Smartphones, Tablets, and PCs: A Computer for Every Purpose

by Steve Wildstrom   |   July 6th, 2012

View of SantoriniI’m fresh back from a couple of lovely weeks cruising the Mediterranean. In addition to providing some needed relaxation, the trip convinced me that we are truly living in a golden age of computing. Whatever your need, there’s a device ideally suited for it–and this specialization will shape the future of the tech market.

I traveled with more equipment than was strictly necessary: A 13″ MacBook Air, a third-generation iPad with a Zagg keyboard, iPhone 4S, and a Kindle Fire (plus my wife had an Acer 10″ Honeycomb tablet.) The iPhone proved to be the workhorse. It was the device for which I had arranged international data service, so it was where I read my mail, checked my Twitter feed, and generally kept in touch.

When Wi-Fi was available (I refused to use the ship’s very expensive, very slow satellite-based connection), I’d fire up the iPad. At need, I would connect it through the iPhone, but I avoided tethering as much as possible to minimize the drain on a very limited data plan. I hardly used the MacBook at all. On one occasion when I decided to write a full Tech.pinions post on shipboard, I used the laptop because it was there, but could have done the job on the iPad. Mostly I used the MacBook just as a pipe to transfer photos from my camera to a small external hard drive. The Kindle was used exclusively for reading, and I ended up wishing I had brought a an E Ink Kindle rather than the Fire because the LCD screen was hard to read on deck.

My point here is that each of these devices fits into a usability niche and it makes sense, especially given the trend of falling prices, for people to have multiple computers–and all these devices are computers of varying capabilities–and choose the one they need for the job at hand. The devices I took all slid easily into my daypack with lots of room left for other stuff, and together they weighed less, and probably cost less, than the laptop I would have taken instead a few years ago.

The experience leads me to agree with Jim Dalrymple’s conclusion that Bill Gates is way off the mark with his argument that competitive pressure will force Apple to come up with a more versatile device along the lines of Microsoft’s forthcoming Surface tablet. Microsoft has always championed the idea that the most versatile device is the best device and that Windows is literally an all-purpose operating system. Microsoft is again missing the point in coming up with hardware and an operating system, Windows 8, that tries to be all things to all people at all times.  Apple continues to have a much better idea of device segmentation: the iPhone (and its cousin, the iPod touch), the iPad, and the MacBook  each fits into a specific niche of usability and each comes with core software closely tailored to that functionality. The iPhone is the device you always have with you. You turn to the iPad when you need a bigger display and software capable of greater complexity. And is you need multiple windows, true multitasking, lots of local storage, and maximum software flexibility, you fire up the MacBook. And if Apple does produce the hotly rumored mini-iPad, I suspect it will come with features that will determine its distinctive niche.

The do-it-all general purpose computer had a nice quarter-century run. But its day is over.

 

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    I still say Microsoft is stuck in the 1990s desktop era. It’s not entirely true, but it characterizes the core of their thinking enough that at the end of 2012 they plan to bring out a major product that seems to be fundamentally a 1990s Windows computer. The inability to go through a sea change is often a liability of companies which were hugely successful in the past, and Microsoft’s very limited success in the newly-important area of mobile illustrates this.

  • FalKirk

    “we are truly living in a golden age of computing”

    I agree with the conclusions in your article, but I wanted to take a little side trip and agree with the above statement as well. I knew life before there were computers, when computers were just starting to enter our lives and when computers had become an everyday part of our lives. Like most early adopters, I had to suffer from computing’s growing pains. I well remember paying too much both for hardware parts and for software programs.

    I believe we are now living in a second golden age of computing. As wondrous as computing was the first time around, we never had the power we have today at anywhere near the prices we’re paying to acquire that power. And mobile has given us flexibility beyond our wildest dreams. And the internet? I feel like we’re living in the future.

    But perhaps the most amazing thing is Apps. I remember carefully choosing each and every application with care. They were expensive, hard to get and, often, hard to use. Today, iOS alone offers us over 600,000 Apps. For a buck. Or less. Six hundred thousand Apps. Wow.

    I listen to knaves who mock the power of Apps and dismiss them as fools. They have no idea how lucky they have it.

    Computing is not perfect and never will be perfect. But we truly do live in computing’s second Golden Age. And I think we’re just at the dawn of that age. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow may bring.

  • ktshanti

    Sounds like you had a great vacation.

    While I agree with you that we are in Device Nirvana now (and Bill Gates is still confused about the future…as he was when he didn’t see the Internet and bought the Spyglass browser and renamed it, “IE”), we are also now in Carrier Hell.
    http://www.theverge.com/2012/7/5/3138711/five-years-after-the-iphone-carriers-are-the-biggest-threat-to-innovation-editorial

    It will be interesting to see if/when the captured FCC will act.

  • FalKirk

    Steve, I really liked this article. I think your thoughtful commentary added to discussion. And after all the (virtual) ink that has been spilled on the subject, that’s really saying something.