New roads or roads well-trodden? Reinventing the laptop

The debate among technology pundits about the tablet’s ability to serve as a productivity device is fierce. Apple’s iPad marketing “What is a computer?” has further fanned the flames, as the company is intentionally positioning the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement. I doubt few would argue that the iPad isn’t a computer. But, its design and human interaction breaks away from its laptop cousin. To me there is a more interesting question. Should the iPad forging a new road for what computing could be, or is it following a well-trodden road that will recreate what we already have? Everyone in the technology industry is waiting to see if the iPad (or tablets generally) will become a touch-first version of Windows or macOS (hopefully with keyboard and mouse support and a real file system).

Apple events have become a bit of a bore in recent years, thanks to the continuous stream of leaks from its supply chain. This year’s October event took some journalists aback. Apple updated two of its languishing products — the Mac Mini and the MacBook Air — with new internals and design changes. For once, the fruit company gave people what they want, probably to end complaints from users. It’s not a coincidence (according to Rene Ritchie from iMore) that Apple also unveiled a completely overhauled iPad Pro, which comes in 11 and 12.9 inch variants. Apple refreshed two distinct computing lines — a legacy platform followed by its flagship tablet. Apple has clearly positioned the iPad as the future of computing — noting that its A12X Bionic chip is faster than ninety-two percent of PCs sold this year.

Some amazing accomplishments

I’m not in the market for new devices, but I went to my local Apple Store to compare what Apple announced. The MacBook Air was an updated, yet nostalgic, device. Podcaster Leo Laporte adeptly described it as “Mom’s home cooking.” It feels just like the Mac should. Classic. It’s like coming home to your familiar surroundings after being away on a trip. (In this case I was vacationing in iOS land). The Mac was finally thrown a bone.

In contrast to the Mac, the new iPad Pros are something completely new. The 2018 model is very different from previous generations. (I cannot stress enough how different the look and feel of the product is). It’s angular, light, well balanced, and ergonomic. Everything about the hardware screams ‘the future.’

The internal hardware is exceptional. Apple has the unique advantage of being able to develop its own silicon for its tablets. As a result, the A12X Bionic chips screams — rivalling Intel’s i7 series found in the MacBook Pro which is a considerably more expensive machine. The iPad Pro has USB-C — allowing it, in theory, to connect to a variety of devices.

But, this begs the question: does all this overhead and performance matter if the iPad doesn’t function the way we expect a laptop to function? Is Apple’s goal to continue limiting iOS (a phone operating system), or will it start to ramp up iPad-specific features. The iPad has truly outclassed the Mac in terms of performance. But, does this matter if iOS is crippled? What is the end game? No user wants to bet their hard earned dollars on a losing horse. The speed of these new mobile devices is so ridiculous that it begs one to speculate about Apple’s roadmap.

Computer replacement?

In his review of the iPad Pro, long-time Apple reporter Jason Snell sums it up in the title: “A computer, not a PC.” Snell points out that the iPad is a new thing, and it shouldn’t be compared to a PC. However, the pricing, the power of the processor, and its incorporation of USB-C (also found in the Mac) means “…Apple is sending a clear message: The iPad Pro is not meant to be a toy or a curiosity or an alternate device.” As a result, the iPad still needs to hold up its promise of being a laptop replacement, even if the path to get there is unconventional.

“But just because the iPad Pro needs to be taken as seriously as a computer doesn’t mean it should be judged as a PC. The iPad is not a computer, not as the term’s been defined for the past 40 years. It’s something new and different, and it excels in some ways that PCs don’t while also struggling to do some things that PCs do well.”

— Jason Snell, Six Colors

While the iPad Pro now features a USB-C connector, users might find that it doesn’t function exactly like its Mac or Windows counterparts. External storage isn’t recognized by the Files app, and USB drives can only be seen by some apps. The iPad Pro can power a 5K display but it only mirrors content. A USB keyboard will function, but there is no mouse support. In fact, there is a whole list of ‘computing’ functionality missing on the iPad if you’re comparing it to a PC. I’m not going to list those factors, but I’ve provided links to some reviews at the end of this article.

Crossroads in computing

The current situation in computing is uncomfortable. Apple has clearly created two divergent computer lines — the Mac and the iPad. The Mac has traditionally been the productivity-focused task monster, and in recent years it’s become more mobile. The iPad began as a humble middle device that balanced some productivity with content consumption. It was a companion device. The iPad is certainly easier to pick up and use for basic tasks. (Though, I would argue it’s more difficult to use for productivity tasks since the user must rely on an increasing number of non-discoverable gestures and features).

