Can the iPad Pro be the Post-PC era game changer?
The latest incarnation of the iPad is certainly big, certainly powerful and certainly capable of being many things to many people, but will it act as the device which defines the “Post PC era”? I think it has a chance, for several reasons.
The PC-era, of which we are still living for the most part, is still defined by several key concepts. The first of these is a filing system where we manage our files. A system of filing was originally created for managing paper which could not be automatically indexed and sorted at will. Thus we had to come up with systems which let us find the paper easily. A library with its Dewey Decimal index is another example of a filing system which arose out of necessity. For many of us we still rely on files living in folders in our Documents folder as our key way of managing of information.
The second key concept is one of documents. Those files that we are struggling to file are electronic versions of paper. Some are spreadsheets, wordprocessing documents and presentations, but fundamentally they are a piece of discrete electronic information which is directly equivalent to the paper report or set of transparencies which would have made up the staple document types of thirty years ago.
The third of these is the idea that we have a general purpose operating system which needs to be told about the hardware it is running on. It needs to be configured to support different devices that you plug in, and inevtiably there are then problems with compatibility, drivers, and so on. Apple has gone some long way down the road of removing this by locking down its own hardware to the extent that no reasonable person can really do much to their MacBookPro to alter its hardware characteristics. Microsoft remains open to a large extent, as does Google with Android of course. In my opinion Apple’s approach is more “normal” from the point of view of a device which we now treat as no longer a novelty but a part of the fabric of life. We don’t buy a TV and then have to consider upgrading the operating system, or being given choices about which remote control we will use. Our cars don’t have the option to change the number or configuration of the seats, and you can’t turn a mini into a people carrier through some manufacturer inspired upgrade path.
Realistically then computing has become like most other things we interact with. We buy a device, like a kettle, a TV, a car, or a computer based on its basic properties, its features, functions and appearance. And that’s where the iPad Pro comes into the equation.
I was one of those poor souls who stood outside the Apple store on the day the first iPad was launched. I was there, in the cold, queuing at 5am to be one of the first to experience what turned out initially to be a device which we recognise now as being very good for consumption of information, but less so for creation. If we want to write that document, or go back to a spreadsheet we find it is still more convenient to do so in our filing-system based, document-focused PCs which have bee doing that kind of thing for the last thirty years.
That was certainly the case with the earlier iPads and was certainly the case with Microsoft’s first attempt at tablet computing, but for different reasons. The early iPads were, and I would argue still are to some extent, restricted by the capabilities of its operating system. iOS is getting much better at muti-tasking, split screen, inter-app data exchange and so on, but it still has a way to go. On the other hand Microsoft’s attempt was restricted by the hardware. Early (Windows XP and Windows 7) tablets were big, noisy, had very limited batteries and were just full of compromises. The promise of being able to run the same versions of the desktop applications you had at your desk when you were mobile was very alluring, but the reality of it was not good.
Fast forward to today when we have the Surface Pro 4 and the iPad Pro. Both come from companies who have had a long time to get the tablet business right. Microsoft is learning that it needs to take control of its supply chain and be in the device business. Apple is learning that it needs to go towards use cases which promote the creation of content on the iPad in order to stem the drop in sales. Google seems to be still in the process of learning both lessons.
So if both of the big players in this business are getting their stuff together, who will win? Ultimately neither will win, it is increasingly a matter of taste – in the same way as choosing a Mercedes or a BMW is a matter of taste – both are excellent cars with their different strengths, but they perform the same basic functions.
As a brief aside, let me describe to you the way I wrote this document as an example of how documents have increasingly little part to play in business life. I am using an application called ByWord on the iPad. It is a simple text-based editor. When I switch between apps on the iPad ByWord and my document are saved and kept in the background. If I quit the app and the come back (even after powering down the iPad) my document is still there. In the background the app is saving my document to my iCloud drive so even if I completely wiped the iPad my information would be safe. I don’t know or care where ByWord has put the document, I happy though that it will be there when I come back looking for it. When I am finished with the document I will press the Publish button and post this directly to my WordPress blog. There will be no files saved or copying and pasting by me. One press and its done.
Why does it need to be any other way? Many of you would have started Word, written the document, saved it, opened WordPress, created a new post and probably copied and pasted the text. Too many steps for my liking. Take this scenario and apply it to a work setting and you can see where you can make some efficiencies but I’ll save my discussion on that for another blog post.
I say neither Apple or Microsoft will win, but before declaring a draw between the two of them I think it is important to go back to the point about handling information. Microsoft’s approach – both on device and in software – is productivty. Microsoft Office is at the core of Microsoft’s software strategy and everything else it does in this area must center around it. That means that for Microsoft the document is king. Microsoft still want you to handle files and folders in a structure. Apple’s approach is to put the application first and then present to you the information you have which works with that application. The model is not to go to the equivalent of Windows Explorer and double-click on a PowerPoint presentation to launch PowerPoint. Instead Apple wants you to go to Keynote and then it will show you all your compatible documents whereever they reside.
For me the latter approach is the one which will ultimately win. There is too much information out there nowadays to be managed in the same way as we handled paper. The iOS model represents the Post PC era in its infancy by breaking away from that mould.
The iPad Pro, with its 12 inch screen, long battery life and the infamous pencil, therefore, in my opinion, represents the first device of the Post PC era where I can truly work with information and not with files. It’s the first where I realistically can have a screen and battery which I can use all day. Its the combination of the operating system and hardware which makes the device unique. I am not sitting in front of a PC which has been crammed into a tablet-sized footprint, I am using a mobile device which as been designed from the outset to behave as a mobile device.
Yes, I have a bit of retraining to do to move away from my old PC habits of files and folders, but as I discuss with many of my customers, the need for having a document-centric culture these days is diminishing. Working with wikis, blogs and other content stores which are easily stored is much more efficient (on many levels) than working with a Word document. That’s why I think Apple’s approach of putting the storage and management of files makes sense.
Am I leaving my MacBook Pro at home from now on? Yes