Tablet Metaphysics

Are you ready for some Tech Metaphysics?

“Aristotle drew a distinction between essential and accidental properties. The way he put it is that essential properties are those without which a thing wouldn’t be what it is, and accidental properties are those that determine how a thing is, but not what it is.

For example, Aristotle thought that rationality was essential to being a human being and, since Socrates was a human being, Socrates’s rationality was essential to his being Socrates. Without the property of rationality, Socrates simply wouldn’t be Socrates. He wouldn’t even be a human being, so how could he be Socrates? On the other hand, Aristotle thought that Socrates’s property of being snubnosed was merely accidental; snub-nosed was part of how Socrates was, but it wasn’t essential to what or who he was. To put it another way, take away Socrates’s rationality, and he’s no longer Socrates, but give him plastic surgery, and he’s Socrates with a nose job. ”

~ Excerpt From: Thomas Cathcart. “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar.”

Now what the heck does all of this have to do with Tech and Tablets? Well, I’ll tell you.

One of the major mistakes that Microsoft and its OEM partners are making is that they are failing to properly distinguish between the “essential” and the “accidental” properties of a tablet. Here’s two opposing examples to illustrate that point.


If you take away the keyboard from a Notebook computer, it is no longer a Notebook computer. It can’t function. But if you take away a keyboard from a Tablet, it is still a Tablet. Using Aristotle’s definitions, a keyboard is ESSENTIAL to a Notebook computer but it is ACCIDENTAL to a Tablet computer.

With me so far? Here’s a second example.


If you take away the touch user interface from a Tablet, it is no longer a Tablet. (See Microsoft’s failed attempts to create a tablet from 2001 until 2010.) It can’t function. But if you take away the touch user interface from a Notebook computer, it is still a Notebook. A touch user interface is ESSENTIAL to a Tablet but it is ACCIDENTAL to a Notebook.

Just one more step and we can bring it home.


Both Pixel input and Touch input require a metaphor that allows our minds to grasp the use and usefulness of that input. For example, menus and scroll bars are standard fare on Notebook and Desktop computers but they are anathema to Tablets. Why? Because menus and scroll bars are too small for multi-pixel finger input. On Tablets, menus are replaced by large buttons and scroll bars by replaced by “flicking” the screen up or down. This is not minor matter. A wholly new, built from the ground up, Touch User Interface is ESSENTIAL to a Tablet.


Touch is ACCIDENTAL to a Notebook computer. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Notebook but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Notebook computer is. A keyboard is ACCIDENTAL to a Tablet. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Tablet, but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Tablet is. Further — and this is key — a touch input metaphor and a pixel input metaphor must be wholly different and wholly incompatible with one another. It’s not just that they do not comfortably co-exist within one form factor. It’s also that they do not comfortably co-exist within our minds eye.

In plain words, it’s no accident that tablets and notebooks are distinctly different from one another. On the contrary, their differences — their incompatibilities — are the essence of what makes them what they are.

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?

3 thoughts on “Tablet Metaphysics”

  1. Great post John! Made me think of Jony Ive and Marc Newson’s comments on reducing objects to their essence (from the Charlie Rose interview in November) — how that’s the mark of good design. Ive and Newson repeatedly noted how the best design is intentional, with nothing unnecessary or arbitrary. They noted how a spacesuit is the ultimate example of this.

    1. Right back at you, Bill. Great comment.

      There’s a lot of confusion in the tablet, hybrid, notebook sector. Using Aristotle’s terms, distinguishing between the essential and the accidental is the key to understanding tablets and their proper place in today’s computing marketplace.

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