The tablet's productive future

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Today, the tablet is a niche device, caught between being your laptop replacement and a casual computing device. But, despite its fall from prominence, there is still plenty of innovation left in this category. The tablet is already the best at what it was designed to be – a tablet. But if these devices are destined to expand their job descriptions and become true productivity machines, tech companies need to rethink key aspects of how their mobile operating systems should function and accommodate developers with a more flexible app store model.

In October of 2013, I wrote an article where I posed the question “where is the tablet going?” Is it a productivity device? Is it a casual computing device aimed at content consumption? When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010, it was sold to the public as being a middle device that excelled at a few key tasks such as email, browsing the web, and viewing your photo collection. In many respects, that still holds true today. From my own experience, I would argue that a tablet is superior at all these tasks than my laptop or phone. But, as phones get bigger and as laptops get lighter, tech companies have tried to keep the tablet relevant by expanding its role. The release of the Microsoft Surface, Google’s Pixel C, and the Apple iPad Pro are all data points on a trend line that shows a shift in strategy to position the tablet as a productivity-centric device.

The iPad Pro family (12.9 and 9.7 inches respectively) have been dubbed “the ultimate PC replacement” by the Cupertino tech giant. At the Apple event this past March, Phil Schiller said that the iPad Pro was aimed largely at the 600 million PCs over five years old. One side note: while Schiller dubbed this statistic as “sad”, I would counter by arguing that the PC’s longevity is a testament to the staying power of modern computing and will reduce unnecessary electronic waste.

Both iPad Pros are compatible with Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil – the latter of which has received some pretty positive reviews. Tim Cook said the iPad is the “perfect expression of the future of personal computing.” Exaggerations aside, Apple is re-positioning the iPad as a productivity device rather than a consumption device – a stark contrast to Jobs’ original pitch.

 

Steve Jobs iPad Keynote Jan 27 2010

iPad Pro introduction March 21 2016

 

Similarly, this past September Google released the Pixel C, an Android tablet with productivity written all over it. While the device wasn’t explicitly marketed as a productivity device, Google did emphasize its ability to do content creation and released it alongside two different magnetic Bluetooth keyboards. In fact, the keyboard accessory was the only case accessory available.

Both the Pixel C and iPad Pro are priced higher than tablets they’ve previously released. It’s very easy for consumers to spend upwards of a thousand dollars on these devices and accessories, which begs the question: are these so called “productivity” tablets worth their entry price? It depends on your expectations of productivity.

On one hand, tablets have come a long way since 2010. Not only are the apps much more sophisticated, but the ability to multitask has been greatly improved. Apps can now operate in the background. Both iOS and Android support a split screen mode. There are a host of productivity apps that have been reworked for touch. (It should be noted that Samsung has been a leader in advancing the productivity of Android, by allowing split screen apps and app windowing on its phones for years). Keyboard accessories allow for a more familiar typing experience, and both the Pixel C’s Bluetooth keyboard and Apple’s Smart keyboard allow for charging through the device – creating a more laptop like experience. Even iOS’ keyboard shortcuts mirror those in OS X, so power users can fly between apps. While it would have been perfectly reasonable to view tablets only as consumption devices five years ago, today they are capable productivity machines.

Most tech journalists agree that neither Apple or Google’s offerings can replace your laptop completely. While split screen multitasking with two apps is an improvement, it’s not good as three apps. But is this criticism really justified? For many users, tablets are perfectly suitable laptop replacements. If you browse the web, check email, play light games, and watch Netflix, a tablet is all you need. If you work with Google Docs or Microsoft Word, tablets are great when accompanied by a keyboard.

 

What’s holding the tablet back?

We are accustomed to doing work on a desktop operating system with a file system and multiple windows. Platforms like iOS and Android are “touch-first”, and were designed with finger interaction in mind. When we try and force a desktop environment into a touch-based OS, or add touch to a desktop OS, the experience is less than ideal. It’s for this reason that I have not talked about Microsoft’s Surface. It’s not really a tablet. It’s a windows laptop with a touch screen and kickstand – designed to be used with a mouse cursor and keyboard. What’s the trade-off? It’s heavy and, in my opinion, provides a lackluster stand-alone tablet experience.

