An iPad, a Computer, a Holy Grail?

Can the iPad be one’s primary computing device? That’s a question that has been floating throughout the Apple community ever since the iPad was released back in 2010. There has been endless debate on this subject, although no definitive answer has emerged. Yet, I’m not as interested in whether this is possible or not, because I think the more interesting question is why do people want this so badly? Why are we all searching for this “Holy Grail” of devices that we can use for all our tasks, at the expense of using more specialized devices?

When the iPad was announced, people immediately started to speculate on what exactly this device could do. Dreams of a laptop replacement filled people’s minds, and many hoped for a powerful computing device that could do professional level work. Yet, once it was actually released, people realized it wasn’t as fully formed and powerful as they had hoped. The first iPad had a fairly limited app selection, did not multitask, and still had to be connected to a computer out of the box. It wasn’t even close to a laptop replacement at that point.1 Yet, it was massively popular, because people used it for what it was, a more casual device that usually worked in compliment to one’s main computer.

Now, almost four years later, the iPad has grown up to a large degree, both in terms of its raw power and the ever expanding app ecosystem. This has rekindled the dream in some people’s minds of making the iPad their primary computer. The poster child for this in the Apple community is Federico Viticci, who actually has managed to use his iPad as his main computing device for many areas of his life, including running his popular MacStories website.2 Yet, even Viticci I think will admit that the technology is not quite there, and one has to use many workarounds to do certain tasks, and some tasks are simply impossible to completely do on an iPad.

Yet, why do people still pursue this dream of the iPad as a primary computer?

Maybe some of it is the desire to simplify one’s life, to winnow things down to the bare essentials. It can be more stressful and time consuming to have multiple devices to gets things done, as opposed to a single device. If I’m going on vacation I need to bring both my iPad and MacBook Air, but it would be so much easier to simply have just the iPad do everything I usually do on my MacBook Air. One could empty out their digital life and be left with a single device sitting alone on the table, the one device to rule them all.3

However, the question that keeps coming to my mind is why can’t we be happy with having different devices to do different things? Why must we be obsessed with consolidating our devices, instead of being happy we can have a rich selection of more specific devices?

Anytime you consolidate devices, you are making compromises. If you decide to get rid of your camera and only use the iPhone to take photos, you are getting a lesser experience, as most stand-alone cameras can take better photos than the iPhone. If you get rid of your Nintendo 3DS and only play games on the iPhone, you are missing out on a more specialized gaming experience. If you try to handwrite notes on your iPad, you are getting a much inferior experience to the ease of writing notes in a paper notebook.

Yet, the common wisdom seems to remain that these compromises are acceptable, because in exchange you get the ease of having everything in one simple package. I understand that desire, but I wonder if people are accepting too many compromises in the name of finding this Holy Grail device. Sometimes using the correct tool for a job is a much more rewarding experience than using the more convenient, but more compromised tool.

I’d analogize it to a Swiss Army knife. A Swiss Army knife is a very convenient tool that can do a wide variety of tasks, yet it can’t do most of them very well. Jamming all of those tools into a single, small tool that fits in your pocket creates immense compromises. If you need to simply tighten a single screw it works fine, but trying to use it on a complicated construction project just becomes terribly frustrating. Instead, using the proper tools, such as an actual screwdriver, makes the experience much more seamless. That is the beauty of using the right tool for the right job.

Yet, the people using the iPad as a primary computer still seem be using a Swiss Army knife to build a house, when the box full of established tools (an actual computer) is sitting right next to them. Maybe that will change as the iPad becomes more and more powerful and these tasks will become just as easy to perform as on a full fledged computer.4 But, that time hasn’t come, and I think that people should not be afraid to seek out the most elegant solution to performing a task, even if it is not the most convenient.

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1. To be fair, Steve Jobs specifically stated at the iPad introduction that it was a device that would fit between the iPhone and Mac, and not replace either.

2. Viticci also wrote a really great retrospective of the debate over whether an iPad can be a personal computer.

3. Price also must factor in to some extent because these things cost money and some simply can’t afford to buy multiple devices.

4. If Apple ever does create an iPad Pro my thoughts might have to change.