The reports of the iPad’s death may be premature

I’ve seen a number of articles recently declaring the iPad to be, in effect, a failed experiment: not powerful enough to replace a full computer for “power user” productivity tasks, and with little utility that separates them from phones with oversized screens. Yet two or three years ago many of these same writers were declaring the iPad—and tablets in general, but really just the iPad—to be the next evolution in personal computing, as big a leap forward as the GUI and mouse.

I was a little contrarian about that, writing this time last year that Steve Jobs’s famous analogy of PCs being trucks and tablets being cars might be wrong:

While each new iteration of iOS […] 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.

While I still think this is true, I’m feeling a little contrarian again, because I believe the first sentence in that paragraph is still true, too. Tasks that do map well to a user experience designed around direct object manipulation are likely to get easier with each new release of iOS (and Android and Windows Whatever), and with each release there will be some tasks that weren’t doable before that are now.

I’ve also felt for some time—and I believe I’ve written this in the past, although I’m not going to dig for a link—that ideas can and will migrate from OS X to iOS over time, not just the reverse. And it’s always struck me as a little bonkers when people say that Apple’s “post-PC vision” will never include better communication between apps, smarter document sharing, and other power user features. OS X is friendlier than Windows and Linux, but it’s a far better OS for power users than either Windows or Linux, too. While I think it’s true that Apple has no intention of exposing the file system on iOS—let alone exposing shell scripting—that doesn’t mean that their answer to all shortcomings of iOS for power users is going to be “That’s not what iOS devices are for.”

So, this brings us around to Mark Gurman’s report that iOS 8 will have split-screen multitasking. I don’t know whether it’s true (although Gurman’s track record has by and large been pretty good), but this is one of the biggest shortcomings for power users on an iPad—as much as we may celebrate the wonders of focus that one app at a time gives us, in real world practice, working in one window while referring to the contents of another is something that happens all the time.

The big question for me is the feasibility of the “hybrid” model, tablets with hardware keyboards or laptops with touch screens. We don’t have the latter in the Mac world, but the Windows world not only has them, touch has become pretty common on new and not-too-expensive models. Anecdotally, people like them. To me, a tablet with a hardware keyboard makes more sense than the touch laptop, simply because you can take the keyboard off and not bother with it most of the time. While I’ve joined in mocking the Surface’s implementation of this, it may truly be Microsoft’s implementation that’s at fault, not the whole concept.

At any rate, I’m not only not expecting the iPad to be subsumed by “phablets,” I’m expecting iOS to start delivering on distinctly “power user” features over the next few versions. I’m happy with my MacBook Pro in a way I wouldn’t be with only an iPad and there will always be people who will say that. But the future of computing is a trend toward computing as appliance. Right now, there’s a measurable gap between what computing appliances do and what general computers do. And it sells Apple short to suggest that they never plan to address that gap with anything more than “we don’t think our customers need to do any of that.”

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