Why the iPad isn’t a desktop PC killer (yet)

A question to ponder: with the introduction of the iPad, is there a need to own a PC? In other words, does the iPad mean death for the traditional PC for most consumers? After all, it has that slick touch screen and doesn’t require keyboard, mouse, and most other bulky peripheral components that traditional PCs do. Plus, with that slim form factor, you can take it nearly anywhere. And thanks to dual WIFI and cell network compatibility, it can be connected to the internet almost continuously. What more could a user want?

But is it enough to completely replace a PC? Well, in my evaluation, yes…but no. Here’s why…

It’s not the touch screen and slim form factor that make it a suitable replacement. It’s that the device makes common computing tasks as simple as they should have been all along. The desktop PC became the multi-purpose digital device of the last two decades, and that eventually included the ability to use the internet, starting with temporary connections (dial-up) and evolving to high-bandwidth persistent connectivity at home. But with cell data networks providing a persistent connection virtually everywhere, the strength of the desktop PC now wanes. The iPad concept means you no longer need a traditional PC to do some of the most common things an ordinary user wants in the computing space.

Enter, casual computing. Yes, it’s probably the way the early innovators intended the personal computer to be. And it’s no surprise that Apple is leading here. They brought the populace personal computing made “easier” in the form of the Macintosh graphical user interface. Now they’re taking us toward the next evolution of computing. But rather than the focus being desktop publishing and productivity, it’s making the strengths of modern PCs fit into everyday life just a little bit easier.

But is casual computing on the iPad good enough to replace a desktop PC? I think not… yet. First, there’s the screen size of the iPad, modest, but limited — intended for casual tasks more than large-scale productivity. Second, there’s the dependence on network services (or at least regular network connectivity). Desktop PCs can stand alone (though few do these days) and be left alone. But the real issue is the “personal” part. The iPad is not really “your” device as much as a desktop PC can be, as the Wired article, The iPad Falls Short as a Creation Tool Without Coding Apps, mentioned back in March. In short, while Apple excels at providing a robust, stable experience so long as you stay in their box, they don’t much cater to those who want to go outside the box, and isn’t that what the personal computer was for?

So for now, the iPad looks like a great option of what casual computing should be, but traditional PCs are out there in tremendous numbers, also able to serve that purpose and then some. Desktops aren’t going to dry up overnight, and I’ve read countless stories of those whose parents still have 5 to 10 year old machines that appear to still serve their purposes just fine. (That, by the way, is one of the reasons why I continue to see copies of The Ultimate PC Primer being purchased. ) However, even desktop PC operating systems and software are beginning to take cues from the iPhone and iPad. It’s anybody’s guess how soon we see what the next generation of personal computing truly looks like.

So for now, if you need to assist someone trying to select their next primary personal computing device from all the options, here are a few questions to ask if iPad is under consideration:

  • Is limited screen size a problem for them?
  • Can they afford the on-going cost of cell network connectivity (data package)?
  • Do they need that much portability?
  • Do they need flexibility beyond what Apple’s model allows, either due to specific hardware or software needs?

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