2010: the year we make tablets (and kill the PC!)
Okay, perhaps that's a bit aggressive. PCs will not go away, much like radio persisted after the advent of television. However, tablets do signal the end of the PC era. Why? Simply because PCs suck. They are heavy, prone to breakage, horribly insecure, and require too much knowledge to keep running. And they were never intended to be used by the vast majority of people who use them today and will use them tomorrow. By the end of this essay I think you'll agree there is a compelling case that the PC era is over and that the growth, and most of the cash, is going to be for tablets and netbooks and other non-PC devices.
When I say "PC" I mean a computer running a traditional desktop windowing operating system like Windows or Mac OSX regardless of whether it's a desktop or laptop form factor. The PC was always designed for a professional. It requires technical knowledge to use and maintain. How many of you have had to fix your parents' computer and thought: if cars were built the way PCs are the car makers would be sued out of existence. This is not to knock PCs. They are technical marvels our ancestors could only dream of, but their major asset is also their major flaw: they are general purpose computing devices. It is this generalness is that makes them some troublesome. It increases both the production and maintenance costs (in dollars, hours, and brain cells). This generalness is what makes them less competitive with the coming wave of post-PC devices.
But tablets are just PCs with touch screens.
So.. right.. touch. Touch is all the rage these days but it doesn't magically make a computer easier to use. Yes the touch interface of the iPhone is easier to use than a traditional desktop UI but most of the improvement is due to the simplification of UI metaphor, not because of touch itself. The iPhone OS doesn't have files. It doesn't have multiple overlapping windows. It doesn't have a persistent dock, screen savers, firewalls, movable palettes, or any of the other things which make up the modern desktop computer. Of course, lacking the features of a modern desktop OS makes the iPhone a more limited device...
But here's the thing: most people don't need these features. Most people use their computers for surfing the web, watching videos, playing music, reading news, and the like. The most intensive typing they do is sending emails and updating their Facebook status. You don't need the full power of a general purpose computer to do these things.
Now most of you reading my blog will say "I'd never settle for just a browsing computer". And that's right, most of you wouldn't. In fact almost none of you would. That's because anyone who reads a blog on software and UI design is by definition not most people. Most people don't write software, use Photoshop, edit videos, or the countless other things that general purpose computers are so good at. The modern PC interface is overkill for what most people actually do with their computers.
It really comes down to this: consumption versus creation. Tablets and netbooks are great at consumptive tasks. Tasks where you browse and click/tap a lot with very little typing or detailed pointing. PCs are very good at those tasks, but long with it comes all of the complexity of a desktop OS. Most people don't need that complexity, so the minute a better solution comes along they will adopt it. I think 2010 is the year when technology will finally bring that better solution: a browsing computer.
What will the browsing computer look like?
Tablets are getting all the buzz right now due to the Apple rumors, but I don't think the form factor is as important as the software interface. Netbooks are just as viable as PC replacements. The only difference between a netbook and a tablet is the presence of a hardware keyboard. Both tablets and netbooks are built out of the same pieces as PCs (and gives us that handy economies of scale), but they are fundamentally different products and are used differently.
The browsing computer strips away the complexity of a PC operating system by stripping away the features that most people never use. Apple's tablet will most likely be a large iPod Touch, devoid of a filesystem, overlapping windows, and system utilities. Of course all of those things will still be inside the tablet's software but they will be implementation details. The end user will never need to know about those things. The Microsoft Windows tablets of the past have always failed because they were desktop PCs shoehorned into a formfactor they were never designed for. The Windows OS was simply never built for touch, and too much of the OS cruft is exposed to the end user. The name "Windows" should be our key indicator: touch doesn't work well with movable overlapping windows. While the iPod Touch does use parts of Mac OS X underneath, the parts exposed to the user were designed from the ground up for a browsing computer experience.
Why now? Why not 5 years ago, or 5 years from now?
This one is a bit trickier. I think the browsing computer is ready to hit mainstream because of a few long term trends that finally converged.
First, Moore's law has made hardware fast and cheap enough to make a viable 400$ browsing computer. Five years ago the iPhone wasn't possible to build for a viable price. Today Apple makes 200$ profit on every one they sell. A few more turns of Moore's law makes the tablet viable for a similar price point (though I expect Apple to charge a premium initially).
