Article: The Threat of Replacing Laptops

by on June 28, 2017

Although the iPad turned seven earlier this year, it still feels far from a mature platform. For me, that’s fine, as it has made leaps and bounds, and the Mac in 1991 or Windows in 1992 (or 1993?) also had a ways to go to be considered “perfect.” Progress is important and as new use cases develop, it’s fun to see a platform grow and change. I’ll be the first to say that Apple was asleep at the wheel with iPad software development at times, and with iOS 11, that looks like it’s going to change. However, there’s a notion being kicked around if it matters that an iPad can replace some other computing device.

This was especially evident in a Monday night Twitter rant by The Outline’s Joshua Topolsky. Without trying to capture all the tweets, the gist is that any sort of laptop is always better than any sort of iPad for any task, and he really hates the Smart Keyboard. This idea has popped up numerous times in articles and “reviews” about the newest iterations of iPad Pros. In a hypothetical world where everyone’s use cases are the same, this is an argument worth having. However, this is not the world that we live in and instead, everyone uses computing devices of all shapes and sizes for different things. Believe it or not, some people use an iPhone as a primary computing device.

Personally, I have some legacy cruft that I’m not ready to leave behind yet, so I haven’t made much of an effort to sell my Mac mini, but it sits asleep more often than not. Nothing on it is really mission-critical, but I keep a local copy of my music library, a backup of all my photos, iTunes-based iOS backups every now and then, some random files here and there, and a little utility for reprogramming my Logitech Harmony remote that I use about once every other year. Other than the remote, everything else could be substituted for cloud services or an Apple Music subscription. For running this site and just about every other computer-y thing, I use my 12.9″ iPad Pro and it’s gotten to the point that it feels frictionless.

At work, I’ve been iPad-only since November and ended up just using an iPad Air 2 that was unused. I cheated a bit with an Asus Chromebit connected to a large monitor, mostly for the aspect of having a “second screen” for service monitoring, one or two Flash-based sites, and sometimes keeping work email open during the day. I could live without the Chromebit, but it was there and my overall computing footprint still requires less care and feeding than most.

The thing is, other than some jokes about the location of my “real” computer, I haven’t had to do much to really adjust. My day job is a network administrator, so most of my tools are web-based, Microsoft Remote Desktop, FTP, or SSH/Telnet. I probably could accomplish most things using just about any computer, but iOS gets out of my way when I’m working, runs on a lightweight devices, and I don’t have to fuss with the usual upkeep and maintenance associated with traditional operating systems. Even though I work in an IT department, I’d rather not mess with a computer if it’s going to keep me from getting things done.

Some of this shift was the idea that I was using my phone and personal iPad for quick little things while at work or trying to work from home and me being mostly pleased with the outcome. My thinking was that if I could move most of my workflow to iOS, that would really give me a new level of portability. Technology journalists or reviewers who are stuck in a particular set of tools and outcomes can very easily say that a device like the iPad is not for them because of X. When you’re starting from scratch or replacing a tool or process, it’s much easier.

Matt Gemmell has gone iPad-only and really doesn’t like the constant use of the “laptop replacement” terminology regarding the iPad and I don’t disagree:

The term usually crops up in the context of the iPad not being whatever it is the author is looking for… and no wonder. The phrase itself is strange, like you’re consciously considering replacing your laptop (implicitly with something else, otherwise you’d just upgrade to a newer laptop, surely), are assessing the iPad as a candidate, and you find that it is indeed an entirely different thing… but that’s somehow a deal breaker. So you want to potentially not use a laptop anymore, but you also want a computer that does all the same things as a laptop, in pretty much the same way. In which case, I think the computer you’re looking for is a laptop.

Over the years, I’ve replaced my laptops with desktops and vice-versa (both personally and at work), and I think looking at an iPad-versus-your-current-computer is a case-by-case basis. I have coworkers who would happily switch to an iPad for the small size and weight, but there are tools that don’t work for them. Similarly, there are people I work with who enjoy Macs, but live in Microsoft-based development environments. Trying to force something that is completely inappropriate for the job is going to lead to failure and yet somehow, the iPad is held to a different standard.

And the biggest revelation of all of this is that I can mix and match devices, because there isn’t some medal or award for only using an iPad to get work done and the minute I touch a Mac or PC, I’d immediately be breaking the first rule of iPad Club™. Using multiple devices isn’t always sustainable (that’s why I eventually turned in my work Mac so someone else could use it), but if I can slowly phase out processes and tasks on my personal Mac, I might be able to stretch it out even longer or phase it out completely down the road. If we weren’t able to grow and evolve our technology toolkits, I’d probably have an Apple II, some sort of Mac from the MacOS 9-era, and other devices still in use for “that one thing” that each would still be used for.

I almost get the feeling that there might be more to technology pundits being broadly bearish about iPad productivity. Perhaps they’re actually afraid that if devices like the iPad gain popularity, complaining about specs on a Windows PC and having some knowledge about traditional computers will be a skill set that is no longer necessary. It also seems as knee-jerk as the ongoing gun debate where the suggestion of a bit more regulation immediately means that someone is going to take away all of the guns. Seriously, if the iPad is successful, Tim Cook is not going to come and take away all the MacBooks. Once again, Gemmell brings some clarity:

I think the psychology behind this false dichotomy probably has something to do with fear of loss, as if we’re going to stop making new laptops if we dare to say that tablets are a more suitable and pleasant computer for a big chunk of people. It’s related to why some folk are against positive discrimination to redress gender imbalance, or why there are protests against equal marriage. But nobody’s banning men from all job interviews. Nobody’s making heterosexual marriage illegal. Nobody’s taking the laptops away. Sega or Nintendo! PlayStation or Xbox!

It’s also fine to be wrong and regroup. Although there’s always the issue of costs, trying to use an iPad for everything and failing doesn’t mean the iPad is a terrible product that nobody should buy. It just might not be right for you or a particular task you do, as Mark Crump points out:

Before this sounds like one of those “Guy Goes iPad-only; gives up and goes back to the Mac” let me dispel that notion: I still use my iPad as much I did. It is still my primary writing and drawing tool. I sat in 16 hours of discovery sessions recently and the only time I used my Mac was when I was in a weird sitting angle. The Smart Keyboard still isn’t good for using the Pro on the lap. When I go to work on stuff, assuming it’s something the iPad can handle, it’s the device I reach for first. I’m writing this post right now on Ulysses on the Mac mainly to get the feel for the app, and to get used to the keyboard.

So where does that leave the argument? I think as the iPad’s version of iOS splits from the iPhone version just a little bit, and becomes less of an oversized iPod touch, we’ll probably see more and more “iPad versus computer” talk, and I’ll probably still read some of it. I find the tools that people use fascinating, especially when it is something new or exciting. In the world of technology, complaining about changes and wanting to go backwards really has no place, but utilizing the most enjoyable and appropriate resources does.

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