Last week it was announced Apple is on track to becoming the world’s number one vendor of personal computers. By some estimates they will overtake Hewlett Packard sometime during the second half of 2012. This prediction is based largely on Apple’s stellar growth throughout 2010-2011, but most notably, by factoring in sales of the popular iPad tablet—a device one Wired Magazine columnist solemnly proclaimed as “a computer with limited capabilities”.
A fair assessment? Depends how much you like to tinker around with the operating system or install “unofficial” applications Apple may deem too risqué or inferior for the App Store. If your answer is yes: I like the freedom to install anything I choose, then perhaps an Android device would better satisfy your inner geek.
While it may be easy to criticize the iPad’s shortcomings, its rise along with the Kindle and numerous other tablet devices raises a fundamentally intriguing question. “What exactly is a PC?” And, does the iPad qualify as a full-fledged “personal computing device?”
TechCrunch columnist MG Seigler suggests tablets and smartphones have ushered in a new age of truly “personal” computers because these smaller devices, every bit as sophisticated and capable as desktop computers, go with us everywhere:
Now we’re in the midst of another new age. People are now carrying around computers in their pockets, called smartphones. But those aren’t considered PCs. Instead, they’re considered descendants of the original mobile phones. The truth is that they’re closer in just about every way to a personal computer — in fact, they may be the most personal computers ever. But they look more like phones, so we consider them phones — even as people make fewer and fewer actual phone calls on them.
I own all sorts of computer devices, including an iPad 2. Many of these devices get used for work and leisure related activities. Based on my own personal usage habits though, I would be a little skeptical at this point calling the iPad a fully functional personal computing device, namely because my definition would encompass the ability to create new things and not just passively consume existing things.
But if you’re happy to just read the news, organize your music and photos, do the occasional crossword puzzle or play an enthralling game of Angry Birds, then the iPad will almost certainly become your quintessential device for such activities.
If on the other hand you’re interested in doing a little more —say, getting a bit of actual work done, I wish you the best of luck. Believe me I’ve tried, valiantly. Which leads me to expose a few personal (underline personal) reasons why I feel the iPad isn’t quite a full blown computer yet:
I can’t edit my blogs. The official WordPress app, I’m afraid to report, is buggy and seems incapable of recognizing when I’ve edited posts or made dashboard changes on other devices. The same issue strangely occurs in Safari—perhaps something to do with the cache—I don’t know, I don’t really care at this point. I’m embarrassed to say I squandered an entire evening once fiddling around trying to get this all working—to no avail.
My other blog—mostly a scrapbook of sorts for creative inspiration and ideation—lives on Tumblr. The official Tumblr app for iPad, while bug-free, looks as though it has been designed exclusively for iPhone screen dimensions. Oddly, you must scale-up the app ‘2x’ to fill the iPad’s 1024-by-768-pixel resolution display. At these dimensions, at 132 pixels per inch (ppi), everything appears blurry as though the screen were rendering a 36 dpi rasterized image at three-times its native pixel dimensions. After a few minutes browsing my Tumblr feed under these circumstances I feel the urge to jump back onto my old laptop.
There’s no physical keyboard. The iPad’s on-screen ‘touch’ keyboard is quite nifty, a digital design marvel indeed. The odd Tweet or few sentences here and there are no problem. But writing a few hundred words for a blog post or preparing a lengthy document with charts and graphics in MS Word or Excel and things become somewhat dicey. I just can’t seem to get into a solid rhythm, mainly because the iPad’s keyboard occupies half the screen and doesn’t leave much room for anything else. Unless you don’t mind scrolling all the time to see what you’ve written, a separate keyboard provides the elusive tactile feedback and texture of 3-dimensional buttons the iPad simply cannot provide—ergonomically that is—by typing on a flat piece of glass.
In fact it occurred to me the other night watching the Harlan Ellison documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth on Netflix why so many creative writers still prefer a manual typewriter over a computer. It’s all about feel. Modern keyboards (and of course touch-screen displays) provide absolutely no feel. Everything is now super sleek “flat”. No wonder Industrial Designers invariably end up working in software development as “UX Designers” —many of the physical objects we use are either being repurposed or replaced outright by screen based digital products, keyboards indubitably included.
I know what you’re thinking. Go out and buy an external keyboard you say, instead of fumbling around with iPad’s über minimalist screen-based keyboard. Yes, a folding wireless keyboard would be a great little stocking stuffer this Christmas. But as someone who already owns 2 laptops and a full-size desktop, I don’t particularly want (or need) another keyboard to augment my iPad and certainly not one requiring a proprietary Apple connector.
Working with Adobe’s full Creative Suite of applications would be a challenge. Photoshop Touch, are you kidding me? Not if I wanted to do anything beyond a rudimentary colour correction or default photo filter effect. Premiere, After Effects, Flash, Dreamweaver, Illustrator —all these brilliant creative tools were never designed to be used via multi-touch input—at least not yet. I cringe at the thought of trying to close-crop an image with my finger sliding across the screen. My fingers are simply too fat to accurately guide a lasso tool around the perimeter of an intricate shape.
The screen is too darn small. Maybe Apple will release a 17-inch or larger version of the iPad for creative professionals sometime in the near future. However unlikely, the current screen dimensions are simply not conducive to long bouts of detail-oriented visual work. If you’re normally used to designing on a spacious 1920-by-1080-pixel display, the iPad’s limited screen dimensions become a rather crude awakening.
Overall the iPad is a fantastic piece of technology, aside from its seemingly minor limitations. As an educational tool I can say the iPad has been an incredibly effective supplement encouraging our 5-1/2 year-old son’s learning and cognitive development —the key word being supplement. For the iPad isn’t a PC replacement, although it does represent an innovative step forward that tends to challenge our existing notions of ‘personal computing’.