How many computers do we need?

on October 9, 2014

There was a thought I alluded to in last week’s Tech.pinions podcast I want to expand. It’s the idea we’re now surrounded by many different computers in a variety of form factors and that one of the biggest questions for our industry is just how many of these computers each individual needs for their personal and business needs.

When the word computer was synonymous with the desktop PC, the answer was plainly either one or zero for the vast majority of people. Either you needed a computer or you didn’t. If you did, it likely sat on the desk at work or on a table at home if you needed it for personal reasons. Very few people would have needed more than one.

However, when the laptop came along there was suddenly a reason for at least some people to have more than one computer for the same purpose. One – the desktop – stayed on the desk while the other traveled with the user. This entailed some compromises – files often had to be manually transferred to the laptop computer using a floppy disk or a USB drive or similar. Over time, the increasing power of laptops allowed at least some users to forgo the desktop entirely, perhaps making use of a docking station when in the office or at home to extend the functionality of the laptop. As such, the laptop went from being a secondary device to being a primary device or even the only computer used for work or personal needs.

When the smartphone first came along, it took on a similar role to the laptop — as a secondary computer in our lives (at best). Early smartphones were very limited-use computers, effective only for basic emails and such, but able to replace very few, if any, functions of the laptop. As smartphones have evolved however, they have become more and more pocket computers, able to replicate, at least in basic form, many of the functions of a laptop. They began as secondary devices but, once again, as they’ve gained in power and functionality, they’ve become for many of us the primary computers in our lives, going with us everywhere, the first ones we turn to for many tasks, with laptops performing a backup function.

In 2010, Apple reinvented the tablet with the iPad and introduced yet another computer into this mix. People who already used a smartphone and laptop had another computer to use, optimized for certain tasks and scenarios, offering a larger screen than the smartphone, sharing many of its benefits, such as portability, instant on nature, and a touch-based operating system. This was arguably the first time that ordinary people were in the position of owning three different computers for personal use. In some cases, people resolved this situation by adopting the tablet as the primary computing device, effectively replacing a laptop much as the laptop once replaced the desktop.

I believe this instinct of trying to get back down to two computers for personal use is a powerful one, both for complexity and budgetary reasons. Many people and businesses struggle to justify three separate device purchases to accomplish essentially the same tasks. Though some resolve this tension by opting for a tablet over a laptop, others will resolve it the other way, falling back on the more powerful laptop and slowly abandoning their tablets. I see the last few years as a period of experimentation among many users as they test whether the tablet fits into their lives as a primary device, a secondary device, or not at all. The rise of two-in-ones and the Microsoft Surface are attempts to help users resolve this tension by finding a compromise between the two form factors, though these devices inevitably entail compromises.

Into this mix comes the “phablet” – the large screened smartphone which approaches the unofficial dividing line between smartphones and tablets at 5.5 inches or more. In some cases, users are resolving the tension by increasing the size of the smartphone they carry allowing the smartphone to absorb some tablet tasks, while others fall to the laptop, leaving the tablet without a role. While I think the threat of phablets to tablets can be overblown, I do think it’s real, and Apple’s larger iPhones in particular represent a particular threat to the iPad.

All of which makes next week’s Apple event particularly interesting. At this point in its history, Apple has to decide what the proper role of the iPad is in a multi-computer world, especially in the context of its recent iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launches. How important is it Apple provide compelling new reasons for people to choose the iPad in addition to the iPhone and Mac lines? Last year’s new iPad hardware was a significant step forward in the case of the Air, which is markedly lighter and thinner than the previous versions. Yet it provided no huge bump in sales. I’ve talked about the iPad replacement cycle before and I believe this may still be part of the reason for the current lull in iPad sales with a big upgrade cycle to come. I also believe Apple is slowly reducing the reasons to buy an iPad with enhancements to both the iPhone and Mac lines.

The question at this point is whether the iPad in fact occupies a position much like the iPod — extremely compelling for a period of time, but destined to be replaced at some point by other devices, like the iPod by the iPhone. This feels odd because of the order of their launches (though we should note that work on the iPad began before work on the iPhone). But as Apple has released increasingly personal devices, people have slowly shifted their attention towards the newer, more personal even if the iPad’s place in the order of launches is a little out of position. If iPhones cannibalize iPads, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Apple, which makes more money from the former (both revenue per device and margins), except perhaps it reinforces the company’s reliance on a single line of devices for much of its growth, revenue and profit. But at some point in the next few years, Apple may have to decide how to actively foster that cannibalization.

We come, lastly, to the Apple Watch, which is the latest in Apple’s series of increasingly personal and “intimate” computers (to use Apple’s terminology):

Increasingly mobile and personal computers

The Apple Watch isn’t quite like any other smartwatch out there, not just because of the somewhat unique fashion angle, but also because it clearly sets out its stall as a computer in its own right, with huge potential beyond its current capability in future versions. Over time, I think it’s entirely possible the Apple Watch could become the primary computer in people’s lives just as the laptop and smartphone have been before. We’re some time from that eventuality, just as the original smartphones weren’t ready to replace laptops. But I can easily foresee this future coming in the next few years. This seems especially plausible when you bear in mind the fragmentation between inputs, outputs and processors I’ve talked about previously, in which small devices such as the Apple Watch might use external processing power, inputs and outputs to achieve their full functionality.

However, it raises the question yet again of, how many computers we need? We used to think the answer was either one or zero, whereas now the answer seems for many people to be closer to two, while for others it’s three. With watches like the Apple Watch coming on the market, some may start using as many as four. But over time, it’s likely the inevitable tension that arises from using multiple computing devices will kick in again and people will find themselves trying to eliminate at least some of those they use to focus on just a couple. It will be very interesting to see which they choose.