Trucks, Cars and Vespas

Thanks to a friend I acquired an iPad mini for an Android tablet price. I was one of many Apple-leaning folks who was originally pretty skeptical of the 7″ form factor. (The ghost of Steve Jobs compels me to point out that the iPad mini is really 8″, thus not technically betraying his own anti-7″ preference.) But it really is better for most of the things that I do with a tablet, which mostly involve content consumption rather than creation.

You may have winced at that last phrase, content consumption rather than creation. I wince when I read it (or type it); it’s the standard knock against iPads, the thing Microsoft wants us to believe isn’t true of the Microsoft Surface, the thing Amazon embraces wholeheartedly. The last couple of years are full of Apple-leaning pundits, including me, demonstrating all the ways in which we can create on iPads, dammit. I’m using Byword on the iPad mini right now!

But if I was using Byword on the Mac, it’d be showing formatting as I typed. I’d be able to prepare “final copy” in HTML or RTF. I’d be able to use Brett Terprstra’s Markdown services. And I’d have already linked the phrase Markdown services because I could have a browsing window and an editing window open at the same time.

Let’s stop praising how the iPad makes us focus on single tasks. No. It doesn’t. It makes us focus on a single application, and if it’s a document-based application, just a single document. A Twitter window next to a window I’m writing a short story in is a distraction, but a window with my story notes next to the short story window is not—it is, in fact, part of my single task.

You’re just clinging to the old way of doing things. Computers are trucks and most people don’t need trucks, they need cars. Tablet sales are going up up up and traditional PC sales are falling. Way of the future.

Yes, true. Tablet sales are rising as PC sales fall. But are you sure that means what you think it means?

How many people buying iPads are buying them as their first computer? There ae charming anecdotes about 90-year-old grandmothers who’ve done that, but tablets seem to overwhelmingly be in the hands of people who already own computers. Maybe they’re buying an iPad instead of a laptop, but it seems most of them are buying an iPad to have an iPad. PCs and tablets are related markets, but not the same market. The PC market hasn’t stopped expanding because iPads are cannibalizing it; it’s stopped expanding because it’s saturated.

Am I saying Steve Jobs’ famous cars and trucks analogy was wrong, then? Sort of. Desktop computers may be trucks, but the laptops are the cars. That’s why they’ve been outselling desktops for years. Tablets are motorcycles. Maybe Vespas. They’re fun and in some circumstances they’re genuinely your best choice, but most people just aren’t going to get by with them as their only vehicle.

This isn’t a knock against tablets (or Vespas). It’s just a recognition that you have to use the right product for the right task. Using an iPad for reading and web browsing and casual gaming feels natural, more so than using a laptop. For writing (let alone coding), though, this isn’t the case. And while each new iteration of iOS, Android and Windows God We Gave You Back The Start Button Please Love Us Again1 will give us more theoretical reasons to leave our laptops at home or the office, I’m not convinced this is solely a matter of missing operating system functionality. It may be that some tasks just don’t map that well to a user experience designed around direct object manipulation. It may be that spreadsheets and word processors, for instance, will always be better with a hardware keyboard and a trackpad—and I remain dubious that the Microsoft Surface represents the best way to solve that.

  1. While I thought that was a catchy name, too, I’m told it’s been renamed due to a copyright infringement claim. 

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    On a personal note, I’ve stopped carrying my laptop on trips out of town, and only carry my iPad. Does that count as a...
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