When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, they touted it as “The Computer for the Rest of Us,” and it sort of was, at least if one could come up with $2,495 to buy the original Mac 128. That’s kilobytes, in case you’re curious, which was the total system memory. Other very modest specs included the nine-inch, one bit, black and white display, which at least was amazingly sharp and a 400 kB, single-sided 3.5-inch floppy disk drive from which to run both the Mac operating system and any applications. Any files you wanted to save had to be stored on floppies, since there was no internal hard drive. However, the graphical user interface with mouse input was a major advance in versatility, aesthetics, capability, and user-friendliness compared to the dominant text-based command line interfaces of other microcomputers at the time.
I certainly found the Mac GUI almost magical when I stepped up in 1992 to a used 1989 Platinum beige Macintosh Plus with an external 20 megabyte HDD from the Wangwriter II dedicated word processor with a menu-driven text interface that had introduced me to computing as an alternative to my old Remington, Royal and Smith-Corona mechanical typewriters. I’ve been a Mac guy ever since, and an iOS guy as well since I bought my iPad 2 in 2011. However, the Mac remains the computer for me, even as iPads and even iPhones are becoming the computers for many users.
PC Mag’s Tim Bajarin, a longtime iPad aficionado, notes that with the iPad Air, Apple has created the “perfect personal computer for the masses” by adding a 64-bit “desktop-class” A7 processor that can support more robust apps, more innovative services, better multitasking, and cross-device media synchronization that he predicts will be best-in-class for some time. Consumers can expect native apps to be faster, smoother, and more powerful. It sets the tone for other app vendors to do the same with their apps as they move to support this new processor.
I don’t disagree on the substance of his argument, although it remains to be seen how the full-sized iPad will fare in what appears to be another focus shift to seven or eight inch tablets. I do dispute that a screen that small will ever be adequate for serious production work. Yes, I acknowledge that some folks even do content creation on their iPhones, but not without making major compromises. I find even the 9.7-inch panel in my iPad 2 only borderline tolerable for doing real work with. I’m not a big screen addict. My current Mac has only a very modest 1,280 x 800 resolution 13-inch display. But the relationship between the physical size of humans and computing devices hasn’t changed.
Tim Bajarin says his research shows that iPads have taken over as much as 80 percent of computing tasks traditionally done on a PC or laptop and when most consumers are at home, the iPad is the ideal personal computer, and contends the in fact it has become as versatile as any PC on the market. That usage ratio may be generally accurate, but the assertion about the iPad being as versatile as a PC is way over the top. It’s the versatility and flexibility OS X that make me smile when I sit down at my Mac after a session on the iPad. For me it’s more like a 50-50 usage saw-off between iPad and Mac, and I don’t anticipate that ratio changing much unless Apple relents and brings real multi-window multitasking and file system access to the iOS. I’m not holding my breath.
Here’s the thing. If all or most of what you want to do with a portable computer is content consumption – Web surfing, reading and sending email, updating your Facebook pages and/or Tweeting, storing and viewing photos, perhaps occasional writing or even a bit of light duty image editing, then the iPad could indeed be the computer for you. However, I need a portable machine that can comfortably do much more than that. While you can do some sorts of content creation work on the iPad, it’s an inferior platform for that sort of use, which accounts for more than 80 percent of my computer use. I actually do use my iPad for a fair bit of content creation, such as writing this column, but I would be a lot happier doing it on my MacBook except for the use-anywhere capability if the tablet. Tim Bajarin asserts that the iPad Air has tools powerful enough to handle heavy-lifting tasks, and that when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, the iPad Air fundamentally operates like a laptop. I have to disagree on both points. The iPad doesn’t support mouse input, so you’re still stuck with the touchscreen even when using a Bluetooth keyboard or keyboard case, and as Steve Jobs himself observed, the ergonomics of using a touchscreen in a vertical orientation are horrible.
I’ve never considered myself a real power-user. I don’t work with video or do high-end image editing, crunch large amounts of mathematical data, or other stuff for which you need lots of computing power. But I do use a lot of applications and switch back and forth among them frequently. For instance, I just counted and I have 27 apps open right now on my longsuffering iPad 2. I actually use more apps simultaneously on the iPad than I do on the Mac, because iOS apps typically are feature-challenged or one-trick ponies, and less versatile than OS X apps.
Performance unsurprisingly suffers with that many apps open on the ‘Pad, especially since I up(?)graded to iOS 7. The boilerplate advice would be to close some of them to free up some memory, but I keep them open in the first place because I use them frequently, and trips to the app launcher burn up time. In the context of my everyday computing needs, I could never seriously consider an iPad as a sole or even my main computing device unless Apple relented supporting user access to the file directory, real multi-window view multitasking, and mouse support one the iOS, and something equivalent to AppleScript or Automator. I use AppleScript function customization extensively on the Mac, and it is absolutely, non-negotiably essential to work that I do literally every day. And as I said, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.
Apple’s philosophical argument for the way the iOS addresses these matters with app-centric sandboxed documents, full-screen only windowing, and so-called “multitasking” that really amounts to not-very-efficient app-switching (less efficient in iOS 7 than in iOS 6, IMO) was articulated by a comment by Apple CEO Tim Cook during Apple’s Q4 2012 conference call when he noted:
“I haven’t personally played with the [Microsoft] Surface yet, but what we’re reading about it is that it’s a fairly compromised, confusing product, and so I think one of the toughest things you do with deciding which product is to make hard trade off and decide what a product should be and we’ve really done that with the iPad, and so the user experience is absolutely incredible, I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don’t think it would do all of those things very well.”
The Surface runs Windows 8.1 either the stripped-down tabletized RT version in the Surface 2 or the full desktop OS in the Surface Pro, both of which support file system access, multi-windowing for multitasking, and resizable windows — all of which would be more important to me than the Surface’s ability to run Microsoft Office. There are plenty of good word productivity apps available for the iPad, but the problem is you can only view one of them at a time, and documents created will be stuck with that app.
Obviously, I’m in general agreement with Microsoft’s criticisms of iPad productivity support. Windows 8 and Android both do support file system access and multi-window multitasking, and some days I ask myself why I don’t just switch to a Surface or an Android slate. However, both of those platforms have their own issues, and neither supports AppleScript, I prefer Apple hardware, and I really don’t want to switch to another entire ecosystem after more than 20 years on the Mac. I expect that upgrading to an iPad Air would address the performance problem to some degree, but I can’t envision being able to depend solely on an iPad as a replacement for my Mac for many years to come yet unless I’m forced to by platform convergence.