Essays on Technology and Culture

iPad-only is the New Desktop Linux… For Now

The new hotness is no longer going iPad only. Now, all the cool kids are writing missives about how the iPad can’t be their only computer. Okay, that’s a more dismissive than I mean to be about Watts Martin’s excellent Medium piece on trying to do his work on the iPad, especially since I’m typing this on a Mac. He makes some great points about file handling and interoperability with the legacy PC world. Going iOS only is feasible, but only if you have the infrastructure to support it in your line of work. If you desperately need to use the Track Changes feature in Word, well, don’t plan on going iOS only just yet.

What I’d like to do, instead, is discuss the difference between the iOS and iPad ecosystem and the world of desktop Linux. First a caveat: while I have used Linux as my primary operating system, I am a decade removed from that whole scene. I ditched Linux for the Mac in 2006, and have never looked back. Well, okay, I’ve looked back once or twice, enough to know that my experience with Linux in the early 2000s is not accurate to the experience someone would have in 2016. That said, some aspects of Linux have not changed in the intervening ten years, and its those aspects that make all the difference here.

The history of iOS has been the slow re-development of the GUI-based computer from first principles. From the original iPad and iOS in 2010, the past six years have seen an incremental inclusion of the features we take for granted with modern desktop operating systems. You can argue about whether this was the plan all along, but you can’t deny it’s happening. iOS on the iPad now has multitasking, rudimentary multi-user support for education, the start of a user-accessible file system via iCloud, improved inter-app communication, and even the first steps towards a native development environment. However slow it’s been, the forward momentum of development makes me think that in a few more years, we’ll have an iPad and an iOS that addresses most of Martin’s complaints.

Linux, on the other hand, is design-by-committee. There’s a million ways to do everything, and no unified vision for the operating system above the kernel level. There’s distributions focused on usability for the desktop, and development on open source Linux consumer applications that have almost perfect feature parity with their Windows and Mac counterparts. Despite all of this, and people proclaiming every year since 1998 as “The Year of Linux on the Desktop” it’s yet to happen. And I have my doubts it will beyond the niche of computer geeks who are into that sort of thing and/or are frugal on hardware and software. That’s not to say Linux doesn’t have a place. It’s part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and it’s not going anywhere. Linux, in a pure form, as a desktop OS, however, is not likely to happen in the next few years. And it won’t happen as the underpinning of ChromeOS either.

Maybe the future isn’t everyone with 10” and 13” slabs of glass as their primary computing device, but I maintain that it’s still far too early to tell. Right now, the consensus seems to be that big changes to iOS for the iPad will come in the Spring. Whatever changes Apple brings will make doing “real work” easier and faster. In a few more years, I fully expect a native development environment in time, perhaps once Swift is streamlined a bit more. The iPad and iOS keep making slow, steady strides towards being a new way of computing. Linux, on the other hand, continues to be itself, a powerful tool that can be used as a desktop operating system if you want, but unlikely to make any additional inroads into people’s homes except as the foundation of an Internet of Things device. And I also don’t think the Mac or traditional PC will ever go away either.