Essays on Technology and Culture

iPad Pro and How We Get to the Tablet-Based Future

Well, the Apple announcement has come and gone, and my predictions for the iPad were almost completely off. There’s a stylus, but it’s a fancy one, and there’s no handwriting recognition, at least not yet. In fairness, rumors had suggested adding Force Touch to iPad size screens was running into yield issues, so I could claim I’m not wrong, it just happened yet. I’ll fall on the sword here, though. Regardless, the new iPad Pro does establish Apple’s direction for the iPad line, and it’s the first big leap towards tablets replacing the traditional PC for most tasks.

There’s a lot of chatter from people in my circles about how they can’t do their work on an iPad, or an iPad isn’t suited to the work they do. They’re not wrong! The modern iPad, even the iPad Pro, isn’t the right tool for a lot of people. But it’s getting there. To figure out how we get to a tablet-based future, it helps if we take a step back and see how we got to where we are.

In 2015, every traditional personal computer on the market—including the Macintosh—traces its lineage to the original IBM PC. I’m oversimplifying here, especially since the Macintosh had its own strange evolutionary track, but even the sleekest, tiniest, laptop carries the legacy of those 8088-based tanks. We’re talking about machines that were optimized for keyboards, text display, minimal, wired networking, spinning discs, and all sorts of other things. The intervening thirty-four years have added a lot on top of the original personal computer architecture, but that legacy support is still there.

The iPad, though it builds off of the iPhone, is a fundamentally new way of computing built up from scratch to optimize touch input, solid-state storage, ubiquitous wireless communication, and rich graphical interfaces. At launched, it jettisoned a ton of the legacy of the traditional personal computer. Now, we’re seeing Apple add in a number of features we associate with modern desktop computing: keyboard shortcuts, multi-tasking, increased connectivity, and access to the file system—sort of, via the iCloud Drive app. It’s easier, and more effective, to add and adapt the best features of modern desktop personal computing to the tablet paradigm than the other way around (cf. Windows 8).

Between 1990 and 2010, the tablet evolved from a clunky, modified PC with all the attendant baggage, to a sleek, touch-optimized slab of glass with limited functionality, executed well. In the last five years, those limitations have been slowly whittled away. There’s enough processing power in modern tablets to rival desktop computers, owing in no small part to jettisoning a lot of the legacy overhead of the traditional personal computer. The next step is going to be leveraging that power to create tools optimized for the tablet. And this… well, this is the tricky bit.

Creating high-quality, professional applications is hard and expensive. Tablet computing applications don’t sell well, particularly at high, professional prices. With the long upgrade cycle in tablets, many tablet owners are still running devices that lack the power and capabilities needed to do high-performance computing tasks. So, we keep using our traditional personal computers, offloading passive, low-power content consumption tasks to our tablets. Without a compelling cause to upgrade, people muddle through, nobody makes groundbreaking apps, and the tablet future is continually deferred.

The next two years are going to be very interesting for the tablet space. The iPad is leading the way in terms of not only device power and capability, but iOS 9 is the first version of the OS that takes greater advantage of the iPad’s form factor. I don’t think Android tablets will take too long to catch up, at least on the software side. Consider the Apple and Google dichotomy when it comes to hardware and software: Apple believes in Smart Glass with a Dumb Cloud, while Google believes in Dumb Glass with a Smart Cloud. Benedict Evans coined this idea in terms of smartphones, but it could lead to a very interesting tablet arms race going by 2017. If this happens, we could hit a tipping point where tablet sales pick up, increasing the market, and increasing the incentive to make great, tablet-optimized software.

The further out we look, the greater the unknowns, of course. As technology becomes more deeply integrated into our lives, the legacy of the personal computer architecture, hardware and software alike, is going to weigh us down. We’re ready for a change in the way we do things with technology in our lives. It’s not going to happen all at once, of course. The pieces are only just being put into place now. The next decade is going to be fascinating as we figure it all out, and the more I look at it, the more I feel that the tablet will be at the center of our computing world.