A term that’s been flying around a lot since the iPad 2 launch has been “post-PC era,” referring to how tablets and smartphones are replacing desktop and laptop computers. That theme was revisited yesterday as Apple announced iOS 5 products that, out of the box, could be used completely independently from a computer. I’m a fan of computers, as I’m sure you guys are, and am dubious that in a few years everyone will be working, playing, and living exclusively on tablets.
There are a few obvious reasons to doubt the transition, namely that there’s a well-entrenched installed base of laptop and netbook users that have no real need for another computer. What about price point? You can get a decent netbook for $250 while tablet computers are $400 minimum. Functionality is also limited by the form factor, like missing physical keyboards and input ports (full-sized USB and SD, for example), and battery life that doesn’t last more than a day. Although the horsepower is improving, top-end PCs still vastly outperform the best tablets currently available.
All of those things stand to be weathered down in time, though, as first-time computer-buyers will be able to consider tablet alternatives from here on in, prices will go down as competition stiffens and bulk parts purchasing becomes viable for OEMs and new technologies will fill function and processing disparities. Even that new Toshiba tablet is including a full SD card slot. My real concerns are inherent with the form factor and what’s sacrificed when you ditch the full keyboard and the mouse.
Precision is the first thing to come to mind. Massive adjustments in touchscreen user interface are made to accommodate chubby fingers (like bigger buttons that eat up precious screen space). Even with styluses used on the old resistive touchscreens and the new capacitive breed we’re starting to see with the likes of the HTC Flyer, fiddling with loose parts while on the move is a hassle and not practical for many people. The BlackBerry PlayBook partially sidesteps the issue by being compatible with a Bluetooth mouse, but not all of the functions have been translated yet and there are still some gaps in hardware support.
Precision in text is also hugely important both for gadget-owners that want to be productive as well as those that just want to socialize. Many people have adapted to virtual keyboards relatively well but is it still no match for the speed and confidence of physical keys. Of course, there are dock adapters and other accessories that can give your tablet access to a real keyboard, but then you’re making the same compromises in portability that you would with a more full-featured netbook. Even without a physical keyboard, a touchscreen version further compromises limited screen space.
Screen real estate is an issue that isn’t going to go away when it comes to tablets. We’re already pushing our luck with 10-inch tablets, since beyond that, you might as well just get a slim netbook. For individual tasks, tablet screens are ample but how efficiently can you really do two things at once? It’s certainly not impossible with multitasking as a common OS feature, but having to actively switch between apps rather than simply seeing more than one on a screen at once isn’t viable for day-long work. Sure, you can always explode your tablet’s display out to a monitor or even a TV through HDMI or DLNA, but as discussed earlier, the user interface and functions are still built to be usable on the small screen and it still won’t let you effectively do more than one thing at a time.
Connectivity is another big issue with these portable devices. Wireless networks are inherently unreliable and though you can still do a lot with intermittent coverage and offline caching, an ethernet hard line is the only sure bet. Of course, the middle ground here is Wi-Fi, which is reliable enough for all-day computing on either a desktop or tablet. The tablet has certainly found a comfortable home on coffee tables and bedrooms thanks to Wi-Fi connectivity but the whole idea of the “post-PC” world is that you can take a tablet anywhere and do just as much as on a PC. Until cellular networks can match Wi-Fi’s reliability, I don’t think that’s a claim tablets can comfortably make.
Windows 8 seems like it will do a great job of blurring the lines between tablet and PC and it strikes me as the best compromise presented to us so far. For times when you have a keyboard, mouse, display, and power supply ready to be docked with a tablet running a big-boy operating system, I could see the tablet being good enough for everyday work.
With the secondary touch-optimized UI, it could be a passable portable device (given there’s some smart battery management that doesn’t have full Windows running in the background while you’re out). In that scenario, I see the tablet simply as a smaller, portable PC, just as it was originally envisaged prior to the iPad busting onto the scene. Of course, Apple is dragging a lot of its iOS-inspired stuff into OS X Lion, which is just a way of pushing the idea that software and functions can effectively trickle up from the small form factors. This idea is just as flawed as thinking real computing can be simply miniaturized for tablets and smartphones like Windows Mobile tried to do.
Anyway, this is my take on the whole idea of the “post-PC” world but I have a feeling many technophiles could imagine laptop computers melting away in the next five to ten years. What do you guys think?