Every time I encounter a friend of mine in what can only be described as the “real world” with a dumbphone, or crazier yet, no texting or data plan (gasp!), I’m forced to come to the insufferable realization that you folks, my brothers and sisters in gadget nerdery, are not the norm. We’re actually a small percentage of the population. Our concerns are growing into the greater public’s mind, but largely they still lag behind. If there’s a place where we can fit ourselves, somewhere between the nerdy outcasts and the self-indulgent pioneers of nations, I’d like to think we fit somewhere in there. Not quite the all-important leaders of the technological revolution that so many bloggers and commenters like to believe they are, but it would still be foolish to deny the effects of our influence.
Yet we seem to like to overblow our position in the world. Once a gadget fiend can find a way to live their life without an old familiar object, that object is deemed dead. If they can find some sales numbers that, through a certain distorted perspective, can corroborate their claim, they’ll shout it all the louder. One of the most recent, and most heated discussions of the decade concerns the so-called “post-PC era”. When the iPhone came along in 2007, the idea first started to creep into people’s minds that perhaps a touch screen can do plenty of the things that a desktop does now. Yet, it wasn’t quite finished. Even into the beginning of 2010, when Android was in full swing, rivalries had never been fiercer, app stores had grown to unreal sizes, and software alone was blowing our minds on a daily basis, there was still the question of whether or not such tiny devices could replace desktops.
Meanwhile, a second phenomenon was happening. Computers were getting smaller. I don’t just mean in the way computers always have gotten necessarily smaller from the old days when they took up entire rooms. I mean despite 13″ laptops being perfectly portable, laptops continued to get smaller. Marketers, feeling a need to compulsively create distinctions where there are none (it is their job, after all), dubbed them “netbooks”. Super small devices that focused less on doing everything and more on being cheap, well-connected, and moderate. They were fundamentally designed to be not the best, but good enough.
When the iPad came out, there appeared to many to be a paradigm shift. The tablet was a form factor that, though it had been attempted before, had never really worked all that well. This is, for starters, because touch screen technology really only became decent for any reasonable measure of precision and responsiveness (go use the self checkout at your local Wal-Mart if you don’t believe me). It was also because, until the iPhone and Android came along, the collective industry hadn’t really considered people using their fat fleshy fingers for input. By the time the iPad showed up, there was actually quite a bit of software that took this into consideration. The experience was, for the first time, acceptable.
Folks got excited.
It was a whole new way to use your computer! Why ever go back to clunky, non-portable keyboards and mice?! You just touch something and boom! You’re there! As fundamentally new as the mouse was back in the 80s was the technology that allowed your hands to quite literally touch your data. The tendency was to believe that this was going to be it. And it’s not just bloggers that think this either. Every manufacturer on the planet, every OS developer, every one who could suddenly wanted to make a tablet. It’s a whole new market that hasn’t been tapped! Another gadget to sell to an insatiable consumer market.
However, the tablet doesn’t do everything well. Tablets require stands to view if you want to use your hands for something else. Tablet keyboards do not provide tactile feedback, nor precision selection like a mouse. Most tablets do not yet have the same processing power of a desktop (though they’re getting there). They especially suck at multitasking, since no matter what method you use for running more than one app at once, tablets still only show one app at a time. Tablets are good for a lot of things. They are not good for everything. Yet.
As more and more tablets come out, though, we see an interesting pattern. Despite the Magical® feel of tablets (to be fair, I’ve had at least one friend play with my Xoom and say it “feels like the future”), so many form factors emerge that aim to bring tablets back to their PC roots. ASUS in particular has released multiple tablets that have either built-in keyboards, or keyboard attachments. Meanwhile, Apple’s own iPad has an optional Bluetooth keyboard dock. And even in the phone world, the Atrix attempts to be both a phone and a laptop with it’s accompanying dock. Not only can we often not decide what we want these touchscreen devices to do, we can’t even decide what they are.
Part of this experimentation is a natural reaction to an industry discovering its newfound tools. Think of it like tech industry puberty. We’ve suddenly got touch screens showing up in places in they never were before, and we find we get excited whenever we see a webpage pinch and zoom. We want to explore everything we can do with this!
Just like humans, who don’t all grow up into the same person, though, gadgets are incredibly unlikely to conform to a single form factor. The desktop era was one where we were largely limited in form factor. In 1999, we couldn’t make a PC small enough to fit in your pocket that did much of anything useful (save for that old scientific calculator you still have in your closet somewhere). Touchscreens sucked, voice input sucked. There were no accelerometers or gyroscopes or GPS or Bluetooth or proximity sensors. Computers were actually pretty dumb for the first part of the decade. Now, however, we can make computers in such a variety of form factors that there’s virtually no end to the parade of bad ideas (and good ideas!) for us to sift through. ASUS is working on a phone that turns into a tablet. Lenovo is working on a tablet that turns into a laptop. Google is working on a laptop that is the internet.
