The death of the PC and the rise of the tablet

Survival of the fittest

A lot of PCs that were sold in the past years (pre-iPad era) were purchased by people who actually needed simpler computing tools. But when you only had desktop/laptop computers and operating systems designed for these machines, what choice did you have? So, people who basically needed to do email, Web browsing, some word processing, and the occasional chat, bought a full-fledged computer even if it was overkill for them.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, mobile devices were essentially PDAs. PDAs could handle some of those basic tasks, but they were limited devices: the hardware was barely adequate (small storage, limited connectivity options, small screens, slow CPUs…), and the software was often bare-bones in terms of features — but above all the user interface was just poor (remember browsing the Web via WAP?). Having just a PDA or one of the first-generation smartphones without a PC was largely unfeasible, because these mobile devices weren’t perceived as powerful or flexible, and most of them needed a PC anyway to take advantage of all their features and functionality. They were satellite, not standalone devices.

In more recent years — let’s say roughly from the mid-2000s on — new devices have gradually appeared, more fine-grained tools to address the simpler computing needs of a lot of people. First we had netbooks, then more advanced smartphones and tablets. The netbook’s idea of simplification was largely hardware-oriented: a netbook was a smaller, cheaper, and less powerful laptop. Being cheaper and even more portable than a traditional laptop computer was a winning combination for a lot of people I know and, I guess, for a lot of people in general. There was a (brief) period where every less-tech-savvy person seemed keen on getting one. In my corner of the world, Asus sold a lot of these. Obviously, as the interest for these smaller, cheaper machines rose, their sales increased and sales of regular PCs started to slow down.

With iOS, first on the iPhone then on the iPad, the idea of simplification was not only in the hardware but, most importantly, in the software. Why was the iPad an instant success? I believe because, for the first time, people needing simpler computing tools for the most basic tasks had a well-designed device in their hands, with an operating system that really made things easier to understand and accomplish, making the whole ‘computing experience’ much less intimidating. And, on top of it, an iPad was even more portable than a netbook, with a better user experience, and with an app ecosystem that was already compelling when the iPad debuted and only got better from then on.

An iPad was enough for a lot of people — especially for whom a desktop or laptop PC had been overkill previously. So again, another decline in PC sales. And specifically at this point, I’m really meaning PCs as opposed to Macs. Is it really surprising, in this scenario, that Mac sales didn’t experience the same decline? No, because adding iOS-like touches (no pun intended) in Mac OS X and shipping very portable machines such as the MacBook Air helped Macs become (even) more friendly computers for computer-shy users. (On Windows, we had to wait until Windows 8 for things to move in a similar direction.)

The so-called Post-PC era is really becoming a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. PC sales have been eroded by devices and platforms that have been able to address different computing needs in a more finely-grained fashion. People who today do all or most of their computing on tablets or even big-screen smartphones are people who never needed a full-fledged computer in the first place, but they owned one when there was really no other alternative. So they never upgraded their old PC by getting a new one — they switched to another class of device entirely. Then there are new users who never had a computer, whose first personal device is a modern smartphone, and who instantly realise that they have no need for a computer, so they either update their smartphone or, if they want a bigger screen, they get a tablet.

The reports of their death are greatly exaggerated

Having said that, is the personal computer’s traditional form factor dying? And what about its role? We’re certainly in the middle of a very transformative period, yet I think the ‘death of the PC’ is going to happen later than sooner. We’re at a stage where users have an unprecedented selection of devices, platforms, ecosystems they can choose from. But desktop and laptop computers are still the best option for — I was about to say ‘professionals’ and ‘power users’ — but I think it’s better to say ‘for a category of people who are more comfortable with the flexibility of computers’ operating systems, the type of multitasking and workflows they provide, not to mention the various kinds of peripherals they can interface with.’

Lately, the debate on this subject — “mobile is the future, PCs are doomed” — has taken tones I don’t like. For some people and tech pundits, it seems that if you still like your traditional desktop or laptop computer, you’re the old guard, resisting change and not understanding where technology is headed. That if you keep holding on to your machines, tools and ways of working, not taking devices like the iPad seriously, you’ll soon find yourself on the wrong side of the fence.

I’m happy that some power users are finding new ways to work with their iPad (and now iPad Pro), and I don’t doubt that, as an operating system like iOS becomes more powerful and flexible, the devices it runs on will become even more sophisticated, modular, able to fulfill even more needs, and satisfy even more types of users. But that day hasn’t come yet, and while I’m truly open to change and to evaluate new ways to work with and enjoy the tools I use, I don’t feel wrong or short-sighted for wanting to hold on to my Macs for a while longer.

I prefer using a traditional computer as my main machine because it has a mature, powerful and versatile operating system (Mac OS X) and applications; because lots of banal tasks and actions are still easier to carry out on the Mac (first example off the top of my head: you drop font files in a folder and the fonts are readily available system-wide); because despite the improvements in iOS 9, the kind of multitasking iOS offers is still rudimentary for how I work; because I need big screens and a spatial interface where I can keep multiple documents and apps open and visible at the same time; I also need a visible filesystem because I deal with a lot of files all the time and such files need to go in different folders, sometimes even on different volumes, and I need to have all this hierarchy visible and reachable without effort and waste of time; not to mention the whole user interface and user interaction — the great familiarity with the operating system, years of using keyboard shortcuts to carry out most tasks and navigate throughout the interface, have made me rather fast, efficient, productive when I work with my Macs.

