­sity Schol­arly Tech­nol­ogy Group.

Roedi­ger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of test­ing mem­ory. Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, 1(3), 181–210.

Simp­son, M. L., & Nist, S. L. (1990). Text­book anno­ta­tion: An effec­tive and effi­cient study strat­egy for col­lege stu­dents. Jour­nal of Read­ing, 34(2), 122–129.

Spencer, C. (2006). Research on learn­ers pref­er­ences for read­ing from a printed text or from a com­puter screen. Jour­nal of Dis­tance Edu­ca­tion, 22(1), 33–50.

Van­Lehn, K. (1996). Cog­ni­tive skill acqui­si­tion. Annual Review of Psy­chol­ogy, 47(1), 513–539. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.47.1.513

Winne, P. (2006). How soft­ware tech­nolo­gies can improve research on learn­ing and bol­ster school reform. Edu­ca­tional Psy­chol­o­gist, 41(1), 5–17.


Next up, a copy of my Second Article on the Apple tablet: Feb 11, 2010. The expression “Brain Fitness” should be replaced by “cognitive fitness”. The key concept is actually cognitive productivity.


Apple iPad Thumbs-Up: Brain Fitness Value, and Limitations (First published Feb 11, 2010 on

By: Luc P. Beaudoin

In a pre­vi­ous arti­cle for Sharp­Brains, I asked whether the Apple tablet (the iPad) would hin­der or sup­port cog­ni­tive fit­ness. Here, I assess the iPad against the cri­te­ria I laid out pre­vi­ously. I then assess its poten­tial for brain fit­ness in gen­eral. I am rely­ing on Apple’s infor­ma­tion; I have not yet used the iPad.


The iPad has been cov­ered all over the net, and Apple has much infor­ma­tion on its web­site, so I will not repeat that here, except to say that the iPad looks like a 9.7 inch iPod with a multi-touch LED-backlit IPS screen. It can run all iPod appli­ca­tions and more. It is a rather spec­tac­u­lar, attrac­tive plat­form for doing all of what you can do with an iPod but with com­pelling pos­si­bil­i­ties that a larger screen presents. It is also an eBook reader and an extremely impres­sive gam­ing machine. It is priced very com­pet­i­tively ($500 and up). I imag­ine that many peo­ple will forgo pur­chas­ing an iPod, a game sta­tion, a net­book and an e-reader and apply their sav­ings to this device.

The iPad itself, and as part of a tech­no­log­i­cal ecosys­tem of prod­ucts that work together, is some­thing which has major impli­ca­tions for the brain fit­ness market.

The fol­low­ing table sum­ma­rizes the check-list from my pre­vi­ous article.

Table 1 iPad Eval­u­a­tion Check-List

Cri­te­ria Assess­ment
Pow­er­ful per­sonal task-manager Yes (Third-party)
Graphic Orga­nizer Yes (third-party)
Pow­er­ful outliner Yes (third-party)
User-activity mon­i­tor No (but within reach of Apple)
Inte­grated self-testing system No (third-party can do part of this).
Major Cog­ni­tive Features
Sys­tem inte­gra­tion and syncing Yes (for what is pro­vided, anno­ta­tions not yet supported)
Rich anno­ta­tion framework No (but it is within reach of Apple)
Col­lab­o­ra­tion Some (anno­ta­tions not supported)
Mute func­tion (Atten­tion Protection) Close (iPad is attention-friendly)
Afford­able, rated content Major pub­lish­ers are on board; book prices cur­rently high; intel­li­gent qual­ity rat­ing sys­tem not announced

1. Appli­ca­tions Checklist

checklistApple has enabled much of what is needed for the iPad to meet the appli­ca­tion cri­te­ria I laid out. The iPad is not just an e-reader, it is an appli­ca­tion plat­form for cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­ity, brain fit­ness and learn­ing. It will run all exist­ing (140,000 and count­ing) iPod appli­ca­tions. Some of the appli­ca­tions I called for are already on the Apple App Store, though they will require (forth­com­ing) enhancements.

