I hadn’t intended to become the patron saint of iPad skeptics with my “iPad-only is the new desktop Linux” piece last year. (Or the newest bête noire of all the full-time desktop Linux users. Sorry, guys! I know you’re both still angry.) In actuality, I use the iPad a lot — it’s been my only portable computer since the 9.7″ Pro model came out, and my only computer, period, on a few long trips. I’ve posted blog entries, taken meeting notes, prepared story “cover” artwork, and sent story revisions with Word-compatible change tracking back and forth with an editor using Pages. I’ve even done a little work on Github-hosted source repositories. I’m no Federico Viticci, but by most standards I’m an iOS “power user.”
Yet I’m not inclined to back down on my criticisms of iOS, either. If anything, my sense of its shortcomings has grown more acute. It’s difficult to work with the same data across multiple applications. Batch operations tend to be modal and inconsistent. The controls for text editing are still pretty sketchy. That’s not even touching tasks that need scripting, compiling or persistent TCP connections, or getting into iOS’s limited conception of universal services. These can be fixed in software, but it’s an open question whether Apple sees them as problems.
So if I want to join in the Whither the iPad dialogue that’s been going on recently, where does that leave me? My fuzzy thesis was that the iPad had a lot of frustrating problems but all of those problems were fixable but some of them couldn’t be fixed without making the iPad work more like a PC in some respects but maybe doing that would be okay.
And, all true, if studiously noncommittal. But I think there’s an implicit premise that needs re-examining. The “Mac/PC vs. iPad” argument treats the Future of Computing™ as a zero-sum game. Maybe it isn’t.
I thought about what computers might be like a few generations from now for my novel Kismet. Characters use Siri-like direct voice control, “viewcards” (descendants of smartphones), “smartpaper,” and, yes, even keyboards and screens. Their data is always with them, presented in whatever form makes sense, because ubiquitous connectivity is as much a given as electricity. The heroine has trouble even conceiving that data can have a physical location. It’s effectively everywhere, transparently replicated and strongly encrypted.
The lesson of iOS is that decoupling data from location is better.
While I’m sure that vision won’t prove to be on the nose (predictions never are), I suspect it captures a fundamental truth: there is no one physical form or input method to rule them all. The lesson of iOS isn’t that portable touch screens, tiling window managers and hidden file systems are intrinsically better. It’s that decoupling data from location is better. The lesson of the iPad is that a desktop or a laptop isn’t ideal for every task. To turn around and exclaim “but the iPad is ideal for every task!” profoundly misses the point. What’s happened is that computing technology has reached a point where everything no longer looks a nail. Let the iPad be the iPad, but let laptops be laptops and desktops be desktops, too.
But won’t future operating systems be more like iOS than like macOS? I’m not as sure now as I once was. Why should devices with different UX intentions run the same underlying OS? What we care about in the end is having access to the same data on all our devices. I suspect that macOS will continue to borrow design cues from iOS and that iOS will continue to gain capabilities already present in macOS, but there’s few compelling reasons for them to truly merge. What we use at any given time should come down to a mix of ergonomics — the right tool for the right job — and personal preference.
Thinking about it in this light has made me start to rethink my own computing needs. For all the talk about the iOS software ecosystem being sizzling and the macOS ecosystem being moribund, if I look at the apps I spend the most time in, either they’re on both platforms (Ulysses, Spark, Slack, OmniFocus, Scrivener, Pages and so on) or they’re separate programs that nonetheless share data transparently (Timepage on iOS and Fantastical on the Mac; anything that uses Dropbox). What are the right tools for my jobs?
Well, the iPad Pro beats the Mac at some things that I do on a daily basis — reading, web browsing, time management — and equally as good at a host of others. For some other things, though, the Mac beats the iPad. Programming is one of them. And so, I’ve come to conclude, is writing.
Gasp! Everyone says the iPad is perfect for writers! I know a lot of writers get blissed out with it. I’m just not one of them. I’ve tried, guys, I’ve tried. But writing isn’t just typing, it’s editing. Text editing on the iPad is nearly as clunky in 2017 as it was in 2010. Selection with finger or Pencil is tremendously fussy compared to mouse or trackpad, most editors have limited search and replace capability, and don’t get me started on the hula dance that you have to go through if you want to view the same document in two separate windows. (On Ulysses on the Mac, if I want this document open in two windows, I press ⌥⌘N. On the iPad, I…buy another iPad, I guess?) At a basic system level, iOS just doesn’t treat text as a first-class citizen. And before anyone tells me that iPads give me that sweet distraction-free zen focus, three words: full screen mode.
So I’m considering a MacBook after its next revision. I don’t love its keyboard, but if it gets the second generation one from the 2016 MBPs, it’ll be livable. It’ll be smaller and lighter than the 12.9″ iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard. (Seriously. I checked. It’ll be thinner and not that much heavier than my 9.7″ iPad and its Logitech Create keyboard.) And I’m not bothered by the prospect of having only one port. You know what else has only one port? The iPad.
Also, occasionally I’d like to be able to do a little programming while I’m out and about, maybe to follow along with one of my books on Elixir. And if I’m right about computing devices diverging rather than converging, I may never have a development environment on the iPad, unless it’s in the cloud, and the Mac/PC may always be the best tool for that job.
But that doesn’t mean giving the iPad up! It’ll still be a better tool for its jobs. The one-size-fits-all general computing platform belongs to the past. The future of computing is everything, everywhere. A few years from now, there may be entirely new tools. I might just be doing my writing on devices that aren’t quite either tablet or PC. (While I don’t see Macs ever running iOS, I can see a future iOS device with an integrated keyboard and trackpad. Call it the — ahem — “iBook.”)
And in the meantime, I’ll be reading the Elixir book on the iPad. Jesus, do you think I’m going to read it on the Mac, like an animal?
A postscript from our sponsor: my novel Kismet is not, despite the article’s implication, about future computing platforms. It’s a hard science fiction novel about identity, prejudice, and what makes a place home. In the words of a reviewer, it’s “a fast-moving, fun, tense, exciting, high-stakes space adventure.” It’s been compared to “Firefly” and “The Expanse” (not just by me, I promise), and the ebook’s only $6. Read the first four chapters online for free. If you want to support my occasional tech writing, consider picking it up!
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