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The iPad May Kill Laptops and Save the Desktop

Photo of IBM PCThe iPad–and other tablets if we ever get some good ones–poses an existential threat to the laptop. But it might provide a new lease on life for the much-ignored desktop PC. My colleague Ben Bajarin touched on this theme in his a post Notebooks Are the Past, Tablets Are the Future. I want to take a look at it in more depth.

I’m starting from the increasingly uncontroversial premise that a good tablet is all the computer most people need. The biggest weakness of tablets, the lack of local storage, is being solved in the cloud. For the times that you want to write more than is comfortable with the on-screen keyboard, a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard does the trick.

For some of us, though, a full-featured PC remains very much a part of our everyday toolkit. I frequently work on complex documents with a large number of windows open at one time. I do a fair amount of research. I edit video and work on databases. These are tasks that range from inconvenient to impossible on my iPad. So I have a Windows 7 desktop, which I use primarily for accounting and as a sort of poor man’s file server, and a 27″ iMac, which is my desktop workhorse.

What I am finding however, is that is use my laptops less and less. I spent this past weekend at a family event in North Carolina. I took both an iPad and a 13″ MacBook Air and the MacBook never came out of my bag. Everything I wanted could be done more conveniently on the iPad. Even on business trips, I’m finding the laptop doesn’t get used unless I really need it.

My first notebook was a Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 600c in the mid-1990s and since then I have used everything from tiny netbooks to a dual-screen ThinkPad (barely) mobile workstation. And the truth is that every notebook has felt like a compromise. The displays were never big enough, even on units too heavy to carry comfortably. Except on the ThinkPads that I favored for years and the more recent MacBooks, pointing devices ranged from barely adequate to awful.

Ergonomic nightmares. The ergonomics are just plain bad because a keyboard permanently attached to the display meant that the positioning of the keyboard or the display or most likely both was less than optimal. (This is why I prefer my separate ZAGGkeys Flex keyboard  to more integrated units.) The push to include touch screens on Windows 8 laptops is going to make bad ergonomics worse. I tried many Windows Tablet PCs over the years and the awfulness of using touch in laptop mode was not due entirely to Microsoft’s dreadful software.

Desktops are actually a much happier solution for heavy-duty computing. Feature for feature, you get more for your money than with laptops. Storage is cheap and all but unlimited, and even with the cloud lots of local storage is a good thing to have. You can buy the keyboard, pointing device,  and displays you prefer and put them where you want relative to the keyboard.

The trend in recent years has been to use a laptop as an all-purpose computer, perhaps connecting it to a bigger display and an external keyboard when it’s at home on your desk. That made a fair amount of sense in a pre-tablet world. Today, however, even most heavy users of computing power will be happy with a tablet when away from their offices (there are exceptions, say, engineers and software developers.) And instead of settling for the compromises of a laptop when in your office, why not go for a no-compromise desktop. And if you really want touch in a desktop, the displays can be designed so they will tilt nearly horizontal for better ergonomics; HP has been using this feature in their TouchSmart all-in-ones. It’s time for a lot of businesses that have replaced desktops with laptops to rethink the policy.

I can’t see myself giving up a laptop just yet. There are still times when I need a full computer while traveling or when I have to work out of an office (someone else’s) and bring my own computer. But these occasions are getting rarer and rarer, and I could be laptop-free sooner than I think. But the desktops will survive and maybe even prosper.

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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.

29 thoughts on “The iPad May Kill Laptops and Save the Desktop”

  1. It really depends on the user. The funny thing, to me, is that so many technical users are avoiding the iPad on religious grounds, but it’s not stopping the iPad from widespread adoption.

  2. With respect to corporate desktop rethink, you are forgetting the fact that corporate computers need increased mobility, and the ever-increasing work-from-home status requires more than a tablet. Taking your secure PC with you, in the form of a laptop, makes the most sense. At least, as long as your need is for a PC, over and above a tablet, at all.

    Our corporation is considering the use of tablets for director and above positions – mainly because at that level, workstation-level PCs are not all that important. There’s always a host of subordinates to do the heavy lifting.

      1. Windows 7 out of the box is actually reasonably secure. Windows (even Windows XP) in a hardened configuration, such as the Federal Desktop Core Configuration, is about as secure as a desktop OS can be. The assumption of hopeless windows insecurity is years out of date.

  3. I think the “one you have with you” syndrome comes into play:

    For many, the iPhone class smart phone is the “best” camera…

    For many, the iPad is the “best” pc…

  4. I’ve been saying this to my friends for a while.

    A couple years ago I would use a fairly powerful laptop (15″MacBook Pro) for all my computing needs – at home or on the go. It was always a compromise though – neither quite powerful enough for my most demanding tasks (hobbyist video editing, photo management, web-site design, desktop publishing) or quite portable enough to be truly convenient (I still often would need to find a power outlet or a flat surface to rest it). My family members also all had their own laptops with similar usage models.

    Nowadays I no longer own a notebook. I find myself using a tablet (new iPad) for all my light duty tasks (email, web-browsing, social networking, casual gaming) and a desktop (27″ iMac) for all my demanding tasks. The iPad is much more portable – I can use it on the couch, in bed, while waiting at a doctors office, on the plane or in a host of other places. I’ve found it to be more than adequate for the kinds of tasks I need to do while away from home. And the iMac at home with it’s large screen, fast CPU and an actual keyboard does a better job at my more demanding tasks then a notebook ever did.

    Also, I’ve switched my other family members to iPads from notebooks and since we do most of our casual computing on the iPad we can all share the same iMac for our occasional heavy duty tasks. Buying a nice iMac and several iPads is actually more economical then buying everyone there own full fledged notebook.

  5. There will always be someone who needs a real laptop. But I’ve been saying this since I got my iPad: I will not get an iPad again. My future lies with an iPad and an iMac.

