Is a tablet a PC?
It may seem obvious that tablets and PCs are different, but I'd argue that most people aren't so sure.
Seattle Times staff columnist
RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Did Tim Cook really say that?
I couldn't believe my ears at the All Things D conference, the annual powwow of tech and media tycoons.
Maybe I had too much sparkling water and shaved prosciutto at the oceanfront reception.
But sure enough, last Tuesday, Apple's new chief executive came right out and said the iPad isn't a personal computer.
"In my view, the tablet and the PC are different," Cook said to hosts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.
Nobody paid much attention to that line. It was the backswing for a slam aimed at Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 tablets.
It may seem obvious tablets and PCs are different, but I'd argue that most people aren't so sure. For many, it's been an open question since Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. This ambiguity helped Apple straddle the markets for mobile devices and PCs, broadening the reach of its wildly successful tablet.
Cook's predecessor, Steve Jobs, was coy about the distinction at first. He let pundits, fans and buyers work through the question themselves.
Apple's news release at the first iPad launch called it a device "for browsing the Web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, reading e-books and much more."
That's mostly what people do with PCs, and the iPad is like a computer, so it was natural to see it as a sort of PC.
Early reviewers nudged this along. Drawing on the old Apple vs. Microsoft storyline, they suggested the iPad could take the place of a PC.
This added to the appeal of the iPad. People shopping for a PC they'd use mostly for the Web and entertainment saw Apple's gorgeous tablet as a nice alternative.
As more people saw the iPad as a newfangled PC with productivity potential, companies bought them for employees. Sales snowballed.
This happened during a low point in the PC sales cycle, after the Windows 7 launch in 2009. Sales of the new iPad soared as PC sales slowed, and pundits began questioning whether Microsoft was finally losing its dominance of the PC market.
Jobs ran with it.
At the All Things D conference in 2010, Jobs said the "post PC" era had begun, a phrase he used again to launch the iPad 2.
Nowadays, everybody's a tech enthusiast and gadgets are the elixir of youth. Yet few have time to keep up with all the new products and sort out their different capabilities.
Jobs made it simple, implying the iPad is the computer of the future. It's kind of true.
As a bonus, it also sounded like a death blow to his nemesis, Microsoft. Especially if you took "PC" to be his shorthand for Windows-based computers.
Many people still wonder if their next PC should be an iPad.
Adding to the confusion are productivity apps and accessories for the iPad, such as external keyboards. These add-ons turn the iPad into a quasi-laptop.
Research firms aren't helping. Some declare the iPad to be a PC and count it in tallies of PC sales. Others classify tablets separately.
This will get more confusing in the fall, when PC makers unveil Windows 8 systems, including some that look just like iPads. More than 100 different models are in the works. A number of these will be thin, glass-fronted slabs with touch-screen input. Some will function like traditional PCs and have Intel hardware, while others will be based on mobile chips like the iPad's. Also coming are new hybrids that convert from laptops into tablets.
Microsoft and its partners hope to produce systems that are fast, light and easy to use like an iPad, with the flexibility and variety people expect from PCs.
So it's time for Apple to start clarifying what's what. I think that's what Cook was doing, when Mossberg asked about the new competition from Redmond.
There were no more sly hints about the iPad displacing the PC. Cook drew a sharp line between tablets and PCs, saying the former are "not encumbered by the legacy of the PC." Instead of blending a tablet with a PC, Apple made something new and different, he said.
"I think convergence is great in many areas, but I think that products are about trade-offs, and you have to make tough decisions, you have to choose," he said. "And the fact is, the more you look at a tablet as a PC, the more the baggage from the past affects the product."
Swisher asked, why still have a PC?
"Because I don't see the tablet replacing the need for all PCs, or all Macs — I don't mean to imply that at all," Cook said. "What I see is that the tablet for some people takes over what their PC was about for them. It will probably also extend the purchasing cycle for others — where they'll say, you know I want both but I've got to budget, and so I'm going to buy this tablet more often than I buy my PC or my Mac in some cases."
I guess things are moving so fast we flew right through the post-PC era and into the PC-plus-tablet era. We'll find out this fall whether Microsoft has too much baggage to ride this train.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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