I pre­vi­ously noted the need for a task man­ager, a graphic orga­nizer, an out­liner, and a spaced learn­ing sys­tem. These appli­ca­tions will not be pre-installed on the iPad. How­ever, many ven­dors have already announced that their Mac OS X cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­ity appli­ca­tions (includ­ing graphic orga­niz­ersout­lin­ers and task man­agers) are being ported to the iPad. So, we can tick those cri­te­ria off.

Apple has devel­oped specif­i­cally for the iPad inex­pen­sive iWorks pro­duc­tiv­ity appli­ca­tions for com­pos­ing doc­u­ments, spread­sheets and pre­sen­ta­tions. This is implicit sup­port for active learn­ing on the iPad. In addi­tion, Apple’s exist­ing iPod appli­ca­tions are also avail­able for the iPad.

I was puz­zled by the absence of a dic­tio­nary on the iPad home page. Users should not have to research and down­load dic­tio­nar­ies them­selves, par­tic­u­larly since a use­ful dic­tio­nary is avail­able on OS X (its ecosys­tem rel­a­tive).

2. User Monitoring

I expressed the need for a user activ­ity mon­i­tor, which was not pro­vided. What I mean here is that the Apple should include oper­at­ing sys­tem, MobileMe and appli­ca­tion sup­port for mon­i­tor­ing and report­ing on how the user is spend­ing their time across the Apple ecosys­tem. This sup­port should securely and con­fig­urably be use­able by third party appli­ca­tions so that they can report activ­ity and con­sume sta­tis­tics (sub­ject to pri­vacy set­tings). This presents many sig­nif­i­cant sci­en­tific, usabil­ity and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges; but the func­tion­al­ity could be deliv­ered over time in an incre­men­tal, user-friendly fashion.

Why dwell on this? First, user activ­ity mon­i­tor­ing would allow the user to gauge and redi­rect the use of their most pre­cious resource: their brains. The over­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion and activ­i­ties we can per­form on com­put­ers is a major brain chal­lenge. Task switch­ing with com­put­ers is so easy that hard­ware and soft­ware sup­port is required to report on how we are spend­ing our time. Who amongst us pre­cisely knows how much time they really spend writ­ing email, read­ing, etc.?

Sec­ond, user activ­ity mon­i­tor­ing would pro­vide very inno­v­a­tive sup­port for the brain fit­ness needs expressed at the 2010 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit and in the Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness:

  1. Assess­ment is a key com­po­nent of brain fitness.
  2. Inde­pen­dent mea­sures of per­for­mance are required.
  3. Brain fit­ness soft­ware must increas­ingly chal­lenge one’s devel­op­ing abilities.
  4. Brain fit­ness soft­ware needs to keep users moti­vated and engaged.
  5. Some soft­ware should tell us what part of one’s brain one is using.

All those propo­si­tions require sup­port for mon­i­tor­ing the user’s activities.

Apple’s user activ­ity mon­i­tor could con­ceiv­ably pro­vide chart sum­maries of one’s time on YouTube, mail, safari, the phone, tex­ting, etc., across its entire ecosys­tem (iPad, iPhone, OS X). This could allow one to tell one how much time one spends skim­ming con­tent, actively read­ing, writ­ing, draw­ing, etc. One’s read­ing rate could be mea­sured and tracked. The iBooks appli­ca­tion could reflect how much time one has spent inter­act­ing with any given book, chap­ter or page (ditto for other applications).

Apple pro­vides Activ­ity Mon­i­tor for its Macs, but that merely reports com­puter met­rics. There is more to gain in mea­sur­ing how our cog­ni­tive time is spent than the processor’s time.