Now, for an increasing number of pundits, the mobile ecosystem, the touch interface, and devices like the iPad Pro, Microsoft Surface, and the like, are ‘the future’ — they’re the direction where we’re headed, and the traditional PC (personal computer) is a paradigm that’s starting to see its sunset, et cetera. I can believe this. I can, in theory, even be okay with this. I have no problem in seeing myself using an iPad-Pro-like device as primary working machine in the future. But it has to be better than a Mac, it has to be worth the switch and the adjustment. Working ‘in new ways,’ taking ‘different approaches to the workflow’ is all fine and dandy; but if the user experience and the interface paradigm are inadequate, if they lead me to do things less productively because I have to jump through hoops to accomplish the same tasks I used to do on a Mac in half the time and one third of the steps, then I fail to see the advantages of leaving the traditional computer and its desktop metaphor behind.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s take iOS, this young(ish) operating system that’s full of promise. I have to generalise a bit here, but humour me: the current opinion, especially when talking about iOS and the iPad, is that iOS still needs refinements, improvements, cohesion, to make a device like the iPad Pro express its full potential. It needs an even better multitasking. It needs better, deeper, more consistent ways to interface with the Smart Keyboard and other external keyboards. It needs to be more flexible. Applications and the data they produce need more interoperability. And so on and so forth.

To recap and simplify: iOS needs to be more complex and less ‘rigid’ than it is now. And here lies the problem I see ahead: maintaining the balance between simplicity, transparency, and user-friendliness — all qualities that have won so many people over — and a certain amount of necessary complexity to transform a device like the iPad Pro into a powerful machine truly capable of replacing a computer even for ‘serious,’ professional work.

Because one of the risks I see on the horizon is that iOS and similar mobile operating systems could evolve in a direction of complexity that ultimately brings them to function — guess how? — just like the operating systems we have on traditional computers today. Following this reasoning, in ten years we could be using devices that are as complex as computers today, only with a multi-touch interface and a bit more portability/convenience. Sure, maybe more people would be using them than PCs today, and more proficiently. Perhaps that would be enough to call it a victory and a great step in the evolution of computing. To me, it looks a bit like going round in circles. We end up with personal computers anyway, only with a different form factor and a slightly different way of doing things on them.

This vision may seem a bit extreme, but look at the iPad today. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they could switch to an iPad as their only machine if it behaved in a certain way (read: more like my computer). Look at an iPad in its more ‘productive’ configuration — it looks like a smaller laptop. Look at the new Microsoft Surface line, look at the Surface Book — do you see a tablet or a laptop computer? I find ironic that for these tablets to fully replace traditional computers, they have to behave more like them.

In the end, I think that the most likely scenario is still the one described by Steve Jobs’s famous metaphor, the one about trucks and cars. At the D8 conference in 2010, he said:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.

We should celebrate the diversity of the technological tools we have available, and push every one of them to do what they do best. Why not have an even more finely-grained scenario where everybody wins because they can choose whatever tool best fits their needs or their ways of working? Why — to use Jobs’s metaphor — do certain neomaniacs in the current tech debate keep insisting that in the future we should only have cars just because they don’t have a need for trucks? Better yet, the future they see is a future of hybrid vehicles — cars that can be modified to do truck-oriented work through a series of accessories and add-ons, if the need arises. But at that point, isn’t it better to have the right tool for the job instead of Swiss-Army-knife devices that can potentially carry out many tasks, but actually, really excel at just a few of them?

Tim Cook said that Apple won’t merge iOS and OS X anytime soon, and that the Mac isn’t going anywhere. More recently, talking about the iPad Pro, Cook said to view it as ‘the future of personal computing’ and, as quoted by Macworld, in an interview with The Telegraph he also said:

I think if you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one? Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones.

I think Apple is going exactly in the direction of that finely-grained scenario I was mentioning above, offering people a wide range of different devices to cover every degree of complexity they need, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing or working on. From big-screen 5K retina iMacs, to Mac Pros, to notebooks, subnotebooks, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, entertainment devices for the living-room (Apple TV), to cars (a real car, we’re now out of Jobs’s metaphor). “Many, many people” will use iPads as a replacement for notebooks, but there will also be people who will still use traditional computers, and perhaps iPads and iPhones as satellite devices or secondary machines. Things don’t need to be clear-cut at all costs, and I think Apple knows it. Apple is making sure that, whatever is the fittest device or platform to survive, you’ll be able to buy it from them.

 

To conclude: use whatever device and platform you’re comfortable with, that works best for you and fits your needs best. Keep an open mind, and change habits and workflows if a different device or approach brings concrete advantages and benefits. The future of computing is marked by the hardware and software that is actually shipped, and how people react to those, not by idle talk and the topic du jour in tech debates.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!