I’ve been a fairly caustic critic of the iPad, both before and after I became an iPad 2 owner and user back in June. My critique has been intended as constructive from the get-go, in the interest of hoped-for improvement of the breed, since it seems that touchscreen tablets are what the world is coming to whether I’m on board or not.
The iPad seemed to me from the outset to be an answer to a question I hadn’t imagined anyone asking. Complacent in my happiness and satisfaction with laptop computing and OS X as it had been evolving on the Mac desktop, It hadn’t occurred to me that substantial numbers of computer users were less content, and looking for a solution that was more tactile and less technically demanding (or from my perspective – engaging). Who knew? Apparently Steve Jobs and his Apple brains trust.
My own coolness toward the touchscreen tablet concept was predictable. I’ve never seen a fan of touchscreens in any context. It’s always seemed to be a too loosey-goosey a concept compared with the mechanical precision of a keyboard, although to be consistent I guess that was sort of the knock against computer mice and for that matter the graphical user interface when they first came on the scene two decades ago. And I really like the GUI and mouse input. Oh well, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and in my defense I will assert that a mouse is a paragon of precision compared with pawing around on a touchscreen with taps and swipes and other gestures that my particular mind has difficulty remembering, and I find the inevitable finger smears on touchscreens aesthetically displeasing. I’ve made my peace with trackpads on laptops over the years, but I still plug in a mouse whenever it’s practical to do so.
That said, here I sit, typing this blog on an iPad’s virtual keyboard, which I have to concede is one of the things I find less objectionable about working with a tablet than I had anticipated. I’m not a touch typist, so that issue is not in play, and I have to concede that the on-screen keyboard is a lot handier sitting in this rocking chair by my woodstove than any freestanding keyboard would be, and it’s really a better compromise than any sort of mechanical keyboard would be in a machine this small and light. With a laptop, I’d be looking for a table or desk, with a good task chair, ergo, what I have in my office, and it’s a lot more relaxing being here.
Another point is that over the past couple of months there’ve been some developments that have improved the iPad computing environment for my purposes immensely. First, the addition of touch gesture-based application switching in iOS 5 amounts to a quantum leap. I really didn’t like having to double-pump the mechanical Home button on the screen surround to bring up the running applications panel. I switch applications a lot, and while I generally prefer mechanical controls to touch, I wondered how long that overworked little Home button switch would hold up under constant and intensive use. At least you can’t wear out a touchscreen.
One major advance has been the release of an English version of the German-developed TextKraft text processor (ie: more than a simple text editor, but not quite a word processor) for iOS, which opens a whole new page, so to speak, on text entry and editing on the iPad. I haven’t purchased Apple’s Pages word processor app. for iOS. I don’t like Pages on the Mac, and am skeptical that I would like the iOS version any better. There’s also a rumor afoot that Microsoft is gearing up to release an iOS version of Office. I’m not MS Word for OS X’s biggest fan, but I do prefer it to Pages, so that might tempt me, depending on how Word is priced if it does materialize, and whether one will be obliged to buy the entire Office suite in order to get Word.
Regardless, I expect I’ll keep using TextKraft as my main word-cruncher on the iPad. Actually for a lot of composition work, I type and assemble In TextKraft, and do basic document creation in Hog Bay Software’s text editor PlainText, as well as keeping research notes and material open there and switching back and forth between the two apps with the application switcher. It’s not as slick and convenient as having two documents open side-by-side in OS X on my Mac, but it’s a functional solution.
TextKraft, with its array of convenient and efficient text tools that aren’t included in the iOS’s basic text-handling capabilities has convinced me that many of the efficiency limitations and productivity shortcomings of the iPad compared with a laptop are attributable to software rather than any inherent flaw in the tablet form factor. TextKraft is great, but it’s still hamstrung by operating system deficiencies like the iOS’s abominable and maddening text selection function. The TextKraft developers have been able to mitigate some of the system’s lameness, but there’s still no shortage of room for improvement.
Then there’s connectivity, or more pertinently, lack of it. High on the list of complaints about the iPad from the get-go has been the absence of any sort of real USB port, making wireless data transfer the only option outside of the iTunes environment. This has been an arbitrary policy decision on Apple’s part, and not due to size or space limitations of the iPad’s form factor, as evidenced by the inclusion of USB ports on various non-Apple tablets, some smaller than Apple’s slab. I love DropBox (I haven’t bothered yet with iCloud since I’m a foot-dragger abut upgrading to OS X 10.7 Lion) and use it intensively, but I really covet the option of downloading files to thumb drives and making hard wired data transfers.
And since I don’t have a printer that supports wireless connections, I’ve never been able to print anything directly from the iPad, a process that I understand is fraught with pitfalls and angularities. While I’m at it, I also miss the OS X Finder and it’s File directory terribly on the iPad. I like being able to get at my files and documents. Consequently, unless Apple relents, I’m wondering whether, when it comes time to replace the iPad, I may be seriously tempted to go with a non-Apple unit supporting Windows 8, with a USB port and hard wired printing capability.
