The iPad at 5: What we've learned

The iPad at 5: What we've learned

Five years ago Apple shipped the original iPad, setting off a frenzy of speculation that our technological future was going to be all tablets and touchscreens and that the PC as we knew it was dead--it just didn't know it yet.

As is the case with most frenzied speculation, that's not really how things have gone. The iPad and other touchscreen tablets have been successful, but they don't seem to have fatally wounded the PC, nor have they experienced the explosive growth that we see in the smartphone market.

The "post-PC era" has PCs in it. The rush to acclaim the iPad and other tablets as the future of all computing missed an important point, which that the PC is still a valuable tool for many businesses and consumers, and will remain so. Steve Jobs wasn't a person who held back from hyping his latest product, but in trying to pump up the iPad even he acknowledged that the PC wouldn't go away.

Much has been made of Jobs's metaphor, which was that PCs are trucks and tablets are cars--that over time, PCs will be used by people who have specific need of their traits or who just like using that type of device, but most regular people will just get a tablet and be fulfilled.

It's not bad, but I keep thinking that the PC, tablet, and smartphone are all more like tools in a toolbox. In the early days of computing, we only had the one tool to do everything. The smartphone and the tablet are new tools with different characteristics from the PC. Now when we need to perform a task, whether it's business or personal, we get to choose the right tool for the job. If we're truly in the "post-PC era," we need to define that era as one in which the PC is no longer the only tool in our toolbox, not one where the PC is no longer necessary or relevant.

The iPad led Microsoft astray, but it's coming back. I've never seen a more impressive demo than the first portion of Steven Sinofsky's unveiling of the Metro interface at the All Things D conference. To me, it was the extension of the excellent Windows Phone interface to a tablet design--and it looked good. Really good.

And then Sinofsky revealed that behind it was the old Windows desktop, and that Microsoft didn't have a Metro version of Office to accompany the device, and that the reason the company was excited about the product is that underneath it all, it was still a standard Windows PC.

If tablets, PCs, and smartphones are tools, what was the unified tablet? A hammer with a screwdriver on the handle? In the end it seemed like Microsoft was adding tablet trappings to PCs because it felt that without relying on the Windows dominance in the PC market, nobody would want its products.

This two-faced approach made desktop users unhappy--Metro and classic Windows still seems like an unholy mixture, even in Windows 8.1, though it's made great strides. And nobody's made a truly great Windows-based tablet, though the Surface is pretty nifty. With the added intelligence of Windows 10, though, Microsoft appears to have integrated the two approaches in a much better way. Now a Windows-based tablet isn't a hammer-screwdriver--it's more of a transformer.

We've got a whole lot left to learn. The iPad's arrival coincided with an avalanche of new software designed to take advantage of a large touchscreen. (These days big smartphones are common, but back then they were at least less so.)

If touchscreen devices are truly the future of computing, we need to figure out how larger interfaces work within that future. I've used a few iPad apps that try to replicate the functionality of high-end desktop audio and video software, and it's clear that there's much more work to be done on the interface front.

As much as I love using my iPad, there are times when touching a screen with a few fingers just doesn't offer the speed and precision of a keyboard and a pointing device. Perhaps, via more complex gestures or force sensors or haptics or some other technology as yet uninvented, that won't be the case anymore. But as of now, five years on? It's all still a bit of a work in progress.

The tablet's not going anywhere, but it will evolve. It's become fashionable to bash the iPad because tablet sales aren't really growing, but like Apple CEO Tim Cook I'm bullish on the future of the tablet category. No, it's never going to have a smartphone-like growth curve, but my iPad is my favorite view into the Internet. When I'm at my desk writing I'm using a computer with a keyboard and a pointing device, and when I'm out and about I've got my phone, but when I'm in my house with the choice of all of these devices, I use my iPad and I love it.

Is the iPad going to crowd out every other computing device on the planet and turn all those PC trucks into touchscreen cars? Nope. But every day I am grateful that I've got one, and I can't imagine going without.

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