Years ago, I placed a bet with Greg Linden, predicting that tablets like the iPad would replace PCs. The bet did not end well for me. My own analysis is that I lost the bet primarily because I failed to foresee the market surge of expensive and (relatively) large smartphones.
Though I lost to Greg, there is no denying it, I don’t think that I was wrong regarding the fundamental trends. So, during the third quarter of 2017, Apple sold 4.3 million laptops. That’s not bad. But Apple sold 11.4 million iPads, nearly three times as many. The real story, of course, is that Apple sold over 40 million iPhones, and a large fraction of these iPhone have been top-of-the-line iPhones.
For comparison, PC shipments worldwide are at around 60 million. So 11.4 million iPads is nothing to sneeze at, but it is no PC killer. About 40 million tablets are sold every quarter. The fight between PCs and tablets has been not been very conclusive so far. Though tablet sales have stagnated, and even diminished, many PCs look a lot like tablets. A fair assessment is that we are currently at a draw.
This is somewhat more optimistic than Greg’s prediction from 2011:
I am not saying that tablets will not see some sales to some audience. What I am saying is that, in the next several years, the audience for tablets is limited, tablet sales will soon stall around the same level where netbook sales stalled, and the PC is under no threat from tablets.
Who even remember what a netbook is today?
In any case, we are not yet at the point where people are dumping their PCs (or MacBooks) in favor of tablets. I would argue that people probably use PCs a lot less than they used them in the past, relatively speaking, because they do more work on their smartphones. I tend to process much of my emails in my smartphone.
But PCs are still around.
I’m not happy about this.
Even though I have had a iPad ever since Apple made them, I never tried to make the switch professionally. This summer, I finally did so. My 12-inch iPad pro has been my primary machine for the last couple of months. I got an Apple keyboard as well as a pencil.
Let me establish the context a bit. I am a university professor and department chair. I have an active research program, with graduate students. I write code using various programming languages. I write papers using LaTeX. I have to do lots of random office work.
Here are my thoughts so far:
- It works. You can use an iPad as a primary machine. This was not at all obvious to me when I started out.
- It creates envy. Several people who watch me work decide to give it a try. This is a sign that I look productive and happy on my tablet.
- Some of the worse experience I have is with email. Simply put, I cannot quickly select a large chunk of text (e.g., 500 lines) and delete it. Selecting text on an iPad is infuriating. It works well when you want to select a word or two, but there seems to be no way to select a large chunk. Why is this a problem? Because when replying to emails, I keep my answers short, so I want to delete most if not all of the original message and quote just the necessary passage.
- The pain that is selecting text affects pretty much all applications where text is involved.
- Copy and paste is unnecessarily difficult. I don’t know how to select just the text without formatting. Sometimes I end up selecting the link instead of the text related to the link.
- Microsoft Office works on an iPad. I am not a heavy user, but for what I need to do, it is fine.
- Apple has its own word processor called “Pages”. It works, but it won’t spell check in French (it does on a MacBook).
- The hardware is nice, but more finicky than it should be. Both the pencil and the foldable keyboards tend to disconnect. The keyboard can be frustrating as it is held by magnets, but if you move the iPad around, the magnets might move and the keyboard might disconnect. It is not clear how to reconnect it systematically, so I end up “fiddling with it”. It is not as bad as I make it sound, and I don’t think anyone has ever been witness to my troubles, but they would see a very frustrated man.
- Cloud computing is your friend. Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive…
- Reviewing PDF documents is nice. I use an app called “PDF Expert” which allows me to comment on the documents very handily.
- While the iPad can multitask, I have not yet figured out how to put this ability to good use.
- My employer expects me to use Java applets to fill out some forms. I can barely do it with my MacBook. It is a no go on the iPad.
- Blogging works. I am using my iPad right now. However, it is not obvious how to do grammar and spell checks while typing within a web app. So I am making more mistakes than I should.
- LaTeX works. I am using an app called TeXPad. It cannot build my documents locally, but it works once I tell it to use a cloud engine. I am also thinking that Overleaf could be solution. However, neither TeXPad on iOS nor Overleaf provide a great experience when using LaTeX. To be fair, LaTeX is hardly user friendly in the best of times.
- iPads are not designed as developer machines. If you want to experiment with Swift, it is fairly easy to create “Swift playgrounds”, but that’s mostly for the purpose of learning the language. However, I am getting a good experience using ssh to connect to remote Linux boxes.
So my workflow is currently something of a hybrid. I have a cheap MacBook (not a MacBook pro!) that I use maybe 10% of the time. The rest of the time, I rely on the iPad.
Why do this? It is an experiment. So far, it has been instructive.
So what are the benefits? My impression is that replacing a laptop with a tablet makes me more productive at some things. For example, I spend more time reading on my iPad than I would on my laptop.