A user mon­i­tor­ing tool could pro­vide inde­pen­dent mea­sures of per­for­mance so that we can assess the impact of using brain fit­ness prod­ucts on users. Is the user now goal-setting more reg­u­larly with a per­sonal task man­ager than before? Is the user skim­ming much con­tent (and con­se­quently not learn­ing much in depth)? This could be related by third party soft­ware to brain areas: How much time is the user spend­ing lever­ag­ing his or her visual cor­tex (using a draw­ing appli­ca­tion, anno­tat­ing images, watch­ing physics demos)? And what part of the user’s audi­tory cor­tex is he or she lever­ag­ing (pod­casts vs. music)? Is the user tak­ing notes dur­ing the pod­casts? While reading?

Apple prefers sim­plic­ity whereas user mon­i­tor­ing is com­plex. How­ever, Apple has been known to deliver sophis­ti­cated inno­va­tion, e.g., with iPhoto’s face recog­ni­tion. Ulti­mately, Apple could lever­age embed­ded cam­eras for eye track­ing (to detect when one is read­ing vs. away from the com­puter), var­i­ous iPad sen­sors, its oper­at­ing sys­tems, MobileMe or sync ser­vices to inte­grate and report user activ­ity data. This would open huge doors to brain fit­ness soft­ware ven­dors. Only a com­pany like Apple, which con­trols a large part of the ecosys­tem, can deliver a com­pre­hen­sive user-activity mon­i­tor­ing solution.

3. Rich Anno­ta­tion Framework

I noted pre­vi­ously that active learn­ing on a tablet requires a rich anno­ta­tion sys­tem. This would, for exam­ple, allow users to high­light resources, attach notes to them, and browse their anno­ta­tions. Apple has not yet demon­strated anno­ta­tion for the iPad. Granted, anno­ta­tion is a dif­fi­cult nut to crack. It is unfor­tu­nate that many years after the advent of the web, users still do not have a stan­dard way to mark up what they read. Anno­ta­tion capa­bil­i­ties would greatly facil­i­tate active read­ing on the iPad and Macs. There­fore, I will describe anno­ta­tion require­ments in more detail so that indus­try and con­sumers alike real­ize what is needed for the iPad, com­put­ers and e-book read­ers to become more cog­ni­tively use­ful devices.

A large num­ber of anno­ta­tion prod­ucts have been intro­duced in the past (I have led the devel­op­ment of three large ones myself.) Yet anno­ta­tion can­not be ade­quately sup­ported on a piece­meal, application-by-application basis. Anno­ta­tion ulti­mately requires oper­at­ing sys­tem and ecosys­tem ser­vices. Briefly, this is the crux of what is needed:

  • a set of cross-device, oper­at­ing sys­tem ser­vices and appli­ca­tion ser­vices that allow users to eas­ily index (link) and anno­tate arbi­trary, fine-grained resources with a con­sis­tent, sim­ple, yet pow­er­ful user-interface involv­ing high­light­ing, rich text edit­ing, tag­ging, draw­ing, doo­dling, voice record­ing, etc.
  • All types of resources need to be anno­tat­able (web pages, e-books, Mail, pho­tos, PDFs, images, videos, files, third-party resources, etc)
  • an anno­ta­tion browser that allows users to review their anno­ta­tions and quickly access the spe­cific con­tent that they have anno­tated (e.g., as they review for an exam, pre­pare a pre­sen­ta­tion, or write a document).
  • IP sync­ing of user anno­ta­tions to a web ser­vice (e.g., MobileMe) so that users can access their anno­ta­tions and their anno­tated con­tent on mul­ti­ple devices.

Apple is a very con­trolled com­pany, so I imag­ine that if they have not yet pro­vided anno­ta­tion sup­port in its ecosys­tem, it is because they are still work­ing on the prob­lem and want to tackle it in a com­pre­hen­sive and user-friendly man­ner. That is accept­able. How­ever, this being 2010, it is now time for Apple to begin to pro­vide more ade­quate sup­port for active learn­ing. I find it dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how any e-reader com­peti­tor can defeat Apple if Apple were to deliver a proper anno­ta­tion solu­tion. Apple is uniquely posi­tioned to deliver on this, because Apple con­trols the entire ecosys­tem and is usability-oriented. Apple could deliver the func­tion­al­ity in a series of soft­ware updates. Not all anno­ta­tion fea­tures need to be avail­able on the iPad itself, some are more suit­able to Macs.

