Forget iPads and Tablets, Laptops and Desktops Rule

Wednesday Feb 9th 2011 by Serdar Yegulalp

Amid the lemming-like movement, something essential is overlooked: tablets are quite limited computing devices.

I could run out of fingers counting the number of articles I’ve seen in the past few months that triumphantly predict the demise of the desktop and notebook, and the rise of the tablet. Toss those clunky old keyboards and mice; it’s touchscreen time!

It’s a tempting narrative: Old and Busted eclipsed by New Hotness. It’s also an unrealistic and limited one.

What strikes me first and foremost about the whole “tablets will kill everything that’s not a tablet” story is how it’s used as a proxy for all the different dissatisfactions people have with desktop PCs and notebooks. It’s not that we woke up one morning and realized we’ve hated desktops and notebooks all along, and now want to chuck them into the first bonfire we can find.

It's more like, tablets present us with what look like handy solutions to a bunch of things we never liked about PCs and notebooks anyway. The clunkiness of external pointing devices, the bulk of the keyboard, the annoyances of PC maintenance (something the iPad all but does away with thanks to its closed design)—who doesn’t resent all this stuff? And so the tablet is poised as a PC- and notebook-killer, because of how it does away with all those annoyances. (Never mind that it ultimately just replaces them with a set of different ones.)

I’m reminded, more than anything else, of the hubbub that erupted when the Segway first appeared. It turned out to be a solution that didn’t displace enough of a problem to be worth it for most people. Aside from the sheer cost of the thing, it turned out to be only useful in a very limited number of scenarios. Nobody ditched their bike for a Segway—bikes don’t need recharging, are a lot easier to chain up outside the grocery store, and you get a better workout with it.

There’s a lot about the new breed of tablets to like, but the depth of your affection for them will be measured by what you actually plan to do with them. If you’re someone who uses a computer mainly as a way to retrieve data, a tablet makes sense: you don’t need to type as much, and your interactions with the system are mostly limited to choosing from menus.

A similar refinement of approach took place back when restaurants replaced their general-purpose cash registers with models designed to ring up what was on the menu. That made sense: it took far less time to tally someone’s order that way, and you could always override the menus and punch in a custom value if you needed to.

Still, how many use scenarios are there that will not end up being unintentionally hamstrung (or at least made that much more tedious) by switching to a tablet? Anyone who does more than a provisional amount of typing hates dealing with onscreen keyboards.

It’s not just the lack of tactile feedback—it’s the way the tablet form factor becomes very awkward when typing on a screen, and how at least 50% of your screen space is being sacrificed for something which on other computing devices is a standard-issue item. The tip of a finger is no substitute for the precision of a mouse—especially when you’re dealing with something that requires a 22” display to be rendered halfway accurately.

And if you need to carry a sidecar keyboard around with your tablet to make it useful … well, I thought the point of a tablet was that you didn’t have to lug around all that other stuff.

The conventional PC/notebook may come with a price tag and a certain amount of clunk, but it empowers users in ways that tablets simply can’t—at least, not yet. There’s a reason tablets are being positioned mainly as secondary or tertiary computing devices—something you take with you when you’re walking the shop floor, or into the boardroom for a presentation.

But when you sit back down and need to get real work done, as opposed to just tabulating and collating (or browsing and displaying), you’ll do all that with a keyboard and a mouse and decently-sized screen. It’s silly to believe that people will rush right out and deny themselves perfectly useful tools for getting things done, all for the sake of embracing the new.

I’m consciously avoiding most of the more prosaic arguments used to attack tablets. You’ve heard most if not all of them by now: the Why Buy A Tablet When You Can Get A Full-Blown Notebook For Roughly The Same Cost argument; the Why Spend Money On Something That Doesn’t Even Run My Desktop Software argument (which applies mainly to the iPad and ‘Droid-powered tablets); the Who Can Afford Another Computing Device In This Economy argument.

To me, all of these are somewhat secondary to the main problem: a tablet isn’t a PC or a notebook, shouldn’t try to be one or be positioned as one, or pressed into service as one. It’s from this mistaken view that most, if not all, of the problems with tablets seem to spring.

One thing I do see happening is the further hybridization of the tablet and the conventional desktop or notebook. Hewlett-Packard seems to be leaning in that direction with their new TouchSmart line of PCs. Slate-style notebooks that convert between tablet and conventional notebook form factors have been around for a while, although for a long time they were hidebound by the limits of touch technology. (People didn’t like using a stylus with a smartphone, and they didn’t much like it with a slate PC either.)

The full-blown PC, the notebook, the slate, the tablet—all of these things have lessons they can teach each other, while at the same time cultivating their respective niches. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but all of them are important.

The real point of the tablet is that it isn’t replacing anything. It’s a new kind of device, one suited to a specific subset of behaviors. If we think of it as the death knell for conventional desktop-based or notebook-based computing, or something equally overblown, aren’t we just ignoring its real capabilities?

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