The laptop on the shelf
October 03, 2016
After a month on holiday with the iPad Pro I ask myself this: Will our children ever own a laptop?
We live in exciting times. I’m writing this on a tablet at a time when Apple has sold 1 billion iPhones, when PC sales have stalled and are even declining, and 700 million Chinese have come online, many using their first-ever computer – the smartphone. In 2020 there will be over 5 billion phones online.
This graph from Benedict Evans’ presentation “Mobile ate the world” visualises this platform shift.
This platform shift gives us the opportunity to question old models. We have had over 30 years with the same model of interaction based on mouse and keyboard. Now that more time is being spent on smartphones, even for work (let me just reply to this email on the go), we can start questioning old models when it comes to professional users as well.
Great for consuming – but how good are they at producing?
Even as smartphones have nibbled away at the market, there has long been a perception that you need to have a PC if you want to get “real work” done. Which is not surprising, given that many innovations are dismissed as mere toys that we laugh at before they go on to gain a serious foothold. Same thing with tablets – a mere toy. I too have been guilty of taking this attitude. My position was that tablets are great for consuming but not so great for producing.
I wanted to challenge this stance when the iPad Pro finally came to Sweden. Is it really possible to be effective at work without a mouse, a real keyboard, multiple screens, and using apps instead of installed applications? The answer is a clear yes in 95% of my use cases.
A good litmus test
My day job is being a product owner, and my duties at work usually consist of writing lots of emails, giving workshops, holding meetings, doing QA sessions, creating/giving presentations, doing spreadsheets, etc. The iPad Pro is great for these use cases. In the few instances where I actually had to take out my laptop, I needed it to edit big spreadsheets were a lot of data had to be copied back and forth, or for services that had a really poor or nonexistent mobile experience.
In the first case, the workflow where you export an Excel file from a business system and then turn around and mail it off as a report feels really obsolete. This is most likely something that the AI and smart services of the future will take care of for us. In the second case, I think that’s a good litmus as to which companies will have a hard time surviving as time goes on. If you look at the companies that do not have a working solution for the mobile ecosystem in 2016, that tells you something.
Some things I think worked well that people are often dubious about:
I was very sceptical about it in the beginning. As is generally the case with new keyboards, it took a few hours to get used to it. Apple has managed to make a very good keyboard that is both easy to write with and fold up. After a day or so I was writing just as quickly and accurately as with my laptop.
Interacting via a touch interface instead of a mouse takes some time getting used to. But it starts to feel more natural after a while, and it opens up a number of other interesting areas of use. Many keyboard hotkeys have been migrated over from the PC paradigm, meaning that a lot of the user’s navigation is still accomplished via the keyboard.
After my first three days of using only the iPad, I was forced to start up my laptop to retrieve a couple of files. At some point I needed to pause Spotify on my laptop. Entirely by reflex, I tapped on the pause button twice with my finger. Nothing happened. In that brief interval I grew annoyed that the touch interface was “lagging” before I detected my error and laughed out loud to myself.
One thing I have learned to appreciate is not having to think about window management, since each app takes up the entire screen area. It also lends a pleasant focus. Sometimes (unfortunately) you need to multitask. iOS9 rolled out split screen functionality, letting you have two apps open side-by-side.
When the “ultraportable” concept became popular in the middle of the last decade, I thought that we had reached the logical endpoint, and that we didn’t need thinner and lighter computers. But the computers kept getting thinner and smaller, and with every new iteration the earlier one started feeling clumsy. Which is why it feels a bit strange to say that I felt more mobile using the iPad Pro even though the new MacBook is not that much bigger.
But it’s not just the size that matters, it’s the benefits provided by a slimmed-down mobile operating system compared to a fully-fledged OS. There is no “wake time” – all you have to do is press the fingerprint reader and you can pick right up where you left off. Compare that to the experience of not wanting to close your laptop lid on your way to the next meeting, because you don’t feel like having to wake up the computer and log on.
No local files
The fact that the entire concept of “local files” has been done away with is what gave me the most trouble. It’s a matter of habit of course, but it takes some time to wean yourself off the habit of downloading documents from the Internet or your inbox and then going to the “downloads” folder. Files open directly in apps instead. If you then want to save a file you need to have a cloud storage service (Dropbox, Box, iCloud, GDrive, etc.).
This means that your files are always backed up and you don’t have to worry about file management. It’s something that goes on in the background and “just works”. But I do think that it makes it a bit more tedious to edit an email document and then mail it back. Nor does support for cloud storage services always work in all apps, despite the fact that Apple offers good APIs for this purpose.
Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn't care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. PCs are going to be like trucks. They're still going to be around [...] but they're going to be used by one out of X people.
- Steve Jobs
Obviously there are things that are harder to do on the iPad and which (hopefully) will be improved. Unfortunately not all apps are fully compatible with the iPad Pro and its keyboard yet. This incompatibility manifests in that hotkeys for the most common operations are missing in some apps, such as Command-C (copy text), which is incredibly frustrating. Other apps have no iPad version but get scaled up and work fine in portrait mode.
Can you print?
Yeah, but only using printers that are compatible with Apple AirPrint, which limits the functionality a bit.
How do I install my company’s font so that I can use it in my presentations?
You need to have a third-party app for that.
To summarise, I was very satisfied and I now realise that the transition from the PC paradigm has begun. It will take a long time and will definitely not be a good fit for all use cases, but I do wonder if our children will ever own a laptop.
Change is scary, and you either embrace it out of interest or because you’re a fanboy, or you find it frustrating and want things to work the way they always have. Steve Jobs compared this shift to the situation during the early years of the automotive industry, when most vehicles on the road were trucks, since that met society’s needs at that time. Things are different today, but trucks are still around for a specific use case. Will things turn out the same way for the PC and the mobile world?
Image by Apple Press