The debate around what a computer is tends to reach a stalemate when we try and envision productivity ten to twenty years from now. One argument is that the mouse, keyboard, file system-based computer cannot be replaced. iPad will simply reinvent what we already have, but with a mobile-first approach. The other argument states that the generation that grew up with touch-based devices (i.e. not me) will approach work very differently than we do now; it’s this upcoming generation that will expect this iPad-like device their desks when they enter the workforce. In other words, us laptop users are just “stuck in our old ways.”

Perhaps the iPad of the future will recreate the Mac with the form factor and touch interface of a tablet.

Perhaps the iPad of the future will recreate the Mac with the form factor and touch interface of a tablet.

There is some merit to the second argument. You see many iPads in colleges across North America. There is evidence that computer multitasking (having lots of windows open) just isn’t possible without having adverse effects on productivity. Perhaps the multi-window operating systems we’re used to don’t actually help us be more productive. There’s also skepticism about the existence of the ‘digital native’. Todays kids aren’t born tech savvy like we think, and there’s no evidence we can actually multitask. These arguments should give us pause. Yes, the iPad can’t run as many programs side-by-side, but perhaps focusing on one thing at a time is just fine.

On the other hand, there are other non-iPad devices that are killing it in education. Chromebooks are not traditional computers, but they have the look and feel of a laptop — albeit with ports and a file management system. Many K-12 institutions prefer Chromebooks to the iPad. The presence of a keyboard and pointing device is still superior for an environment that requires lots of writing. This would lend credence to the argument that the iPad — regardless of your view of what a computer should be — needs to offer a compelling typing experience to be a viable laptop replacement.

Based on my own observations of K-12 education, kids in school are either using newer versions of Windows or Chrome OS as their primary platform for homework. Both are very much traditional in terms of their dependance on the keyboard, pointing devices, and approach to file management. Despite the advances in the cloud and collaborative software, today’s desktop systems are remarkably similar to those I used in high school.

There’s also a third argument: people can move between these computing paradigms fluidly. I’m a millennial, but I still fall into an age bracket that is steeped in the mouse and keyboard workflow. I like my power user tools and flexibility damnit! That being said, I’m aware that younger generations might find my archaic dependance on the Terminal and menu bar strange. Workflows are very much rooted in taught norms. Multiple approaches to workflows exist. The question is whether touch-first devices represent a viable alternative to traditional desktop operating systems. There’s also the Apple Pencil. It’s an amazing drawing tool, but it’s not a mouse. It’s a different kind of tool for a different kind of device.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, he positioned it as the third device category.

““If there’s going to be a third category of device, it’s gonna have to be better at these kind of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone. Otherwise, it has no reason for being…”

— Steve Jobs

His analogy of cars and trucks is more true than ever before. The iPad is a simple car that can do the low-level (simple) computing tasks. It’s overkill to use a laptop — the truck — for these tasks, but it will still exist for those heavy workloads.

Oh, and one more thing. I wrote this entire piece on my 2016 9.7 inch iPad Pro with keyboard. I drew the images using the Apple Pencil. While I’m not the first to do this, it demonstrates two things. First, the iPad can be used for work. Obviously it can be. I’m not this guy…

Nilay made this point on Vergecast, but the people who have replaced their laptops with an iPad are people who do fuck all work. The rest of us hard working people use a laptop, because we have real stuff to do other than send emails and fart around. Don’t @ me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) November 15, 2018

For creating written content, editing web page layouts and sizing images, it works really well. Second, if I can do this on an older, less powerful device, what is the value proposition for a $1000 iPad Pro? Why not keep the product line that Steve Jobs envisioned? Would Apple’s $500 iPad from this year worked just as well? I think it would…

“It’s so much more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a smartphone”

— Steve Jobs on the iPad

This is why the debate about what a computer is supposed to be is actually quite complex. People from a certain generation do have entrenched workflows that don’t translate well to a gesture-based platform like iOS. That might not be completely the case for people from a younger generation that grew up with tactile computing. However, the power of these devices — though remarkable — is hampered by an operating system designed for a phone. And, maybe that’s ok. The iPad doesn’t have to walk the same path as the PC; tablets can forge a new path and be their own thing. Personally, I think they should.

Jason Snell sums up the value of the iPad perfectly, as it details his experience in everyday life.

“At home, the existence of the iPad rapidly reduced the amount of time I spent using my laptop in the house. It felt much more natural to read comics, check Twitter, peep in on emails, and the like from an iPad. My love of the iPad meant that it was a must-carry device for any trips I took, which meant that all of a sudden I was taking a laptop and an iPad everywhere I went”

— Jason Snell, Six Colors

Alternatively, if tablets are supposed to replace our laptops and become our one device, their path will have to intersect with well-trodden roads of old. Apple will have to recreate the laptop we have, using the iPad as its base. To replace my Mac, the iPad will have to become a Mac.

Discussions about the iPad and computing

iPad Pro Reviews

Originally published at on November 27, 2018.