Second, all apps are Internet apps now. The Windows OS benefited from the network effects of hardware and software compatible with it. Items bought in stores, requiring shelf space and retailers and distributors. Creating a new desktop OS required replicating this entire network of infrastructure. Today you can make your own profitable ecosystem by distributing everything online and having few or no hardware add-ons. Building a platform with tons of apps and content is a whole lot easier now. The idea of a computer that only runs software from it's own store or browses the web isn't crazy anymore. In fact, the idea of an app that doesn't have some connection to the Internet is now crazy.
Third: slave devices are becoming independent. The browsing computer is built on long term trends that have been underway for a while. What is new is that we are very close to the point where one of these non-PC devices can actually replace a PC for a lot of people. Palm Pilots and the iPod were early steps along this trend, but they were slaves to a PC. The could do nothing without the attached PC. In fact, they were made better devices by the fact that hard tasks were offloaded to the PC, such as syncing with data and managing your music. In 2007 we got the far more independent iPhone. It can directly access the web and install apps without a master computer. You still need a PC to use an iPhone for media management and configuration (plus the initial setup), but it's a lot closer to being the independent PC replacement. The final step may be the tablet/netbook. Devices which exist entirely separate from the PC and don't require it for anything. Even if we don't get these in 2010, they will be here very soon. And when it happens, it's going to happen fast. The world has been waiting.
How about some concrete predictions?
Apple will release a tablet (slate?) and sell millions
In the early part of this year Apple will release a tablet computer, but it will be a large iPod Touch instead of a small Mac. It will be almost exactly twice as large as the iPod touch in both dimensions and have worse battery life, but still be essentially the same. It will run the same software and install apps from the same store. Porting an app to the tablet will just require recoding your UI slightly to fit Apple's updated UI guidelines and the larger screen size. That's pretty much it. There will be no magic hardware, no crazy screen technology, and the UI will be pretty much the same as the iPod Touch. They will probably let you run multiple apps at once, switchable with a dock interface at the bottom, but apps will still fill the screen. It will be more like switching pages in Mobile Safari.
One part I'm unsure of is how independent the tablet will be from your desktop. I believe that Apple fully intends to make a device that will replace your laptop (at least for 95% of us), but I'm not sure they will enable this in the first version. The key will be where you store your music and movies. They might go with a cloud solution, or make a version of the Time Capusle that acts as a headless media server. The key indicator will be if you can sync your iPod from the tablet or if you still need a real PC. In any case, if it doesn't happen now it will in the next few years.
Other tablets will ship
Apple is obviously not the only one working on this. CES should be quite interesting. I expect several other browsing computers will be shown this weekend, running either Chrome OS or Android, and in both netbook (folding screen & keyboard) and tablet (touch screen with soft keyboard) form factors. Possibly something in between, but transformer laptops have never worked well. Apple's primary advantages over the competition will still be their industrial design and the content ecosystem they've developed over the past 8 years with the iPod.
Dedicated eBook Readers will be screwed
It's sad to see a new category of devices leave us so suddenly, but I think the browsing computers will supplant them very quickly. Once a dedicated device can read books for 400$ it's only a year or two before a more powerful browsing computer can do the same for the same price. On the other hand, Amazon won't care if the Kindle dies. They want to sell eBooks, which they do just as easily on the iPhone as they do on their own device. I predict that within a year they will sell more eBooks on other devices than their own, and within 5 years they will stop making the Kindle. On the other hand, the e-paper technology is continuing to improve as well, so these categories may simply merge into one.
PCs will be freed to become workstations again
When photography arrived it didn't kill off painting. Instead there was an explosion of new painting styles after the artists were freed from the duty to faithfully record the real world and could now focus on more creative things. Impressionism and modernism didn't happen until after the bulk of painting chores, portraiture and landscapes, moved to the realm of photography. I think something similar will happen to PCs. Freed from being the browser computer for the masses, PCs can morph into something more advanced and specialized. They will again become tools used by professionals, returning to their original name: workstations. As a PC user I can't wait to see what this future brings.
Special thanks to Flickr user vernhart for the hilarious photo.
It appears that last night at CES Steve Balmer showed off a tablet computer from HP. It's a PC running Windows 7, a PC operating system. It will fail miserably. They simply don't get it.
Thu Jan 07 2010