If you reduce all of these devices down to their primary purposes, however, all of these gadgets are designed to do two things: take input and give output. They can take input from a variety of sources including but not limited to keyboards (virtual or physical), mice, touchscreens, microphones, sensors, cameras and the internet. They give output via a screen, speakers, or, again, the internet. Given the various ways that all of these categories can be combined, it’s absurd to think that any one device or form-factor will win out. Convergence will not happen in the hardware arena. If there’s one thing we can learn from the success of Android in the smartphone arena, it’s that there is always room for people to like different things. People actually buy the Backflip. The Backflip for chrissakes! In a world where a device like that can be loved, no one can ever say there will be one solution.
What’s far more likely, however, is software convergence. Microsoft won the desktop wars in the 90s for one very simple reason: they could be anywhere. Any user could go pick up a copy of Windows and install it on any hodgepodge of hardware he so desired. Manufacturers would include the drivers and the rest would be easy peasy. Apple had their own prebuilt machines, but they were costly and, more importantly, if you’d made a hardware investment and wanted to switch to a Mac, it was a total loss. Windows’ ability to be anything to anyone was what made it powerful.
Now, the race is on to see who’s going to do that in the new era. Tablets will simply never be the be-all end-all. Not so long as people like to come home and sit in front of their TVs. Not so long as families like to get one device that everyone shares and never gets lost. Not so long as people still like keyboards. Not so long as desktops still have the advantage in high-powered hardware. Not so long as Adobe and AVID and all the other major distributors of pro-grade media software neglect touch-friendly versions.
It’s possible to interpret all of these possibilities in a “matter of time” sort of way. But is that really how we want to go? I don’t mean that as an appeal. I really want to know. Is the collective whole of humanity desperate to get away from physical keyboards? I manage to type excessively fast on my tablet (in the right position). Enough to merit a mention from onlookers on occasion, which is not something that typically happens to me outside of a desktop environment. Yet, it’s not because it’s easier that I enjoy coming home to my desktop and typing on my keyboard on my 23″ monitor. It’s because, like the tablet after using a tiny phone for so long, it feels “nicer”.
No, I think the argument is going to become much more subjective. More likely than an overly simplistic “tablets will take over” narrative is the idea that suddenly we’ll be able to have whatever form factor we choose. Mobile and non-mobile OSes are converging on a software level, such that right now, if you stay in your own ecosystem at least, you can experience virtually no interruptions between devices. iOS syncs with Mac OS via iTunes. Google leverages Chrome and Android for ubiquitous data and experience. Windows is…..well, they’re working on that.
I’ve written before about how none of the mobile-thinking OSes are finished yet. If there’s one perspective I lacked in those article is perhaps that I focused a bit too much on smartphones. The future is likely a lot more complex than that. Imagine if you could keep your preferred OS across any device. And imagine if they worked together, seamlessly. You don’t have to imagine too hard, as all the major tech companies are planning that very thing. Microsoft is expected to demo their plans for the future of tablets this week. We already know their plans for desktops and phones. Apple is expected to demo their cloud services next week to tie together their phone, tablet, and desktop devices. And Google, well, we pretty much know their plans across the board, even if they do currently have a weakness in desktop computing.
We’re facing an upcoming decade where we’re going to start to define how we view our gadgets. We have finally reached a point where we can cram all the sensors and input mechanisms we can think of into a single device, and now we’re deciding just how we want that device to look and feel. And, as human beings, we will never fully decide on a single form factor, nor will we agree on just what that format should be. In the words of the great Jesse Eisenberg, “It’s never finished. Just like fashion’s never finished.” For some it will be a more “dedicated workstation” approach. Others will want a futuristic-feeling touchscreen that they can plug into their TV, or a keyboard dock, or any number of other peripherals. Someone, somewhere, I guarantee you, wants a touchscreen TV (and they probably work for CNN). And they will all get to have their chance.
The tablet isn’t going to be the form factor to end all form factors. It’s not big enough for every task, nor is it suitable for every workflow. But it will be popular. So, too, will be the desktop. However, the days when it’s assumed that the primary device you own is a Windows desktop will also end. Windows desktops won’t ever go away entirely. They won’t even become a small minority. But as smartphones, tablets, touchscreen laptops, and the weird, amorphous hybrids in between start to become more competent, and gain more compatibility and functionality, the distinctions will become less and less clear. It won’t happen soon. Not this year, probably not even the next. But it will happen.
And everyone, including the folks who love their Linux desktops with five monitors and two keyboards, and the Apple heads who will hang their iPads on the wall as their TV, and everyone in between….they will all be able to find something to make them happy.
(Or we’ll just keep bickering and arguing on the internet until the machines rise up and take over. One of the two.)