The iPad May Kill Laptops and Save the Desktop

on May 2, 2012

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.