It’s an Interface

In his analysis on the flattening iPad sales, Benedict Evans concludes:

So, looking at tablets and smartphones as mobile devices in a new category that competes with PCs may be the wrong comparison – in fact, it may be better to think of tablets, laptops and desktops as one ‘big screen’ segment, all of which compete with smartphones, and for which the opportunity is just smaller than that for smartphones. And so tablets will over time eat away at laptop and desktop sales just as laptops ate away at desktop sales, but the truly transformative new category is the smartphone. Maybe.

Earlier this week, Steven Sinofsky suggested that tablet adoption is only a matter of time – time to develop the software needed to perform the tasks currently being accomplished on laptops:

The characterization of tablets as “neither here nor there” or “in between tablet and a laptop” misses the reality that the modern nature of tablet platforms – both hardware and software – will drive innovation and subsequent transition for many many scenarios from traditional laptop platforms to tablet platforms. We’re in the middle period where this is happening – just as when people said cars were too expensive for the masses and would not be mainstream or when the GUI interface lacked the hardware horsepower and “keystroke productivity” to replace character based tools.

I think what’s important to understand in this discussion is that a tablet, or a laptop, or a desktop, is an interface, not an end in itself. Debating tablets versus PCs is like debating pens versus pencils – one is obviously better at certain things than the other, but neither is better at everything, and thus, neither supersedes the other as an interface of choice for every task which requires a computer.

Technological advances have led to the development of mobile computers – first laptops, then mobile phones, then tablets. The need is obviously there, but the interface that attempts to satisfy it does not come without its disadvantages, and so, while providing computing power on the go, these devices do not obsolete previous generations of computers – desktops and laptops. At this point it’s not even a matter of technology, it’s a matter of context – you just can’t have a light, compact mobile device with a 23+ inch screen and a full size keyboard, and nor do you really want to in the context of mobile use.

In the context of work, having large desktop machine is not a disadvantage since the work is to be done at the desk anyway – computing mobility is not a necessity. At your desk, the large monitor, the full size keyboard, the precision of the mouse, and the power of the hardware, all contribute to a computing interface that is better at the sort of tasks that don’t require you to move around. The desktop computer interface of the external screen, keyboard and mouse has not been improved by mobile touch devices, and thus will not be replaced by them.

This is, by the way, why the integration and quality of the software and hardware is so important. For most consumers, you are primarily selling interfaces, not computing power. It doesn’t matter what chip powers the tablet or how much memory it holds, the deciding factor in whether the tablet serves its function is how well it performs in the hands, how easy it is to use on the go. In the context of mobile use, the tablet interface must be responsive to touch, must not lag when scrolling, must have large touch zones, and so on. These devices are used in a wide variety of environments – on the road, in the train, on the plane – and so the interface must be tailored for scenarios where attention and precision are not optimal. On the other hand, forcing a touch-optimized interface to people on the desktop, as was done with Windows 8, creates unnecessary friction – i.e. when people have a precise targeting device, the mouse, and a large screen, they don’t want an interface that is optimized for large touch zones and small screen sizes. It’s not necessarily bad – it’s just not better what they’ve had before.

The tablet satisfied a need that was obviously there but was previously unmet due to technological shortcomings. To me, flattening tablet sales indicate that the market is simply happy with what it has, that the new interface is satisfying its function as a mobile computing device. The tablet isn’t going to swallow up desktop or laptop sales because those devices are a different category of computing interface, one that is optimized for desk work, and unless tablet devices can somehow offer those advantages (unlikely), they will be remain in a category of their own, happily co-existing side by side with their larger, less-mobile siblings. The only potential development I can think of that may seriously threaten the desktop from the tablet standpoint is some sort of a dock which lets the tablet connect to a large display and other peripherals like the keyboard and mouse. Such a device would, however, require two different interfaces, one optimized for mobile, and one optimized for the desktop (which, incidentally, Microsoft already has).