Until anno­ta­tion func­tion­al­ity is pro­vided, much of the poten­tial of tech­nol­ogy to sup­port active-learning will remain untapped.

4. Sync­ing Ser­vices and Collaboration

Apple seems to have deliv­ered some of the major cri­te­ria I men­tioned regard­ing sync­ing both pur­chased and user-created iPad con­tent, across the ecosys­tem. Pur­chased books, and user-content will be synced through the new iBooks appli­ca­tion (same con­cept as iTunes, but for books). My ecosys­tem cri­te­rion requires that the iBooks appli­ca­tion be avail­able on OS X so that one can read the same book on mul­ti­ple plat­forms (as one can lis­ten to music on a Mac or an iPod). This will be some­thing to watch out for.

One of the poten­tially col­lab­o­ra­tive fea­tures for the iPad is the pro­vi­sion of WIFI shared fold­ers. Also, the iPod has many col­lab­o­ra­tive fea­tures and appli­ca­tions which will trans­late to the iPad. And we can look to third party ven­dors to inno­vate here.

5. Mute Func­tion (Atten­tion Filter)

I called for an eas­ily acces­si­ble mute func­tion for the iPad. It is not yet pro­vided by Apple but the device does have a related design fea­ture, and they do have the tech­nol­ogy to deliver what is needed. The ratio­nale for the mute func­tion is that per­form­ing cog­ni­tively demand­ing tasks, such as active learn­ing and prob­lem solv­ing, involves exec­u­tive brain mech­a­nisms whose per­for­mance degrades sig­nif­i­cantly when they are inter­rupted. As John Med­ina argued inBrain Rules (pp. 84–88), it is a myth that humans are good at multi-tasking. Being bom­barded with noti­fi­ca­tions from email, instant mes­sag­ing, iPhone calls, text mes­sages, Skype/iChat invi­ta­tions, adver­tise­ments, lyri­cal music, etc., inter­feres with pro­duc­tive think­ing and read­ing due to the archi­tec­ture of the brain and mind. In this respect, con­trary to pop­u­lar crit­i­cism, the iPad’s appar­ent lack of multi-tasking may be a very sig­nif­i­cant cog­ni­tive advan­tage.

Apple holds a ven­er­a­ble posi­tion with respect to the poten­tial for automat­ing atten­tion fil­ter­ing. Because Apple pro­vides an ecosys­tem of prod­ucts and ser­vices, it could actu­ally pro­vide an ecosystem-wide mute func­tion. This would allow the user to send a sig­nal to glob­ally sup­press all but the most urgent inter­rupts. This atten­tion fil­ter could pro­vide an unin­ter­rupted block of pro­duc­tive learn­ing, think­ing, etc. Some par­ents might see value in their chil­dren being seduced by a won­drous gad­get that actu­ally encour­ages undis­turbed, active read­ing. Parental con­trols might even allow par­ents to press the global mute but­ton them­selves dur­ing their kids’ (or their own!) home­work time.

6. Afford­abil­ity and Rat­ing of Content

The avail­abil­ity and per­co­la­tion of qual­ity con­tent is a major unher­alded fac­tor for brain fitness.

Abun­dance of con­tent will be a strong point for iPad. Major pub­lish­ers are on board. Oth­ers will need to fol­low to remain com­pet­i­tive. The entire Ama­zon offer­ing will be avail­able with the Kin­dle appli­ca­tion (which seems to remove the need to pur­chase a Kin­dle). Also, the iBooks appli­ca­tion allows con­tent to be down­loaded very intuitively.