  6. When I hear someone say “I can do all my work on my tablet”, for them the laptop was most likely overkill in the first place. The IT departments at the large corporations usually have a deployment model in that, if engineer you get this laptop or this desktop, if manager you get this laptop or this desktop, etc. It makes deployment easier, and there are no hard feelings or crushed egos because someone got a better laptop than you did.
    If I was still managing IT and the deployment of office desktops, I wouldn’t bother with more desktop overkill. Instead a thin client setup on each desktop, would give us tighter control on configurations, licensing and security.
    In addition to the thin client I would replace the desktop phone, with an iPad and applicable SIP/VOIP soft client. Now each employee can work anywhere in the office, now that they aren’t tied to a particular phone or desktop computer. Thats the trend to watch for.

  7. I agree, I’ve been thinking about replacing my aging MacBook Pro (my main computer) with an iMac now that I have all the portability and function I need when traveling with my iPad. I can’t reason why I should spend the extra money on a new laptop when my old one basically hasn’t left it’s place on my desk for well over a year now. I can get a more powerful iMac with a bigger screen and more storage for less money.

  8. Within a month after getting my first iPad, I was telling people that if I started over again, I’d have a desktop (whether iMac, Mac Pro, or even a Mac mini) and an iPad, and I’d ditch the laptop. Never expected it to take over computing and communication duties so well.

    Yes, my Macbook Pro isn’t being used to its full capabilities. And, of course, it’s ultimately more inconvenient than an iPad while on the road.

  9. Here we go.
    Yet another article in which a tech ‘journalist’ decides that his personal experience foreshadows a massive tech sea-change.
    I just read another similar article where the ‘journalist’ was complaining that the problems he is having with his iCloud account were not mentioned in Apple’s last media event.
    Are these guys in a bubble or what?!

    Note to Steve; there are dozens of very simple things I can do on a laptop that are **impossible** to do on my iPad. Shall I entertain you with a list?…
    -Type a letter longer than 30 words, in under a minute, without an error.
    -Save a PDF email attachment to Bento
    -Visit a website with Flash elements (that would be ALL photographer’s sites…)
    -Burn a DVD of images
    -Make cover art for a DVD
    -Pop in a jump drive and copy a song to iTunes
    -Have two apps on the screen simultaneously
    -Rename multiple images

    All of these things I just did yesterday, all are very, very basic and not one is possible on the iPad.

    1. Yers, those are certainly all things you can’t do on an iPad (except for the typing; an external keyboard solves that) and I could add a few more, including doing any serious management of this site. It sounds like you are a photographer, or at least work a lot with images. For that, you will need a PC and if you want to do those things in the field, you will need a laptop. But those are not needs most users have; what is true for most people is not necessarily true for you.

      By the way, I think the jury is in on the lack of Flash on the iPad. Instead of the lack of Flash hurting the iPad, the popularity of the iPad is causing operators of Flash sites to find alternatives. A big reason for this is that Flash in all the incarnations we have seen to date is just too compute intensive to work well on tablets or phones. Even when it runs OK, as it does on a few, it is a serious battery-life killer. It was a useful technology in its day, but not anymore.

  10. the lack of a disk drive is not the key feature gap for the ipad, after all the air book doesn’t have one either.
    the issue is content creation vs content consumption…there is no better device for content creation than the ipad; however, other than minor edits, content creation is still the realm of laptops for roughly half to 60% of the market. i do see apps closing the gap in content creation…when adequate content creation is available i don’t know, but a powerpoint knock off is not nearly enough.

    1. This issue is not the physical storage device but the amount of storage. The iPad has a maximum of 64 GB while the MacBook Air goes to 256 GB–and other laptops go to 1 TB. Another issue is the lack of a user-accessible file system on iOS.

      The creation/consumption dichotomy is overstated, but certainly the iPad is bad at some forms of content creation that the PC excels at. But the critical fact is that most users create little or no content.

  11. I was recently faced with the need to replace my aging MacBook Pro (which i used both on my desktop and when traveling). I opted to get an iPad for the road and a Mac Mini for my desktop. The combined cost of both the iPad and the Mini was less than what I paid for my last MacBook Pro four years ago.
    My only problem with the iPad is the lack of support for a mouse. I need to write and edit long papers. The touch interface is just not good for editing papers. I understand why Apple may have refused to provide mouse support at the beginning – to ensure that software developers didn’t just port their Mac software to the iPad and ignore the touch interface. However, I think that the iPad universe is now large enough that Apple could provide support for a bluetooth mouse without fear that developers will ignore touch.

  12. For home use, I can definitely see that as the case – in fact, I gave up waiting for a new MacBook Pro and spent less money on a used Mac Pro instead – it’s near silent, has much more/faster storage, better graphics, and because it never needs to move, can be big and heavy and plug into my 60″ TV to use as a monitor. I have an iPad that works great for when I’m away for a few days at a time.

    That said, if I were on the road regularly that would be different, but the laptop would replace the desktop, not the iPad – the iPad is the perfect size for flying and the battery is good for days of light use.

  13. I have to support this hypothesis.

    While my next purchase may not reflect this belief, I am pretty sure it will in the purchase cycle after that (iPad 5?)

    On a short business or pleasure trip an iPad with a good keyboard ( I use and recommend an Adonit Writer) is more than enough. At home being an amateur photographer and an author a large screen, some compute power etc are very welcome. iMac’s are a great compromise (although screen calibration is tricky to get right).

    I get the ability to use Photoshop, have large monitor without having to buy an additional monitor for a laptop. I will make my decision when the next wave of Mas’s are announced but the drawback to a 15″ laptop is the screen size. Fine for writing, most tasks but for photo and video editing not so much.

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