The ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ angle is legitimate

Tech Life

I’m frankly surprised that some tech pundits have made a big deal out of this. Sure, maybe having a whole review revolving around this one angle — is this new iPad with iOS 11 a viable laptop replacement? — is misplaced. Maybe Matt Gemmell is right in his belabouring of the point; and I don’t disagree with John Gruber when he writes:

Again, Apple is not trying to convince everyone to replace a traditional Mac or PC with an iPad. Apple executives say that the Mac has a bright and long future because they really do think the Mac has a bright and long future. Any review of the iPad and iOS 11 from the perspective of whether it can replace a MacBook for everyone is going to completely miss what is better about the iPad and why.

However, in my opinion, things are much simpler than that. I believe that many articles have talked about the iPad as laptop replacement because that’s exactly the thing regular people ask the most about the iPad when they visit Apple stores and electronics stores with a dedicated Apple space inside. And it’s the most frequent question I’m asked by less tech-savvy acquaintances who would like to upgrade their old laptops with something more lightweight and ‘modern’, to use their words. Intrigued by the ‘Pro’ moniker, they ask me: Can I use this new iPad to do this and that stuff I usually take my laptop for? Or: If I get this iPad and the Smart Keyboard, can I just ditch my old laptop and use the iPad instead?

Some simply formulate the question in such fashion out of sheer curiosity: they never used an iPad but have a general idea of what an iPad can do. Some are a bit more informed and they ask whether the iPad can be used as laptop replacement as a way to ask whether the iPad has matured enough to be more than just a tablet for consumption, because that’s the image they’ve been having of it (or because they used to have one of the earlier iPads and it didn’t feel much versatile to them back then). Some picture the iPad Pro as Apple’s version of Microsoft Surface Pro, and since they consider the Surface a laptop replacement — or better, a laptop equivalent — they’re basically ascertaining whether the iPad Pro is in the same league.

But whether tech pundits like this ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ argument or not, many people ask about the iPad, and especially the recent iPad Pros, in these terms. Of course, regular people may be ‘asking it wrong’, and some iPad Pro reviews may be giving too much importance to the whole Can the iPad be a laptop replacement? matter. Surely everything is complicated by the extreme, inherent subjectivity of it all. It’s not possible to give a universal piece of advice here, because different people do different things with their laptops. Because people have different reasons to choose a laptop in the first place. Sometimes it’s all about the hardware: when netbooks were a thing — remember!? — I knew people who got attracted to them merely because of their size. Power and software weren’t really a concern. They were happy to carry around these compact devices to catch up with their email or write Word documents wherever they went. For these people, netbooks were viable laptop replacements.

Other times it’s the software, and all the related workflows. And again, some workflows can be translated to the iPad, or adapted without much fiddling. Some people who don’t need platform-specific software can certainly work from an iPad if the workflow aspect isn’t a roadblock or a deal breaker.

Other times again it’s the general role the laptop plays in one’s tech life: is it a primary machine? Is it — heh — a desktop replacement? (In a famous 1999 advertising campaign, Apple referred to the first iBook as iMac, to go). Or is it a secondary machine, an addition whose main convenience derives from portability and whose main purpose is to take care of temporary tasks while out and about?

In all my years as a Mac consultant, I’ve met a fair amount of people for whom a laptop was simply overkill. But back then, before the iPad, before the iPhone, before the netbook, what practical choice did they have? Pre-iPhone smartphones could be used to handle email, calendar tasks, some very light WAP-sized web browsing. There wasn’t a device that combined a certain subset of tasks and applications, with a laptop-like form factor, all wrapped in the simplicity of an operating system designed for mobility.

The iPad today may not be designed to replace a laptop for everybody, otherwise, as Gruber implies, Apple would just stop producing MacBooks. But for some people it is certainly a solid alternative, because they can use it to carry out all the tasks they previously (under)used a laptop for. For others who just need a secondary device to check stuff while they’re not in their office or home office, a laptop might be overkill, and an iPad the perfect solution. For others, like me, the iPad will never be a laptop replacement, but always an invaluable addition to their personal tech ecosystem.

Matt Gemmell postulates that There’s no such thing as a laptop replacement, and if there were, the iPad isn’t meant to be one. I concede that the iPad isn’t meant to be one, not by design; yet I have witnessed more than once that for some people (most of them not techies — what a shocker) the iPad can definitely be one.

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