However, in the meantime, my increasing accommodation with using the iPad as a light-duty production tool may help me postpone my next laptop system update, which would normally have come in early 2012. I want to wait for Intel Ivy Bridge processors anyway, and my late 2008 model 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook is still going great and a rock of dependability, having never missed a beat since I purchased it in March, 2009. I may even entertain upgrading its RAM from the present 4 GB to 8GB, given current friendly prices on memory.
I expect that many folks who own both personal computers and tablets are making similar evaluations that their current PC or Mac is all they need in the near term going forward at least, supplemented by the slate, and thus postponing PC upgrades. The question is whether tablets will continue to improve to a degree that they can eventually displace the PC form factor entirely and become, for all intents and purposes the new PC.
Technologizer columnist Harry MacCracken has already made the conceptual leap, maintaining that it’s possible to use an iPad as one’s primary device for professional-level content creation, since he’s been doing it for the past three months, and says he’s been having a really good time. MacCracken reports that he’s been running Technologizer, writing for TIME, CNET, and AllBusiness.com, and more using his iPad about 80 percent of the time, and his MacBook Air only about 20 percent of the time, and says he has no desire to go back, a development that has startled even him.
A qualifier is that MacCracken is using a ZaggFolio Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad 2, which converts it into a laptop-like form factor, albeit with a radically different set of apps than are available on a notebook, And while he doesn’t recommend that everyone dump their laptops and switch to iPads, based on his first three months as a mostly-iPad person, he’s convinced that he’s arrived in the future of computing, or at least a rough approximation thereof; just a little ahead of schedule. However, he’s anticipating lots of company soon.
IIt’s an epiphany that has eluded me as yet, but I have to concede that I’m being drawn in that direction, despite the frustrations and vicissitudes of working on the iPad as opposed to my laptops. I do, however, think that the boundary between laptops and tablets as two solitudes category-wise is passé. Market research firm Canalys thinks so too, and earlier this year began including tablet data in their PC sales metrics, although competitors Gartner Inc. and IDC continue excluding tablets from PC sales tracking.
Canalys has announced that it expects Apple to overtake HP and become the leading global PC vendor before the second half of 2012, noting that touchscreen ‘pads, particularly the iPad, have radically changed the dynamics of the PC industry over the past year, having already propelled Apple into second place in the worldwide PC market in Q3 2011 by their tablet-inclusive reckoning. Canalys expects PC Ultrabooks to drive PC notebook sales over the next five years. With their differentiated, albeit MacBook Air-derivative appearance, they project that Ultrabooks should spur some consumers to upgrade their existing notebooks.
Personally, I think the best of all possible worlds would be a hybrid clamshell laptop with a detachable display module that could become a fully capable touchscreen computer in its own right when untethered from the laptop chassis/keyboard module. Sort of a 21st Century riff on Apple’s early ’90s PowerBook Duo concept only with the mothership module being a laptop form factor rather than a desktop setup, albeit still fully able to drive a desktop display if desired.
In order for such a rig to be satisfactory for content creation oriented near power-users like me, however, it would have to support a real desktop operating system with a File Directory and wired connectivity (ie: USB 2/3 and Thunderbolt). In many respects Apple is well-situated to design and build a machine like that, only they seem more intent on imposing the deficiencies of the iOS like its touch/gesture paradigms, full-screen mode, and departures from the traditional document-based file system on OS X (eg: the loss of the Save As command in OS X 10.7 Lion), rather than bringing the iOS up to real production platform capability.
That’s why I think Apple’s obstinacy about dumbing down the user interface leaves an opportunity open to Microsoft to accommodate the needs and tastes of those of us who can’t perceive the tablet form factor’s potential advantages, but can’t abide the inefficiencies and inflexibility of the iOS’s crappy execution, to say nothing of Apple’s locked-down iOS application environment.
Cited in a CNET report speaking at a Credit Suisse technology conference, Intel CEO Paul Otellini is quoted saying he thinks Windows 8 will allow tablets to really get a legitimacy into mainstream computing, particularly in enterprises that they don’t have today.
Otellini pointed to Microsoft’s new Metro touch interface, noting that there will be a button that basically takes you back to the classic Windows experience – ergo: one operating system with two different GUIs not running on virtual machines, which would create a huge and unique advantage for Windows 8 because it will be able to take advantage of legacy software as well as all the drivers for mice and printers and every other USB device in the world, including getting photos off your camera and onto a tablet.
Or will Microsoft blow this opportunity? PCWorld’s Ian Paul reports that astonishingly, the current plan is for the traditional Windows desktop to not be included on Windows 8 tablets and other devices running on ARM-based processors, which will get only the touchscreen based Metro user interface.
However, Paul says all is not lost yet for those hoping to see the Windows desktop jump to ARM, according to Windows-focused blogger and author Paul Thurrott, who says Microsoft is still debating whether to include the Windows desktop on ARM devices, and that “Things can change.”
I certainly hope so. IMHO Microsoft would be throwing away a substantial advantage by not making the Windows desktop available as an option on tablets running Windows 8. Personally, I would love to have the OS X file directory based UI available on my iPad, and if Microsoft were to be persuaded to offer the traditional Windows desktop available on tablets, well, while it’s second-best to OS X, it would still be an enticement to make my next tablet a Win 8 unit.