By Kirk Douglas
When you think of the current state of the tablet, what comes to mind? Are you excited when you hear the words “Surface Pro 4” or “iPad Pro”? and if so, why? Do you own one of these products already and have an affinity for one of them in particular due to some way it has profoundly improved your life? Do you aspire to own one soon, vehemently proclaiming use cases to anyone who questions the desires and the motives behind your wanting to do so? I don’t – and I’m not sure I can relate. At least not just yet. But there might be something to these new tech additions that isn’t so obvious.
To be transparent, I really haven’t had any experience with those two products in my daily life so my insight is inherently limited compared to those who have. I’ve test-driven both devices and although I would love to tell you with conviction which one is best or that both are great, I have to address the fact that so far I am unconvinced about the form factor.
Let’s talk a bit about the things many might agree are great in these products. Power. They are both incredibly powerful, portable devices. Both at a point of being able to help us complete tasks, albeit via very different software operating systems, each with unique abilities.
It is clear that Microsoft has chosen a great chipset and accompanying specs to power what is arguably the most mobile and well-designed of the Windows tablets, which also happens to be a top-tier full-blown PC with an optional keyboard. The iPad Pro, who’s benchmarks scream for attention when beating out industry-leading laptops is proof that Apple has made quite an achievement of its own for a mobile device that is not running desktop-native software. The on-screen interaction of the Pencil (purchased separately) has been widely praised by reviewers and is possibly the best feature of the new device.
The technical achievements and craftsmanship of both these products are hardly something to scoff at. Each device, in its own right is an engineering marvel in form-factor and for the unique interactions they allow users.
The internet is abounding with reviews, benchmarks and insights that can express the tech prowess and capabilities of these devices better than I might be able to in my limited use. With that in mind, I don’t want to focus on tech specs or which one is better – I’d like to explore a lingering personal opinion that I hold, one that is sure to be perhaps controversial – that these form factors are quite possibly a fad. Are they, or are we witnessing products with serious untapped potential? I’m optimistic, but I’ll need a little convincing.
There are many like myself who still prefer to lean on traditional laptops and desktops for most of our professional work, but there’s also a strong trend against this preference as people young and old cling to Their Kindles, iPads and Galaxy Tabs for less intensive tasks. There are some very future-forward things a tablet can offer both in terms of interaction and portability, an attribute hard to dismiss. After all, I do carry my iPad with me more frequently than I do my MacBook.
It is becoming more commonplace for others to do so as well. But large-screen tablets like the Surface and iPad Pro present a different quandary. What software approach is best?
Microsoft boldly reworked its operating system with Windows 8 to much criticism and confusion in late 2012. The move to introduce touch at an OS-level brought with it changes that split opinions across PC users and was the brunt of many woeful upgrade tales. Some loved it while others condemned the dual-interface. As we now know, after persistent feedback and software engineering efforts, Microsoft has since turned things around with Windows 10, held in much higher regard for its return to the familiar start menu, while leveraging the good ideas left over from Windows 8. The end result is perhaps the best adaptation of desktop-class performance on a tablet. Because the OS is designed for both a laptop and tablet use case, there’s a versatility in Microsoft’s offerings that have helped their Surface product line take off. The downside if there is one, appears to be lackluster digital offerings in their online store, a flailing aspect of the company’s since the launch of the original Surface.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google have taken similar approaches in the interaction methodology behind iOS and Android. The OS’s even look alike to an extent and borrow design language from one another at times. But the similarities stop when you start to look deeper.
Android has cleverly implemented a ‘free and open’ model that has taken the world by storm. Their software offering was built from the ground up with a file system not unlike that of a PC or Linux machine. Because Google’s Android OS is free to handset makers, and the file system is exposed and modifiable by users, allowing near limitless modification and the side-loading of applications from outside Google’s Play store. There is a downside of course, and that is mostly in security. But this is a problem Google is aware of and slowly addressing. For now, their strength is in numbers and improved quality of design while their weakness is mostly in security and hardware optimization, the latter of which is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as handset makers step up their production quality and work more closely with Google.
Finally, there is Apple. A company who has long been heralded as design-centric engineers at their finest who’s differentiated since day one with the iPhone and iPad’s rather ‘closed’ (by comparison) system. With a file system that is locked down, Apple has been able to coax users on board and curate applications. More cognizant of what users are exposed to and champions of privacy, they’ve crafted an app store and ecosystem that promotes app purchases and has been a vibrant market for developers. But its not entirely rainbows and butterflies as there is a common criticism that their closed system isn’t good for pro users and could hinder the future of the platform.
When comparing these three, I can’t help but not even want to bother picking a winner. Not when it comes to large-screen tablets anyway. The fact of the matter remains that we don’t yet know what ‘pro’ tablets are good for. We don’t yet know if they will stick around.
My impression is that Microsoft is probably in the best position to make this category sticky moving forward. But doing so will require that vibrant app development that thus far only Apple has had the chops for. Google seems to have all of the software pieces in place to throw some ‘pro’ ideas of their own at the market, but hasn’t made great strides in security or hardware optimization outside of their Nexus line just yet. They’ll need to address those concerns to get big business on board. The recent rumors of a merger between Chrome OS and Android OS could prove beneficial in this area, but it is so far unknown whether or not it will come to fruition. Apple, who’s strength in ease of use and hardware design has left the bulk of its key applications to 3rd party developers to make good on. Without a visible file structure for customers to work with and/or modify, the systems current limitations might not translate so well into the business sector.
The thing is, we as potential buyers or users can acknowledge all of these things and not necessarily draw definitive conclusions about what is next and where these screens might take us. There are the obvious benefits of power and pen input I mentioned earlier and the possibility of those aiding production of art and film on a large scale. But its hard to see a future right away that includes people doing more than just drawing and using Office. The large screens in themselves enable some new usability but don’t necessarily change the game as we know it.
In my estimation, it is going to take bold combinations of hardware, software, peripherals and design to get us to a place where these devices are truly game-changers.
Blogger and prolific analyst Horace Dediu (asymco.com) may have put it best in his recent YouTube post where he assesses the new iPad Pro. Perhaps these products should be looked at as “a completely different thing; …designed for the desk.”
We are undoubtedly in a strange time for the productization of personal technology. Big tablets may have a big future ahead of them, but these large screens coming out today have a lot more to tell us about themselves before we’ll know for sure.