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Tablets vs PCs, is this the correct way to compare them?

By , October 21, 2011 11:54 am

A brief history

Since the dawn of electronic computing we’ve had valves disrupted by transistors, mainframes disrupted by minicomputers, mincomputers disrupted by workstations, workstations disrupted by PCs and PCs disrupted by notebooks and netbooks. The latest entrant is the tablet computer.

Tablets were initially a failure, mainly due to desktop operating systems being forced to do a job they were ill suited to do. However the Apple iPad changed all that. A new way of considering how to use a tablet. This has spawned a lot of imitators, mainly based on Android. Microsoft will also be entering the fray with Windows 8 and the Metro UI. Microsoft is making the reverse mistake though – forcing its tablet UI on its desktop users. So it may succeed in the tablet space and then fail in the desktop space. We shall see.

Disruptive or Complementary?

Having set the scene the next question is are tablets going to be disruptive to PCs or complementary? Some people seem to think its a straight fight between PCs and tablets – that tablets are going to disrupt PCs and ultimately replace them. Even Professor Clayton Christensen, author of many books on industrial disruption thinks this is going to happen. His latest tweet on the subject “The value of theory: you know that iPads will cannibalize PCs long before the data tells you it’s happening http://bit.ly/nlSq2l #disruption”.

I’ve read most of Professor Christensen’s books on disruptive innovation theory. I think the case is well argued and I find the books fascinating and engaging. I think I do understand the theory correctly. There is always room to improve my understanding.

But I don’t agree that just because iPad shipments exceed PC shipments its the end for the PC. Not even a long way into the future. When I say PC I’m talking not just Windows, but Macs and Linux boxes etc. Anything that sits on your desktop, under the desk, or a portable computer like a laptop, notebook or netbook.

I think tablets are in the main, complementary to PCs. By complementary I mean that they are providing opportunities in places where a PC is not practical or appropriate. I do think tablets will erode some consumer use of PCs. I do not think tablets will replace PCs in the business world.

Tablets

Tablets are great for passive consumption of data. For example, viewing movies, reading email and writing occasional replies, viewing websites, playing games, viewing 2D and 3D models. Touch screen UIs excel at the consumption of content.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you want to view business data. RedGate software’s SQLMonitor is a great example of this.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you need to update the status of items but do not need to type extensive reports. A scenario for this would be in hospitals. Keyboards are a haven for bugs as they are hard to clean effectively. Tablets are smooth and easy to clean. Tablet touch screens are perfect for this type of work – well designed user interfaces will minimise the need to type and make a tablet usable in this situation.

The above two scenarios are not really tablet vs PC scenarios. They are complementary. The tablet is enabling a business activity that the PC either did badly, or could not do at all. For the SQLMonitor example, the tablet is doing the job better than the PC, is is more convenient. But this is a data consumption task (as opposed to content creation). In the hospital example, no one carries a laptop to the bed of the person they are seeing and then checks off their health and medication as they do their rounds. But I can easily see that happening with a tablet. That is, the tablet is serving an underserved or nonserved market.

But all that said, tablets are not good for any large scale content creation activity. Examples are word processing, accounting, creative work, video editing, audio editing, 3D CAD creation, writing software. All these activities are typically done by professionals with two or more large screen monitors with multiple windows open at once, referencing data in one window, cutting and pasting into another, sometimes having specialised external interaction devices (drawing tablets, styluses, trackballs, joysticks etc). For businesses that need computers the above describes the majority of those computing activities.

The 3D CAD creation item is an interesting one. I know some folks at SolidWorks Corporation. When the iPad came out they created a viewer for it. Have they moved to put SolidWorks on the iPad? No. Its a $4000/seat software product. People use it on powerful workstations with multiple screens with large resolutions. You just cannot replicate this experience on a tablet.

The other interesting point is software creation. When Apple introduced the Macbook, Macbook Pro and Macbook Air computers web developers and creatives very quickly switched to these computers to do their work. Have these people moved to the iPad or any other tablet to do their creative work? If a tablet was suitable for content creation these people would have switched already and be trying to prove it can be done.

PCs

However when it comes to content creation the PC is the place where that will continue to happen.

There are several reasons why PCs will continue to dominate in this area:

  • PCs are designed to be used for content creation. The ability to have multiple windows open, multi-task, source data from one application easily into another application, these are key to being efficient at the job in hand. Tablets just can’t do this. I can’t see this being fixed on a tablet.
  • Multiple screens, with physical screen sizes up to 30″ and pixel counts exceeding 2500 across. Even if you could get a 30″ tablet with 2560×1600 resolution, you wouldn’t be able to lift it and it would be too heavy and too unweildy to rest in your lap when you sit on the sofa.
  • Egonomics. The ergonomics of using a tablet are such that for occasional use sitting on the sofa, lying in bed, etc, they do you no harm. I can speak from my own painful experience with RSI that for extended periods of working a tablet will give rise to all manner of unpleasant ailments. I can see all the problems with poor posture and static loading that did so much damage to me, those problems are all there with the tablet. And those problems will always be there because that is a function of the form factor of a tablet.

In summary at large screen sizes, where tablets could in theory start to compete against a PC, the tablet becomes unweildy, impractical and in ergonomic terms, bad for you. If with advances in materials science – let us say if carbon fibre manufacture became cost effective and e-ink is the future – then the weight element of a large tablet would go away. But you’re still left with the physical size limits of a tablet that is 23″ (or more!) to deal with. I’m writing this on a 23″ screen and I could not imagine trying to sit with this on my lap.

You can improve the touch screen typing of a tablet, but the on screen keyboard will always obscure your work. At present there appears to be no solution to the multi-window aspect of computing that has been so successful on workstations and desktop computers for the last 30 years. Tablets have one window (or with Windows 8 Metro, possibly two) at a time. As you can see in the comments sections of the 4 blogs posts dedicated to the Metro UI and Search on the MSDN blogs, people that work with multiple large screens and many windows absolutely hate being forced to work with one window at a time. I confess that I am one of the many detractors of Microsoft’s new user interface work – it seriously degrades what they are doing.

Conclusion

It is inevitable that for some tasks PCs have been used for (mainly consuming information) tablets may well replace them as the best item “hired to do the job”. But I think there is quite a large section of jobs for which the tablet can never successfully compete against the PC – jobs which require multiple screens, large screens, overlapping windows/displays and specialised data entry devices.

Simply making the tablet larger is not a solution due to physical size constraints. Adding lots of external devices to the tablet (using say bluetooth) kind of defeats the point because then you can only use the tablet in one place – it no longer has the very attribute that makes it attractive (its single object portability) – you may as well use a desktop PC in that situation, it would be better suited to the task.

I think tablets are complementary to PCs. I think tablets are doing a job PCs have never been able to do well. I think PCs do a job that tablets will never be able to do well.

I think this quote from I-DotNET written in the MSDN blog comments Windows 8 Search best describes a tablet.

Touch-screen UIs are not the next generation of UI the way that GUIs and the mouse replaced the command line. Instead, what we’re seeing here is the creation of a brand new category of device, a device that is used differently for different purposes and often by different people. The touch screen UI is simply the UI best suited for this category. No more. No less.

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