The Phone-ification of the Tablet

You may not know this: when I’m not writing for PocketNow, I co-manage a YouTube business. As you might imagine, this means I spend a lot of time editing video. One recent evening while out of town, I found myself with a stack of raw footage and a ton of time — but without a computer. I did, however, have my original-recipe iPad.

Since it was a simple, short video, I thought I’d take advantage of the new iMovie app that was released concurrently with the iPad2; maybe I could at least get a rough cut patched together. So I fired up the App Store and prepared to drop $4.99 because I was too impatient to wait a day to get back to my computer.

Then I was greeted with this:

photo (1) trim

Now, it’s not often an app will tell you exactly WHY it’s incompatible, so at least Apple deserves some credit for that (assuming they’re telling the truth). Nevertheless, I was infuriated. iMovie should have easily been able to import video from an outside source; why was the iPad2’s camera needed at all? What an arbitrary limitation to impose on a program!

A few weeks later, I had finally calmed down enough to visit the App Store again. This time I was in a similar state, on the go with only my iPad and a little time to touch up some photos. This happened to be the same day that Photoshop for the iPad was released, so I thought, what the hell: I’ll throw Adobe some money and see how Photoshop feels on a touchscr–

photo (1)

I started seeing red.

I know, I know; I should really just start toting my Macbook everywhere I go. No, but here’s the thing: these app-install refusals were happening not long after I’d given up on my second-generation iPod Touch running iOS4. I’d dumped it because the thing could no longer function as an iPod; the music player, its primary reason for existence, kept crashing.

The thing is: absurd as it sounds, I expect that kind of behavior from a small device like an iPod. Yeah, it’s annoying, but I’ve been conditioned by a decade of mobile phone ownership that I shouldn’t expect older devices to support the newest software. It’s an up-or-out industry; you either upgrade often, or accept a quickly-outdated user experience. Because some part of me recognizes that the iPod Touch is little more than a neutered iPhone, I expect it to age quickly and somewhat gracelessly. And because the iPad is essentially a scaled-up version of the same thing, it follows that I should expect it to behave in the same manner.

But I don’t. I expect it to last me for much longer. Because I perceive it as a computer … just as I’ve been conditioned to.

What we have here is the strange situation of a simultaneous success and failure in marketing. The major computer manufacturers (I’ve picked on Apple for my example, but this applies to most of them) have all admitted that tablets are, if not THE future entirely, then a sizable portion of it. “Consumers are changing their use of the PC,” said Leo Apotheker during his brief tenure as CEO of HP; “The tablet effect is real.” The notion that we’re finally entering what Steve Jobs termed the “post-PC era” is evident to most. But ironically, the device Jobs unleashed on the world, the iPad that started the revolution, also locked us in to a new set of expectations about how long these devices should last.

After its announcement, the iPad was sometimes derided as “a giant iPod,” and for good reason: that’s what it is. The iPad, and most Android tablets, really ARE “giant phones-without-the-phones” at their core. It turns out that slapping a mobile OS on a scaled-up piece of hardware was a very good idea. But as we see tablets already replacing “proper” computers as some people’s primary devices, a trend that we’re told will only accelerate, we naturally associate tablets with computers- not mobile phones. So our expectations are guided accordingly: “This device that will replace most of my laptop’s functions will probably last as long as my laptop did.”

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It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s faulty – as we’re already seeing with product refresh cycles. Your original iPad may well last you four years; it’s too early to say. But will it have the same performance problems as my three-year-old iPod Touch is having now? Already, my two-year-old iPad, running the latest OS, is having trouble keeping core applications like Safari and Mail from crashing during normal usage. Last night, I tried moving a large comic book PDF to my iPad, but the cloud-sharing app I was using wouldn’t stop crashing. The transfer never completed. And I’m not the only one: Google “iPad apps crashing iOS5” (don’t worry; it’ll auto-complete) to see scores of similarly frustrated users. On top of that, as we learned with my Photoshop and iMovie experiences, app fragmentation across iOS tablets is finally beginning. If this is the user experience I’m in for going forward, you better believe I’ll be upgrading.

Which is, of course, great for Apple … or Samsung, or whoever offers my preferred upgrade: they get a new infusion of my money every two years, just like the phone manufacturers do today (or, in the case of subsidized phones, just like the carrier gets two more years of my business). Very quickly, all the money I saved from choosing a tablet over a laptop evaporates, as I’m upgrading at twice or three times the rate I would have been.

Windows 8 tablets may change this equation somewhat when they arrive on the scene, as they will likely be the only consumer-grade tablets featuring a desktop-class operating system. That’s just one of the things that has us excited about Windows 8. Then again, Microsoft is as much a slave to the pace of innovation as any other manufacturer, and they’re hungrier than Google or Apple, having been shut out of the tablet game for so long. It’s hard to envision them releasing some blockbuster tablet hardware, guaranteeing it’ll last “as long as your computers used to last,” then sitting on the sidelines, watching everyone else mop up profits from yearly sales of upgrades featuring flashy new features.

I’m not saying the situation is entirely negative: one of the benefits of an aggressively-paced upgrade schedule is that it allows manufacturers to pack in hot new features and capabilities that weren’t available the year before. The Retina display that most predict the new iPad will feature is no minor bump in spec; it will enable customers to use the product in newer, better ways. The QUALCOMM S4 Snapdragon Processor that gives the ASUS Padfone its snappy performance wasn’t around in 2011, either.

Progress is a great thing. The rate of innovation in technology has further accelerated the already-frenetic growth of the mobile world. Tablets, built on the backbone of that world, are being carried along by the same rushing current. We’re being treated to almost-annual bumps in performance and capability, enabling us to do more work and have more fun. All of this is awesome; we just need to be ready to pay for it.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!