Pric­ing will need to evolve with mar­ket pres­sures that are not in Apple’s con­trol. E-book prices ought to be a much smaller frac­tion of a phys­i­cal book than Apple has men­tioned so far. I sus­pect the solu­tion to this lies in the upcom­ing emer­gence of a new breed of pub­lish­ers who will bet on Apple’s iBooks Store. These new, savvy pub­lish­ers will need to com­pete by pro­vid­ing high qual­ity con­tent at low prices. The largest pub­lisher of books 5 years from now might be a com­pany that is as unknown to most of us today as eBay or Google ini­tially was.

When con­sid­er­ing the cost of pur­chas­ing books for an iPad, we need to con­sider the sur­pris­ingly low-cost of the iPad and how much value it pro­vides to users. The iPad is a con­ver­gence device. This sin­gle fact will allow many cus­tomers to forgo the pur­chase of either a net­book, a gam­ing sta­tion, a portable video player, an iPod or other MP3 player. Also, the soft­ware on the App store tends to be afford­able and is abun­dant. It will also give par­ents an addi­tional option to pro­vide a com­puter to their families.

Finally, there is the issue of intel­li­gent rat­ing and per­co­la­tion of qual­ity e-books. Brain fit­ness requires that we read the best con­tent and not be dis­tracted by the rest. Ide­ally, we should spend time read­ing pow­er­ful ideas that “stretch” our minds. Cur­rent rat­ing sys­tems are not up to this chal­lenge; this is an area for inno­va­tion. An intel­li­gent con­tent rat­ing sys­tem would reflect rel­e­vance, orig­i­nal­ity, dif­fi­culty, com­plex­ity, anno­ta­tion den­sity and coher­ence of con­tent, along with other data includ­ing the user’s pro­file. Such a sys­tem could lever­age (future) mon­i­tor­ing and anno­ta­tion data (depend­ing on pri­vacy settings).

In sum, it looks like there will be an abun­dance of con­tent, though pric­ing and rat­ing sys­tems are to be deter­mined.

7. iPad vs. Paper

To deter­mine how the iPad will com­pare with paper will require usabil­ity stud­ies. Hav­ing care­fully ana­lyzed Apple’s iPad keynote address and worked on pro­duc­tive e-reading solu­tions for sev­eral years, the iPad seems very impres­sive to me, even at a distance.

  • The form fac­tor and phys­i­cal han­dling seem right.
  • The multi-touch tech­nol­ogy has over 1,000 sen­sors; it seems very responsive.
  • It uses a pre­mium in-plane switch­ing liq­uid crys­tal dis­play for view­ing from mul­ti­ple angles, which is impor­tant for comfort.
  • Con­tent nav­i­ga­tion is my major con­cern with e-readers. iPad and iBooks have some very impres­sive tricks to match and improve on paper. The tac­tile flip­ping of pages seems very intu­itive. Nav­i­ga­tion to and with the table of con­tents is effi­cient. There is a sub­tle but cru­cial nav­i­ga­tion bar at the bot­tom of the page which reflects one’s place in the book and allows one to nav­i­gate quickly to a par­tic­u­lar page. There are other (fade-out) nav­i­ga­tion controls.
  • The iPad’s anno­ta­tion sys­tem is lack­ing (though there seems to be book­mark­ing), but this is within Apple’s grasp with a soft­ware update.

Reader’s whose eyes can­not han­dle LCD may need to use an alter­na­tive to this inte­grated envi­ron­ment with e-pub for­mat­ted books that sup­port video, ani­ma­tion and so much more.

8. Lack of Adobe Flash: Impli­ca­tions for Brain Games

Adobe Flash is soft­ware made by Adobe that allows users to play videos and run pro­grams within most of their web browsers. Apple refuses to allow Adobe Flash to be installed on iPad, iPods or the iPhone.

This presents a chal­lenge for many brain fit­ness web sites, because they tend to imple­ment their soft­ware using Flash. Should the indus­try be clam­or­ing for Apple to sup­port Flash? I per­son­ally think not, but this is per­haps the source of most frus­tra­tion with the iPad. It is a suf­fi­ciently impor­tant and com­plex issue for me to elab­o­rate on.

