The iPad Put A Fork In Personal Computing

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in January 2010, he wondered aloud whether there was room between the smartphone and the notebook for a third category of tablet device like the iPad.

Everybody uses a laptop and a smartphone. And a question has arisen lately: is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone. And of course we’ve pondered this question for years as well. The bar’s pretty high. In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. Better than a laptop. Better than a smartphone.

Hard though it may be to believe, Western Civilization once had to collectively ask itself a similar question regarding a then radical new form of technology…a fork.

Before the fork was introduced, Westerners were reliant on the spoon and knife as the only eating utensils. Thus, people would largely eat food with their hands, calling for a common spoon when required. Members of the aristocracy would sometimes be accustomed to manners considered more proper and hold two knives at meals and use them both to cut and transfer food to the mouth, using the spoon for soups and broth.-Wikipedia


A spoon, a fork and a knife are three different categories of cutlery. A smartphone, a tablet and a notebook are three different categories of computer.

A fork is its own category because it is far better at doing some key tasks. Better than a spoon. Better than a knife.

A tablet is its own category because it is far better at doing some key tasks. Better than a smartphone. Better than a notebook.


When I eat, I have a choice between using a spoon, a fork and a knife. A fork does not replace a knife. But its presence means that I use a knife less often.

When I compute, I have a choice between using a smartphone, a tablet and a notebook. A tablet does not replace a notebook. But its presence means that I use a notebook less often.


Sometimes a fork complements a knife. Sometimes a fork is used on its own. But always a fork is used when it is most useful.

Sometimes a tablet complements a notebook. Sometimes a tablet is used on its own. But always a tablet is used when it is most useful.


When I eat, I use the utensil that best serves my needs.

I do not ask silly questions, like whether a spoon is a liquid consumption device and a fork is a solids consumption device. I do not ask whether a knife does “real” work just because it does not, ordinarily, convey food to my mouth. I do not obsess on the exceptionally rare times when I may use my spoon as a fork, my fork as a knife or my knife as a fork. Instead, I simply use the right tool at the right time.

When I compute, I use the device that best serves my needs.

I do not ask silly questions, like whether a tablet is a consumption device. I do not ask whether a phone or a tablet does “real” work. I do not obsess on the exceptionally rare times when I may use my phone as a tablet, my tablet as a notebook or my notebook as a tablet. Instead, I simply use the right tool at the right time.


Each utensil should be employed to do what it does best.

A fork does not aspire to be a knife. A knife does not aspire to be a fork. And most especially, a fork and a knife do not aspire to be one and the same thing.

Each device should be employed to do what it does best.

A tablet should not aspire to be a notebook. A notebook should not aspire to be a tablet. And most especially, a tablet and a notebook should not aspire to be one and the same thing.


A spork is a hybrid form of cutlery taking the form of a spoon-like shallow scoop with three or four fork tines.

A spife is a tool where the blade of a knife is used as the handle of the spoon.

A knork is a hybrid form of cutlery which combines the cutting capability of a knife and the spearing capability of a fork into a single utensil.

A sporf is a single eating utensil combining the properties of a spoon, fork, and knife. One popular brand is the Splayd.


What does a spork, a spife, a knork and a sporf have in common?

Few have ever heard of them. Even fewer have any use for them.

What does a Surface Tablet, a Windows 8 Tablet and a Windows 8 desktop have in common with a spork, a spife, a knork and a sporf?


They compromise on everything and excel at nothing. They provide far more features but far fewer benefits. They do many things but they don’t do any things better or even as well.

They’re not category defining because they’re not far better at doing any key tasks than are the already existing categories.


Who are those most interested in using combination cutlery like the spork, spife, knork and sporf?

Specialists, with special needs, like campers, backpackers, fast food restaurants, schools, prisons, the military, plus special tasks like cutting kiwi fruit (spife) and special circumstances like those with only one hand (knork).

Who are those most interested in using combination devices like the Surface running Windows 8?

Specialists, like reporters, road warriors, gadget freaks, technological gunslingers, plus those with specialized tasks and special needs. In other words, the kinds of people who regularly read and even comment on tech blogs like this one. But not ordinary folk.

Just as the spork, spife, knork and sporf are extremely useful to the extremely few, so will the Surface and Windows 8 on tablets be extremely useful. But if you dare dream that any of these will go mainstream and earn a regular place at the table…you can stick a fork in it.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

48 thoughts on “The iPad Put A Fork In Personal Computing”

  1. This means there needs to be a fourth category: the almighty set of chopsticks. Personally, being that I’m of a Korean-American background, I use chopsticks far more than the fork.

  2. John Kirk, are you and Falkirk (a frequent commentator) related. The two of you, IMO, are two of the most interesting and valuable sources of opinion in the industry.

