The laptop is not going away

Among the things I am attempting on the road here in Phoenix, Arizona (well, technically Mesa, Arizona) is to take my iPad out for an extended spin. Can I really use it instead of a laptop computer for mobile computing? The answer is, “It depends on what you are trying to do.”

If what you are trying to do is something fairly complicated, like write a blog post, you will miss having a laptop. You can technically peck away using the iPad’s on screen keyboard, but your experience is likely to be like mine. You will make plenty of mistakes and spend much of your time correcting your mistakes. In short, it’s not a viable means for doing any serious writing, at least not without a little help. Which is why I bought a Bluetooth keyboard (a Rocksoul model) with me. Combined, the iPad and the keyboard weigh much less than a laptop. But even with the keyboard, it doesn’t come close to being as usable a laptop.

In short, I don’t quite see tablet computers doing away with laptop computers. To be productive, ten years from now you will still want the convenience of a laptop computer when you travel. However, if your needs are simple, substituting a tablet computer for a laptop makes a certain amount of sense.

You can keep up on email easily enough on a tablet computer, but you will find it’s like using a Blackberry in that you will find plenty of incentive to keep your emails brief. Some things are arguably a better experience on a tablet computer. The iPad comes with a stripped down version of Safari as its web browser. The experience is making me something of a Safari fan. The downside is that there are no plug-ins or extensions that I can install, which means I am assaulted by advertising that I normally block out with the adBlock extension. On the other hand, simplicity is a virtue, and Safari does certain things very elegantly on the iPad, like intelligently reloading web pages.

The iPad may be a few years old, but it is really just beginning to mature. For example, there is no decent word processor for the iPad. Reportedly, Microsoft is working to port its Office suite to the iPad, which will be welcome. Meanwhile, you basically have the built-in Note application, which is very basic. No italics or bolding are possible. For composing a blog post though, it suffices although it is hardly ideal.

The iPad’s user interface is quite elegant, but hardly ideal. Designed for the finger as its pointing device, it is easy to miss selecting the right spot to edit. A stylus would be a useful addition. My wireless keyboard comes with a delete key, but there is no backspace key, which becomes very annoying. Easy methods of emulating the top, end, page up and page down buttons are also missing. Yes, you can use your fingers instead but it is more time consuming.

On the other hand the iPad is amazingly portable. Weighing a fraction of a laptop, it is easy to transport,  doesn’t anchor your briefcase yet renders resolution similar to a desktop monitor. The seven hour battery life is often longer in practice, particularly when in airplane mode. The newest laptops, like the new Macbook, also can survive as long unplugged, so this by itself is no longer a compelling reason to own an iPad. With 4G service, if you can afford it, you also get the convenience of Internet access virtually anywhere.

I also want to use my iPad as an electronic newspaper viewer. So far, I have not found it to be quite there, unless your expectations are modest. Newspaper sites keep trying to arrange content optimally for the iPad but with the newspapers apps I have tried it is clear they still have a way to go. The Washington Post app is a pretty good attempt to make content fit on an iPad, but they still leave so much out. Comics and classified are two glaring omissions. Without them you feel like you are missing something. Instead, you get selected contents in the newspaper. Perhaps the Post is waiting for enough readers to put those features behind a paywall. I confess when that happens I might cancel my print subscription. For traveling, the Post app is good enough to sort of feel like you got the gist of the newspaper experience.

Tablet computers thus hit a sweet spot, but do not fundamentally solve the portable computing issue. Doubtless much more money will be spent trying to close the gap. Most of us will live with their annoyances compared with a laptop or desktop computer while we are mobile, but be glad to swap in real keyboards and mice (mice allowing easier fine-tuned editing) when we need to be highly productive.

Will the iPad mean the death of Windows?

Microsoft Windows has shown amazing resilience for much of its existence, in spite of its arguably inferior status. Microsoft is now busily creating its next version of Windows, Window 8, and is already heavily hyping it. Many years of observation suggest to me that this means the company is running scared. They fear the success of the iPad and the whole new mobile computer market, where Microsoft has floundered.

Apple dazzled the world with its iPad, but it was just the latest in a number of well-received innovations that included the iPod and the iPhone. The cool factor was primarily a result of its amazingly well thought out user interface. Its success spawned a huge developer community that wrote apps for these devices, making them even more useful. While Microsoft was arguably first in the tablet market by creating stylus-based devices like the Tablet PC, they naturally tethered it to Windows. It’s understandable that they would see value in embedding it with Windows, since it is their brand. What they did not see was that a tablet computer needed an operating system where mobility was at its center, not at the periphery. When Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the iPad, they achieved a breakthrough: a highly useful mobile and connected computer that could also do virtually everything you could do on a desktop computer yet not weigh enough to feel burdensome.

What cemented my feeling that Windows days were numbered at last was observing a woman in my chain of command. She dutifully dragged around the required Blackberry for years, but it was largely used for reading and responding to email. With its tiny keyboard, it was hardly ideal for email either. When the iPhone came out, because she had the clout, she quickly got one and realized the freedom of having a useful mobile product. She retired the Blackberry. Just this week her iPad arrived. It’s bigger than her iPhone, of course, but not too big or too heavy not to be easily carried around. Moreover, it was WiFi and 3G friendly. She could be as productive on the go with her iPad as she could in the office.

Executives everywhere are discovering the iPad and to a lesser extent Android-based tablet computers like Samsung’s Galaxy pad. Some of those executives are CIOs and CTOs, and the light bulbs above their heads began glowing brightly as they figured out that these devices make them more productive on the go while also doing 95% of what their desktop computer can do. In fact they do more than their desktop computer can do, because their tablet computers are so portable and geographically aware. When something is 95% as useful as your desktop computer while you are in the office, and more useful than your desktop computer when away from the office, the end of Windows as a client operating system is not hard to infer.

No, Microsoft won’t go away, but desktop computers will become a declining share of the market in general, which in fact is already underway. Instead, you will carry your iPad or Android-based tablet to work, but probably plug it in to keep the battery charged. You will also probably skip the network cable for the convenience of the office’s wireless network. You will mostly use a wireless keyboard to put content on it (at least until voice recognition software too become ubiquitous), and if its relatively small screen is insufficient for the office, you will plug it into your big honkin’ high-resolution monitor. When it’s time to go home you will slip it automatically into your briefcase or bag. It will follow you pretty much everywhere you go, and its low power requirements will mean you can go for many hours without needing to recharge it. But if you do, you are probably near the power grid anyhow.

Windows 8 is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) and Android. But no matter how well it is engineered, it is unlikely to be more compelling than iOS and the iPad, which the nation’s opinion leaders are already using. It is they who will slowly strangle Microsoft Windows, and over time kill its Office suite and the other products tethered to it as well. In time, we will discover that iOS and Android are really nothing but smartly thought out thin-client operating systems, because content (most of it resting securely in the Internet cloud) and an optimized mobile user interface to read and manipulate it is what really matters in our 21st century information age.

I think Windows will die a slow death, with income principally coming from its server-based products like Exchange. Eventually the backroom tech team will find alternatives for Exchange, Active Directory and many other Windows server based products, because they will be cheaper and many of them will not be proprietary.

If you own Microsoft stock, I would not dump it all at once since it probably still has a decade of profits ahead of it. However, I would be selling it in hearty slices over the next few years because its value is likely to sink. I believe that eventually Microsoft will become just another niche company, like Novell or Computer Associates, selling dated legacy products at premium prices to a reduced set of customers too incompetent or lazy to go through the cost and hassle of ditching them.