Tablets are bicycles


At the end of an overall good article, Ben Bajarin writes:

I’m still as bullish as ever on the tablet’s potential. However, my concern is consumers may be extremely stubborn and lean heavily on past behavior and familiarity with PCs instead of going through the process to replicate the workflows and activities they did on their PCs and transition to tablets. This is a year where Apple needs to take great strides in software around iOS for iPad if they want the iPad to become more than it is today and truly rival the PC in the minds of the consumer. While tablets have no doubt grown up, they still have a little more growing to do if they want to truly challenge the PC and Mac.

I don’t understand this insistence on having to transition from a device to another. Why PCs/Macs and tablets have to be an either/or proposition? In my view, “leaning heavily on past behavior and familiarity with PCs instead of going through the process to replicate the workflows and activities [consumers] did on their PCs” isn’t a matter of stubbornness, it’s just common sense. Especially when ‘replicating the workflows’ actually means ‘going through a series of new convoluted steps to achieve on a tablet something resembling the original workflows on the computer’. For some (many?) people, it’s just not worth it. The scenario in which one uses both a traditional computer and a tablet is still much preferable, because you get the best of both worlds and you can be productive with much less friction (apologies for the use of trite tech buzzwords here).

Joe Cieplinski put it better and more succinctly than I ever could:

I stopped thinking of iPad as a replacement for anything a long time ago. It’s a device you use in specific ways for specific things.

Yes, for many users, an iPad alone can be all the computer they need. Apple sells a ton of iPads to these people. But replacing your PC is not the only use for an iPad. It’s not even the most interesting one.

I use my iPad in places where a laptop wouldn’t be as good. I use my laptop in places where my iPad wouldn’t be as good. I have no desire to get rid of either of them.

Everyone knows the famous Steve Jobs’s metaphor when he first talked about the ‘Post-PC era’, comparing traditional computers to trucks and tablets to cars. I have another metaphor for you, which I think best describes the situation at present: traditional computers are cars, and tablets are bicycles.

There are certainly a few advantages in using a bicycle instead of a car: it’s more portable (you can take it into your apartment when you get home), it has fewer parts that may break down, you can carry it almost everywhere, it doesn’t pollute the environment, in certain situations it’s more practical than a car and you can actually get to work in less time if you live in a particularly traffic-congested city. But a car better protects you from the elements and in case of impact with another vehicle, a car runs faster and you don’t have to push it yourself to make it go; a car gives you comfort and many other conveniences; a car can carry more people at once, plus luggage; in a car — provided you do so responsibly — you can more easily multitask than on a bicycle; and so on and so forth, you get the idea.

So, while there are people who can easily transition from using a car to using only a bicycle, that doesn’t mean everyone can. Or should. If one can easily carry their family and luggage on holiday by fitting everything and everyone on a car and reaching a faraway destination in a reasonable amount of time, why should they ‘replicate the workflow’ by putting each family member on a bicycle, splitting the luggage among bicycles, and painfully pedalling for days and days until they reach their holiday destination? Bicycle fans will tell you that it’s actually awesome and you even get to exercise and it’s good for your health! Yeah, sure. Or they’ll tell you: I’ve done it, it’s totally possible; if I did it, anyone can. Okay.

That’s how tablet-only advocates often sound. And back to the tablet: a full transition from a PC or Mac to just a tablet would make sense if the advantages vastly outweighed the downsides (or annoyances, or impracticalities), but as a heavy user of both a Mac and an iPad, I can say that, today, it’s still not the case. Every day I find myself doing something on the Mac that, while not impossible to perform on an iPad, is objectively faster and simpler to achieve on a traditional computer. Then there are tasks that are easier to perform on the iPad, of course, so I grab the iPad. This is my idea of ‘continuity’ when working. This gives me a fair amount of efficiency because I combine what’s effortless on the Mac with what’s effortless on the iPad. I don’t waste time, energy, productivity, in forcing square pegs into round holes.

Is mine some kind of laziness? Not really. When I have time, I like to explore what iOS can do in scenarios I’d go to the Mac first. But when I have time, not when I need to finish an assignment and the deadline is looming. What tablet-only advocates seem to not get about non-geeks is that they treat tablets (and phones) like appliances. They follow the path of least resistance. They typically enjoy the device up to the point where the learning curve starts getting steeper. They recognise whatever is simple to do on a tablet, they quickly learn how to do it, but when it’s time to actively extract additional functionality from the device, they rarely have the patience to research specific apps, learn how these apps can interface with others, put together a workflow that involves too many steps or jumps from app to app. To be honest, I can’t blame them. To make a tablet act like a traditional computer — and to become equally efficient and productive on a tablet like one is on a traditional computer – is still more complicated than simply putting the tablet aside for a moment and using the computer for the tasks it typically excels at.

Making tablets even more useful by wanting to add ‘more pro features’ is great and all, but the balance between outward simplicity and under-the-bonnet powerfulness is a delicate one to preserve. Apart from some minor feature discoverability issues, I think Apple has done a nice job so far with iOS in this regard. But feature creep is a serious threat to iOS’s simplicity and approachability. That’s why I think that, going forward, the difference between ‘consumer’ and ‘pro’ iOS devices has to grow. This way, an iPad Pro can afford to have a slightly more complex operating system, with additional gestures, features, support for specific pro peripherals, etc.; the target audience won’t mind the added complexity if it brings much more power and versatility. While those consumers who just need a friendly, general-purpose appliance, can safely shop for a ‘regular’ iPad and enjoy the low learning curve and immediacy that have been the main reason of the iPad’s (and iOS’s) success.

This way everyone wins: those who want to rely solely on a bicycle can get a pretty powerful one; those who are happy with the flexibility of having both a car and a bicycle can get a nice, lightweight bicycle when they want to grab one.

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