    This article explains, with a great analogy, how unproductive the arguments are which are used in downplaying the usefulness of tablets. And if that weren’t enough, you provide a bonus piece of insight into what will be the role of the combination tablets by skillfully expanding on that same analogy. And last, you conclude the article with a great ending – “you can stick a fork in it”. It is almost as if you had decided what the last line would be and then wrote an article that would fit it.

    Well done!

    1. Yes, John Kirk and Falkirk are the same person. We were so impressed by his comments that we invited him to join us as a regular contributor. This piece certainly confirms the wisdom of that decision.

  3. WooHoo! Wonderful!

    But you left out perhaps the best analogy to tablets: the issues surrounding adoption. From Wikipedia,:

    Its use was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation. Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use (despite its above-mentioned use in the Bible), seeing it as “excessive delicacy”: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.

    Artsy, not suitable for real work, indeed.

  4. Since Windows is primarily used in the enterprise, I suspect that people who talk about “real” work define it as anything that requires Windows. Right, whatever you say…

  5. Brilliant!
    Absolutely brilliant.

    Thank you for bringing back into focus that very important introduction which provides the reason for the success of the iPad.
    I suspect most people have forgotten about it under the pile of me-too copycat tablets that were built not to please their buyers but to squeeze some cash from a new market.

    The thing I’m looking forward to most in the iPad mini introduction is the exact same thing: an explanation of what a smaller iPad will do better than the rest of the tablets out there.

  6. “But if you dare dream that the Surface and Windows 8 on tablets will go mainstream and earn a regular place at the table…you can stick a fork in it.”

    John, I’m glad you’re not in a discussion with Steve Ballmer. You would speak in a normal voice and he would yell and pound on the table when you said that.

  7. I’m in China now for two weeks after a week in Korea. I find that I’m using the iPad far more often than I’m using the MacBook Air. In fact, when I go visit the factories I work with I leave the MBA at the hotel (or the factory dorm) and just take the iPad (now outfitted with the Logitech Ultra Thin Keyboard Cover).

    At meetings with the factory staff members, the iPad is far more useful to take notes with a stylus and I beam documents, photos and presentations to an ATV (which I also bring along on business trips) connected to an HDTV. Everyone still has a notebook computer or a paper notepad in front of them and they observe what I’m doing with the iPad with great interest.

    After the meetings they huddle around me and enquire about how I’m using the iPad. They have all this stuff – laptop, power adapters, cables, paper notebooks, etc. and here I am with just an iPad, the keyboard cover, and stylus and I’m doing far more things far more efficiently than they are.

    I demo the iPad to them and how I use iCloud to sync it with my iPhone and MBA and they are just flabbergasted. They may have read or heard about all the cloud buzz but they are really not sure at all on how it’s used. When I show them how I sync files and apps instantly with things like Calendar, Reminders, iPhoto (stream), Dropbox, etc., they have this look of wonder on their faces.

    I still use the MBA to edit massive spreadsheets, manage iPhoto, and create presentations on PowerPoint or Keynote but I wouldn’t be doing those kinds of things during a busy day of meetings and spending time inspecting product and working with engineers and managers on the factory floor.

    All I need to carry with me is the iPhone and the iPad. The products I inspect are electric guitars and the iPhone is very valuable to not only take photos but to tune them very accurately using an app called Peterson Strobe. Stats I accumulate are instantly updated on the iPad and I use that for meetings right afterwards.

    It makes the traditional laptop or notebook computer seem so yesterday. The factory managers and staff look at me with a sense of envy and fascination when it really isn’t much at all. It just makes everything so much easier for me to do everything I need to do in a very efficient manner. Ultimately, that’s all it comes down to.

    Why is everyone here carrying around a heavy laptop, a power adapter with long cables, and paper notepads along with things like backup drives, thumb drives, etc.? It’s so silly. People who say that the iPad is only for media consumption and games really don’t get it. It’s now far more productive in many situations than a laptop – especially for someone like me traveling throughout Asia visiting factories for procurement and quality engineering purposes.

    After the workday, I love talking tech with the executives and managers here and they are very attentive and interested in what I have to say about using technology to just become more efficient and enjoy all the other things it has to offer. I tell them about how I’m using iTunes Match to enjoy my huge music library without having it on my MBA, iPad and iPhone.

    I even tell them how, when I’m even on my business trip here, I can view my wife’s schedule back home on my Calendar so I know what’s going on although she doesn’t view my work schedule on her Calendar on her iMac, iPad and iPhone. I stream audio samples of instruments from the iPhone or iPad to the ATV connected to the TV during meetings and their jaws are on the floor.

    And you know what? I’m as far as one can be from being a geek. I tell them, “I’m just like you. I never read a manual – let alone books – to figure this stuff out. It’s so easy. I’m not a techie at all. I just try to use it to make work more fun and efficient. I hate tech bogging me down and taking time away from what I really need and want to do.”

    I’m traveling on business over a third of my time and the iPad has become the center of the technology I use to get stuff done. It’s all I use in the long trans-Pacific flights to watch movies, do some work, play games, etc. I don’t bother taking out the MBA from the backpack.

