Thursday, December 13, 2012

Not a Mac, Not a PC: Is the iPad a computer?

Even the staunchest tablet computing skeptics will probably concede that yes, in the literal sense, the iPad is a computer. It has a processor, memory, storage, and runs software. But I suspect many would still cling to the notion that in some fundamental respects, the iPad is something different. Certainly we see this played out in market share statistics, which often count the iPad and other tablets separately from computer sales. But should they? Is the iPad a computer, or not?*

The language of tablets argues against the iPad-as-computer theory. The term “media tablet” often appears in commentary as a way of denigrating tablets as mere “consumption” devices. And the term sometimes fits. The Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 were pitched as gateways to purchase and enjoy content from Amazon and Google stores. Barnes and Noble called their first tablet, the Nook Color, “the reader's tablet” (and initially told developers to submit apps that “complement the reading experience.”). You can do creative and productive things with these devices, but for them the term “media tablet” is less a criticism than a mission statement. 

Does an iPad also fit this category? The term implies a distinction, suggesting the existence of some other type of tablet—a true “tablet computer,” perhaps. Which devices on the market today fill that imaginary category? The Microsoft Surface with Windows RT is a strong candidate. Surface ships with a desktop experience and traditional Office suite, after all. But I wager there is more productivity software in the iOS App Store than software of any kind in the Windows Store.

Perhaps the best argument in favor of the “media tablet” label is usage. In my estimation, iPads are used by most people, most of the time, for consuming content rather than creating it (or doing “real work”). But this is also the wrong argument. Usage is a clumsy way to decide what constitutes a “real” computer.

Think about non-techie family members, whose Windows desktops serve only for Facebook browsing and casual gaming. For that matter, ten years ago, my then-roommate—at the time far more tech-savvy than I—built his own PC tower, but used it solely for gaming and web surfing. Surely there are models of PCs, even entire brands, that appear at price points and in retail channels that appeal primarily to these user classes. Would you argue that such PCs are not real computers? Obviously not—even when mostly used for entertainment rather than work, they have the potential to do real work and create content.  But then, so does the iPad, which means it, too, is a computer.  

What behavior would you require of a computer before calling it a computer? Should it allow users to create, edit, update, and display Office-format documents, spreadsheets, and slide decks?  Surf the web, send email, and engage in social networks?  Create web content?  Watch videos and listen to music and podcasts?  Record, edit, and upload audio and video files? Print? Connect peripherals? Allow touch typing (or even allow for a physical keyboard)? Run software? Create software? Create software to run on the machine itself? If you define computer-ness by any of these tasks, then the iPad counts.

The last item on that list deserves further thought. A number of iOS apps now allow users to write and execute code. One example, Codea, was used to develop at least one game that is currently sold in the App Store. Granted, compiling and submitting such apps to Apple requires a Mac running XCode, but the software was developed and tested on the iPad. If the iPad wasn’t a computer because it couldn’t be used to write and compile its own software—as has been argued before—then neither was the original Macintosh a computer (which required a LISA). And with Codea, the iPad is closer on this score than the currently-shipping Surface tablet.

All arguments against iPad-as-a-computer that I have encountered fail for similar reasons to the “programmability test”: wherever the line is placed, it will exclude something that is clearly the computer, or include something absurd. Take multitasking, for example, a core feature of modern operating systems and user experience. Let’s set aside whether iOS’s background processing and efficient save-and-resume functions qualify as multitasking. Suppose we concede that the iPad doesn’t multitask the way a PC does. If multitasking is a mark of a true computer, wouldn’t that mean HP’s failed TouchPad is a computer? A major selling point for WebOS devices, including the TouchPad and Pre phones, was “true multitasking.” Do we consider the TouchPad—with its anemic software ecosystem and tiny user base—a computer, but exclude the iPad?

Why are the arguments for counting iPads separately from “computers” so leaky? I believe it is because the line is drawn based on a single criterion: it puts the iPad on the opposite side from Macs and PCs. If you define "true computers" in a way that deliberately excludes a device that is clearly a computer, your definition will by necessity let too much in or keep too much out.

All of which begs the question: why does anyone care about excluding the iPad from the ranks of “true” computers? Industry politics may play a role. Counting iPad sales among computer sales puts Apple way ahead, overturning a lot of conventional wisdom. But I think this is more than factionalism. The notional “media tablet” category makes it easier to think about what it means to have powerful, usable computers that are not Windows PCs (the comfort-zone answer: “Nothing. Real computers run Windows.”). If the iPad, and tablets generally, are computers, then computing itself is changing in fundamental ways. That's a bigger story than iPad-as-consumer gadget. It’s harder to think about, write about, or make decisions based upon this idea. Which is probably why so few make the leap—and why this essay is on whether the iPad is a computer, not what it means if it is.

* - Note that I am not, as many past articles have, asking if the iPad is a PC. To whatever extent the iPad is a computer, it is surely a very “personal” computer, but “PC” has largely become synonymous with “Windows” (for better or for worse). (back)