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

on July 6, 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.