The first knock against tablets is the language companies like Apple use. By calling the iPad the “ultimate PC replacement” it sets up a direct comparison between tablets (relatively simple devices) and PC (devices with much more functionality). Instead, the iPad Pro and Pixel C should have been sold as the “the most flexible productivity device” or “the most portable productivity device.” Tablets are great for productivity, but they shouldn’t be compared to their PC counterparts. The iPad will never replace my Macbook as a web development machine – at least not anytime soon – and it’s shouldn’t try to. With a tablet you are trading functionality for portability and flexibility.

The second knock against tablets is the app store model. This is something many tech pundits have covered, and I encourage you to read Lauren Goode’s article (writing at The Verge) on this very topic. She outlines many of issues developers face when attempting to create professional grade software for the App Store.

 

One of the common complaints made by software developers who spoke to The Verge is that they can’t offer free trials of their apps as part of the App Store download process, or issue paid upgrades to long-term users.
Others say that selling apps through the App Store can create a kind of wall between them and their customers if the customers have issues with their software. Broadly speaking, the iPad Pro is forcing them to rethink their monetization strategies.

 

Free trials are pretty standard in the desktop/laptop computing space, but there is currently no way to offer that in Apple or Google’s app stores. App upgrades are also a problem. Right now, a developer must either provide free upgrades to an app forever, or release a completely new version – forcing the user to purchase the new app rather than paying a small upgrade fee. There’s also no way to refund customers, without the customer going through iTunes.

Even if app stores allowed all of the above, there is a still an expectation problem. Selling high priced mobile apps is difficult because there’s more of an expectation they should be free or 99 cents, though Goode points out that even the 99 cent entry price is a tough sell.

 

At the same time, developers say that even charging just 99 cents for a one-time download of their app reduces demand for it. All of this leaves fewer options for makers of expensive, professional-grade software, who neither a) do free-to-play or b) want to charge as little as a buck for their software.

 

Moving forward

While the slowing of tablet sales is used as evidence to condemn the category, here’s a couple counterpoints: First, users’ reluctance to upgrade their already perfectly functioning tablets is a testament to their longevity. This is a trend we’ve seen in the PC market for some time, and it suggests that tablets can last a long time mostly because they are not tied to a contract cycle like smartphones. Second, tablets were one of the fastest growing products in history, allowing them to reach market saturation much faster. There’s still room for growth and innovation. It’s just not happening as fast as stock analysts would like.

It’s clear that tech companies are trying to give tablets a second act by positioning them as productivity devices. Criticism from tech pundits aside, I think this is a clever strategy. Is there really a need for a tablet in my life if I already own a laptop and a large smartphone? Probably not. But, there is a room for a flexible computing device that does enough of the tasks enough of the time, is light, is easy to carry, and has a touchscreen. Famed tech journalist Walt Mossberg still believes in the tablet:

 

I believed then, and now, that the success of the iPad depended not on whether it would wholly replace the laptop, but on whether it could be the best, or most convenient, computer in enough common scenarios for which the laptop (and, to a lesser extent, the smartphone) had been the go-to choice.

 

It’s in this middle ground that the tablet has succeeded. The problem is that this middle ground has changed and tech companies haven’t found the perfect balance between the tablet and the laptop.

Another overlooked point is that tablets are superior devices for doing very specific tasks such as digital note taking, completing digital signatures, videoconferencing (with two cameras) and live streaming, and editing pictures and video. Combining these strengths with some of the capabilities of a laptop makes for a device that does enough tasks to make it useful while maintaining a light package. Emphasizing unique strengths and portability is how Apple, Google, and Microsoft should market the tablet – not as a PC replacement.

There’s still so much innovation to be done in tablets. If current trends are any indication of what the future will bring, we might find that we’re leaving our laptops at home more often.