Apple’s exclu­sion of Flash is not a mat­ter of com­mer­cial rivalry. (Cred­its to Steve Leach for elu­ci­dat­ing some of the fol­low­ing rea­sons behind Apple’s posi­tion.) In sum, Flash has been plagued by seri­ous secu­rity, sta­bil­ity, per­for­mance and other prob­lems. Here is how that relates to brain fitness:

  • Secu­rity. If the iPad is to be a major brain fit­ness plat­form on which sen­si­tive user and pro­duc­tiv­ity data will be stored (e.g., one’s neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file, one’s IQ rat­ings, etc.), then the absence of some major secu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in an era of increas­ing mal­ware may be advantageous.
  • Sta­bil­ity and per­for­mance. A tablet that slows down, loses bat­tery power too fast, or crashes while one is try­ing to work is not always as use­ful as one that does not.
  • Speed of inno­va­tion. Apple’s not hav­ing to con­tend with third-party ven­dors of vir­tual machines like Flash and Java means that it can more quickly inno­vate and resolve prob­lems with fewer risks. The brain fit­ness mar­ket, which is leading-edge, stands to ben­e­fit from this speed.
  • Flash is a major vec­tor for pornog­ra­phy (though there are other means).
  • Apple and Google sup­port HTML 5 includ­ing open stan­dard alter­na­tives to Flash videos (but not run­ning arbi­trary applications).

The iPad offers a large num­ber of very inter­est­ing hard­ware and soft­ware fea­tures that can­not be lever­aged in a browser via Flash (e.g., accelerom­e­ter, dig­i­tal com­pass, multi-touch dis­play, and a cam­era enclo­sure for future devel­op­ment). Hence, more sophis­ti­cated brain fit­ness appli­ca­tions ought to be writ­ten directly for the iPad. An alter­na­tive for brain fit­ness com­pa­nies that do not want to write a native iPad or OS X appli­ca­tion is to part­ner with thin-client gam­ing com­pa­nies such as

I encour­age read­ers to have a very care­ful look at the Apple iPad keynote presentation’s sec­tion on the app store (and gam­ing), which starts 29 min­utes 48 sec­onds into that video. The iPad seems to be a sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful gam­ing plat­form that will attract many chil­dren and young adults, given its com­pelling value propo­si­tion (not to men­tion the Apple brand itself).

Cus­tomers who pre­fer the advan­tages and cur­rent ubiq­uity of Flash will vote with their dol­lars and have recourse to devices run­ning Google and Microsoft oper­at­ing sys­tems.

Con­clud­ing Remarks

The iPad seems poised to be a com­mer­cial suc­cess. It ful­fills many of the require­ments that it sets out to ful­fill. And it meets many of the require­ments that I called for in my arti­cle. And what it doesn’t do it can poten­tially do with updates. The iPad rep­re­sents a com­pelling new class of con­ver­gence devices. It has a pow­er­ful soft­ware devel­op­ment kit that will be very attrac­tive to devel­op­ers of brain fit­ness appli­ca­tions. The Mac oper­at­ing sys­tem (on which iPad appli­ca­tions are writ­ten) is a ver­sa­tile and increas­ingly pop­u­lar soft­ware devel­op­ment plat­form. So at a min­i­mum, the iPad is a plat­form which the brain fit­ness mar­ket will need to pre­pare for.



Thanks to Carl Forde, Car­rie Spencer and Stephen K. Leach for review­ing and com­ment­ing on drafts this arti­cle.
Related arti­cle

Will the Apple Tablet Sup­port or Hin­der Cog­ni­tive Fitness?


  • Deb­o­rah But­ler, & Phil Winne. (1995). Feed­back and self-regulated learn­ing: a the­o­ret­i­cal syn­the­sis. Review of Edu­ca­tional Research. 65(3), 245–281.
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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.