    The iPad has also replaced pen and paper for business meetings. I have the Noteshelf app and the fantastic Hand Stylus and that’s all I need. People may think I’m some tech nerd but I only use these things because they make a lot more sense. I show up at meetings with just a very small and light bag carrying the iPad on my shoulder while everyone has tons of stuff in their hands and bags.

    Yes, it’s a fork (or chopsticks) when compared to a spoon-and-knife set. It’s not good for eating soup but I can do that later with the MBA at the hotel room. In Seoul, where I get around on my own taking the local subway trains or buses, I do wonder if an iPad mini might come in handy but I wouldn’t want to add that to the regular iPad I’m carrying around.

    Ultimately, it’s about having the right tool for the job – or the right utensil for the type of food being served as this article points out. Does the iPad replace my MBA? No, it doesn’t replace it. To me, the MBA is more of a portable computer for the home and the office that I have hooked up to a large monitor (or in the hotel room on its own) to get the heavy lifting done but I don’t really need to do that when I’m on the move.

    For me, the iPad is front and center. Even in the hotel room, I’d rather pick up the iPad to browse the web, catch up on personal emails, read a book, Skype or FaceTime with the family, etc. than use the MBA although I am typing this on it right now. I can still type faster on this than the Logitech keyboard cover. Gotta use the right tool for the job!

  8. Outstanding. I cannot think of a single private commenter better suited to be plucked from the comment boards and brought on board as an opinion writer.

    Great article and my hat is off to Falkirk. My only regret is that we may not see Falkirk “out there” any more, but really, that’s a small price to pay.

    1. I think John still intends to mix it up in the comments. I know he enjoys that as well and so do I, so I would assume it would continue.

      We are very happy to have John on board with us at Tech.pinions.

  9. Cutlery implies a blade. In England, we have always used the term ‘flatware’ for non-cutlery. Which includes spoons, forks and other forms of non-cutlery.

    1. Thanks, Karl. I actually looked up the definition of “cutlery” before I used it. The definitions are:

      cutlery |ˈkətlərē|noun1 cutting utensils, esp. knives for cutting food.2 knives, forks, and spoons used for eating or serving food.

      While the first definition is cutting utensils, the second covers my intended meaning. I felt that alternatives such as “silverware” or “flatware” would have been harder, not easier, to understand that cutlery. (Also, you’ll note that wikipedia uses the word “cutlery” when describing the spork, spife, knork and sporf.)

  10. You are incorrect. Windows 8 is not similar to the spork, spife, knork or sporf. It is a in essence a fork, a knife and a spoon. It does not work with everything and excel at nothing, it excels at everything and fails at nothing.

    I believe that the Surface WILL go mainstream, it is inevitable considering it is far superior to any other tablet. Whereas the iPad is just an abomination of an iPhone combined with an ebook, and other small trinkets, the Surface is a specialised piece of equipment. Think of the iPad as a sporf, good at everything. Then think of the Surface as a Swiss army knife that can use all of its gadgets at once to the same potential they had when they were separate, only better as they can be used in tandem.

    1. Three questions:
      1) Have you ever used a Surface?
      2) Have you ever used an iPad?
      3) Have you ever used a Swiss army knife?

      WRT to the Swiss army knife, none of its individual tools comes anywhere close to the functionality of a dedicated tool. Its virtue lies in having the tools in one package, but the cost the the compromise of function.

      1. I’ve used a Swiss army knife. Lots of times in the wilds. You know what ? it’s better to have subpar tools in a bundle if that means you’re actually going to carry them, than to not have the tools at all. Carrying a swiss army knife helped me immensely. And the fact is I wouldn’t carry all those tools as individual packages the way I can carry a Swiss knife.

        Just like I wouldn’t carry both an iPad and a Macbook Air. I currently own both, but I intend to replace them with the x86 version of Microsoft Surface. I am sick of the restrictions of the iPad and not being able to use it for programming whenever I’m not at home or work and carry that lump of “consumption device” that artificially restricts the hardware. I like to program for fun too and the iPad artificially restricts me.

        Apple can go eat a cock.

        1. You may have read the comment of alexkhan200 and he said it all.

          But judging from your comment I bet you don’t/didn’t own any Apple product.

        2. “It’s better to have subpar tools in a bundle if that means you’re actually going to carry them, than to not have the tools at all.”-Z

          Absolutely correct. Just as the Swiss Army knife is popular with campers, hybrid computing tools will be extremely useful to the extremely few. But most of us are not campers and most of us are not road warriors, nor do we have special computing needs. I applaud the Swiss Army knife, the spork, the spife, the knork and the sporf for filling an extremely useful niche. But don’t expect hybrid products to go mainstream.

    2. “Windows 8 is…in essence a fork, a knife and a spoon.”-Ranter

      I’m certain that the inventors of the spork, spife, knork and sporf said the very same thing.

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