Essays on Technology and Culture

The PC In The Coming Tablet Age

Pity the poor personal computer. Its time is swiftly coming to a close, eclipsed by its progeny, the tablet. Hampered by legacy architecture and legacy operating systems, the PC will soon fade away from desks at home and in offices. Instead, PCs will live out of sight and out of mind, stacked to the rafters in server closets and data centers. An dignified end for a technology that changed the world.

Well, let’s not be too hasty. Steve Jobs’s famous metaphor about trucks and cars from the iPad introduction is an apt way of thinking about tablets and PCs, but only so much. In the intervening years, tablets have gained capabilities on par (light) trucks such as in the case of the iPad Pro. During the same time, PCs have become more car-like as in the single-port retina MacBook. And that’s muddied the waters plenty without even getting into the world of convertible hybrid tablets, Windows 10, and Chromebooks.

I’ll put myself in the camp that laptop/tablet hybrids are a short-term solution until the tablet and PC divide fully shakes out. The dividing line will be drawn when we establish the things a traditional personal computer can do that a tablet can’t—and vice versa. There’s some clear lines now: you can’t develop applications on an iPad for the most part, though this is certainly going to change. You can’t do heavy graphics work, or anything more complicated than the most basic audio and video editing, but this is only for now.

More difficult to change is how tablets are locked to themselves. You can’t use a tablet with an external display, except to do a presentation. There are limited options for input and output, as well. Latency and transmission speeds for wireless connections will improve with time, but for now, anything that must be real time for input or output is hampered. What wireless solutions we have now for the tablet to escape itself are kludges and hacks.

As tablets get more powerful, they will expand to allow you to do what you can do on your traditional PC. In tandem, PCs will become more powerful too. A PC, even in a laptop form factor, has more headroom for computing power. This goes for both size of chips, but also thermal headroom. Nobody wants a tablet with a cooling fan, after all. The increased computing headroom of the personal computer opens it up to all kinds of new applications that will, in time, trickle down to a tablet in time for the personal computer to have more applications that require more power.

It’s better to think of the tablet as a sort of computing appliance. You buy it, and it serves its purpose of giving you the best of basic personal computing. When it gets old, and unsupported, you replace it. You could do this in the PC world, but it’s easier just to upgrade the components. That’s impossible on a tablet without a soldering iron, specialized components, and a lot of patience. Some bemoan the loss of upgradability, and we see it coming to the PC too, as they become more “car”-like. I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing.

How many of the problems that plagued PCs back in the day were a result of the componentized nature of the platform? Stick a bad RAM stick in your PC and watch things go sideways real fast. I know for a fact that part of why Windows is such a pain, even today, is that it needs to support a nearly infinite number of hardware configurations. Not everything will work well together. Upgradability of a PC’s components is nice and convenient, but opens up so much potential for hassle. Better to just plug stuff in without opening the case. At least there’s less possibility for things to go wrong. A point for the tablet, but also for the tablet-ified PC.

But why do you need more power right there at your fingertips, anyway? What about the Cloud? Who needs a computer at your desk, when the tablet (or ultra-portable PC) can offload its storage, processing power, and whatnot off to some box somewhere in a data center? We’re closer to making this a reality than we ever had been in the when Larry Ellison proposed his Network Computer, but connectivity is the enemy again. American broadband is still crap, and it’s crap in a lot of other countries too. Unless getting data to and from that remote machine is as fast as on a local one, this idea is stuck.

Though the biggest obstacle to tablets is the entrenched culture of the personal computer in workplaces. Yes, there are some progressive companies that are integrating tablets into daily work life, but existing limitations mean that your average workplace isn’t going to be able to swap out everyone’s laptop with a tablet any time soon. This goes double for desktops. There are those who suggest that once the children of the tablet age, whose first computing experience was an iPad or iPhone, enter the workplace, they’ll have to migrate to tablets. Not at all the case.

Kids growing up into a workplace IT culture built around PCs is not enough to shake things up. As anecdata, I know most kids in my age bracket, at least in the US, grew up with Macintoshes in their schools as the primary computers. (Hell, my middle school had Apple IIs in the computer lab until I was in 8th Grade.) Macs are making more penetration in the office, but of the six jobs I had after graduating college, only two of them were a primarily Macintosh IT environment. Both were tech jobs. If a whole generation of kids weaned on the Macintosh couldn’t get Macs on desks at your average workplace, what makes you think kids raised on tablets will?

None of this is to say that a tablet-first future isn’t coming. There needs to be something compelling enough to disrupt the entrenched legacy of the personal computer at home and at work. Tablets will get there first in the home. They already provide an easier way for people to do most of the ordinary computing tasks they would do on a PC. A few more iterations and OS upgrade cycles, and the tablet will be your average user’s primary computing device. The office, not so much.

For the time being, the PC will rule the desk. That is, unless you fit a specific niche where you can live within a tablet’s limitations. Over time, yes, the tablet’s limits will fall away, and tablets will let you do more, with more. We’re not there yet, and I don’t see it happening for at least a decade. The thin edge of the tablet wedge has gotten in, however. Its only a matter of time. Just don’t assume your next traditional computer will be your last.