Why Phones and Pads Cannot Replace PCs

on May 6, 2015

iPad screenThe other day, I wanted to take a photo that had been sent to me attached to an email and make it a feature in a Facebook post. Now, if I had been working on a PC–Mac, Windows, or even Linux—all I would have to do is select, copy, and paste or just select it and drag.

But I was working on an iPad. You have several ways to do it that will transfer the picture. They’ll work better than they used to with earlier apps and iOS versions, but they are still unpredictable and considerably more painful than on a PC.

This difference is found in a numbers of ways, many of them much less graceful, for linking between different apps on phones or tablets. (While the particulars are different, iOS and Android offer similar issues. I’m sticking to the Apple experience because I have more experience.) That is why I spend a lot of my time on a phone or an iPad to follow events. I will generally switch to a PC when I face an option for working with text, images, or numbers. While you can do almost all of the same tricks, especially on an iPad with a keyboard, they are a lot easier on a PC.[1]

The reason is not that Mac and Windows designs are smart while tablets and phones are dumb. The fact is both approaches are very smart at what they do. The important difference are what they do and how.

The basic operating systems in use today are based on developments of the 1990s. A critical feature is the operating systems are built around a big file system. A file system app, File Explorer in Windows and the Finder on a Mac, lets you find any file stored on the system. Use Notepad or Text Editor and you can open many files that make no sense to a human. If you foolishly mess around with a critical XML file that is part of an application, it may really damage the code (most apps these days, like Word for either Windows or Mac, will stop you from loading files that make no sense). The important fact is every program can see whatever is stored on the machines and use what it needs.

The code of phones and tablets is very different. Android and iPhone have file structures, of course, but their software keeps users away from their discovery. On Android, you can add an app that gives some access to file listing; on an iOS devices you cannot do that with any third party app you can get through the App Store. As Apple says it in the File System Development Code, “The iOS file system is geared toward apps running on their own. To keep the system simple, users of iOS devices do not have direct access to the file system and apps are expected to follow this convention.” [pullquote]Android and iPhone have file structures, of course, but their software keeps users away from the discovery. On Android, you can add an app that gives some access to file listing; on an iOS devices you cannot do that with any third party app you can get through the App Store.[/pullquote]

Over time and with some improvement in phone software, ways have been added to move content among some apps. For example, a finger point in an image, or using an icon of a square with an arrow pointing up will let you move a copy of the picture to a number of specific alternative apps, including Message, Mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Flicker. But if you want to move a photo to a Word document, you will just end up with the file name inserted into your document instead of the image. If you really want the picture, you have to get it into Photos and then select it from Photos within Word. Given the complexities, if you’re lucky you’ll manage to memorize transfer rules that work for a few apps. And editing or resizing the pictures turns out to be more trouble than it is worth.

That’s why I find it hard being away from a PC for long. Say I’m writing a column for Tech.pinions on a PC. I’ll write my text in the WordPress HTML editing setup, sometimes I’ll write in another editor. If I do that, it’s easy to move what I have written, usually through a straight copy-and-paste. I’ll select an image from a variety of sources and often move to Photoshop, more likely than not just to alter the shape and size. Finding web references and adding to the piece is far easier on a PC than an iPad or phone, partly because it is easy to move the HTML address but even more because it is easy to have more than a single window open on the screen.

The point isn’t that you can’t pull it off on an iPad or a phone; it is that the project ends up being a lot more work than shifting to a PC. In some cases, the difference is even more extreme. I don’t like looking at spreadsheets on a 12” or 13” laptop, let alone a tablet or a phone. You can do a quick, simple video on a phone, but editing a video of any length and quality requires a PC.

Don’t get me wrong, I love both a smartphone and an iPhone (I haven’t been convinced that other tablets really are desirable tools). I find I use a PC a lot less than I used to. But there remains a lot of tasks best done on a PC. It is why, though the PCs share of the market has declined, it’s not going away.

[1] I am not including the Microsoft Surface and other Windows tablet-like systems. They can be tablet-like hardware, but the software is Windows and, for good or bad, they function like PCs.