Is the iPad a Real Computer? Do its Users Deserve it?

The P.D. article of the week comes from Rene Ritchie at iMore. It’s all about the debate regarding the fitness of the iPad for some kinds of work. Is it a real computer, suitable to meet the needs of the modern user? Some people like to argue about that, it seems, and author Ritchie correctly points out that it’s a waste of time. Here’s the article.

Giving iPad fire to mere mortals: On myopia and elitism in computing

Author Ritchie opens with:

Why arguing about how someone else chooses to compute, be it on an iPad or PC, says more about you than it does them.

This phenomenon is a well-known, and it’s characterized by, as author Ritchie points out, myopia and elitism. He goes on to explain, as we know, that different users have different needs. Given the capabilities, say, of a modern iPad or a Windows PC or a Linux system, productive work can be done. It’s not really helpful for authors to bash products that they don’t favor and think that they’re providing helpful guidance.

For some people, an iPad is all they need. And that’s okay.

The Psychology

Author Ritchie makes a great case, and I recommend his work. However, I’d like to finish up here with some thoughts on the psychology of the situation. Namely, the false notion that a strident opinion about computing platforms is born of a deep understanding. The two don’t really mix.

In my experience, the most accomplished technical journalists are the ones who have both a broad and deep understanding of modern computing. That often comes from having worked for the government, military or a corporation for some time. When one is wise about the needs and experiences of modern and varied computer users, the tendency is to be more, not less, respectful of all modern platforms.

And while, as journalists, we all have our favorite platforms (mine is Mac), we have a choice when it comes to advising readers about whether our preference is so singular and enlightened that we can force it on others, especially in the name of page views.

Unfortunately, there is an influential notion that the supposed certainty of some technical facts entitles one to a bit of arrogance. It helps one feel important. But all of history shows that we’re all constantly learning and updating our knowledge. Realizing the vastness of what we don’t know ought to engender, instead, humility.

Apple knows full well that there are many people who need nothing more than an iPad or perhaps just an iPhone. The role of the technical journalist is to help everyone get the most from the platform that meets their needs best. That requires grace, professionalism, and broad experience. And  a dose of humility.

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27 thoughts on “Is the iPad a Real Computer? Do its Users Deserve it?

  • FWIW:

    My new iPad Pro 10.5″ just arrived today, and, wow. Just wow.

    And I’m comparing it to my iPad Pro 9.7″, which my son will now inherit.

    Given that I use this as part of my workflow, I’m delighted with the upgrade.

  • For the record:

    The iPad Pro is the perfect laptop for my work needs. A conventional laptop isn’t even worth considering.
    So without considering various peoples’ various needs, this debate is, well, it’s interesting, actually, up to point where and individual thinks their situation is universal and not individual.

  • @geoduck and @JohnK:

    I’ve avoided commenting on this line of discussion, but your final comment, geoduck, has moved me to go against perhaps my better judgement, primarily because I see this as a non-argument in which the participants are arguing about different things and talking past each other.

    In any argument, definitions are important, so let’s start there. Whatever the intent, what John K is describing, certainly in my profession, is not ‘work’ but ‘tasks’. For many professionals (I can’t speak for the specific ‘creatives’ John K references, but more on that below), work is specified by a Scope of Work, which outlines specific tasks, milestones, reports, deliverables and a final product.

    To achieve this work will require numerous tasks, including but not confined to some ‘heavy lift’ tasks like a report with referencing, an analysis of a massive data set, a book or chapter or manuscript for peer-reviewed or other professional publication heavily referenced with adaptive citations, interactive graphics as learning and teaching tools, etc. Many if not most of the tasks that go into that SOW however are not ‘heavy lift’, and do not require big iron massive computational power, and are done on simpler, less powerful devices.

    For a principal investigator (PI), project manager or CEO, the task is project design and methodology; namely to arrange those tasks into a coherent workflow, temporally organised in both series and sequentially, to achieve maximum efficiency, that is, maximum output with the least expenditure necessary in order to preserve maximum operational margin (e.g. one budgets on the dollar, but if one can achieve 125% efficiency, and spend $0.8 for every $1 of productivity, then one saves $0.2 for every unit of output as a safety margin).

    It is the height of inefficiency, then, to relegate all of your work to any method that is over-powered for the task. You don’t need an iMac Pro or a Mac Pro in order to write a quarterly report or generate a burn analysis on your quarterly budget. Any project leader who would do that is incompetent and should be sacked. You provide your teams with the essential tools they need in order to accomplish their respective workflows, which are also divided into discrete tasks, and which will be driven by the ‘heaviest lift’ for that workflow. For much of my team, that’s effectively a beige box running some version of Windows with some flavour of Office, including email.

    I would include as ‘real work’ moving a global research agenda forward, designing and testing new interventions against infectious diseases for licensure and rollout, testing novel diagnostics, or, if we want to describe ‘creatives’, creating and testing new health systems for the most health-challenged settings. While none of that may involve video editing, I’d argue that that qualifies as professional real work. A Winbox, a MacBook, an iPad (Pro or otherwise), or an iPhone or other app-based mobile phone (for geo-referenced data collection by field workers) will each serve as the most efficient tool for different tasks in that workflow. For that matter, even an Apple Watch can serve an efficient role (reminders, communication, measurements), SOW – depending.

    Unless one is in a solo operation, and perhaps this is John K’s situation, in which everything is done by one person, and you confine yourself to only one machine (I have no idea why anyone would do that other than cost constraint) then the principle that your machine choice is driven by the heaviest lift in your workflow still applies, and would compel you to use a sufficiently powerful machine, defined by SOW.

    For me as a director or principal investigator, what that means is using the most efficient tool in my arsenal, which will not only vary by task, but by an incessant need for mobility. Sometimes, that’s a MBP and at others it’s an iPad Pro, an iPhone or even an Apple Watch.

    I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but in my world, that’s just how the most competitive and successful professionals roll.

  • John:
    This has been an interesting discussion. It seems however, to have decayed into a parallel of a debate I would hear when I was younger. Loggers, construction workers, carpenters, and such saying that they did real work, while accountants, and anyone who worked for the government did not. It was silly then and to be honest it is a bit silly now.

    You want to use a Mac to do your work fine. I use my iPad to do real work that I get paid for. Are there some things I can’t do with the iPad, sure. I know there’s a lot of things that you can’t do with the Mac, (that require Windows only software for example). That doesn’t mean the Mac is somehow lessor than a WinPC. Similarly, while I do a fair amount of stuff with the iPad, there’s some things I must defer to the Mac or my Windows system. Each has it’s own capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Each is a different tool for different situations.

  • programming, heavy word processing like large reports, technical documentation, books etc. also programming, heavy photoshop and illustration work, large presentations. All of those things are absolutely miserable experiences on an iPad

    I would put to you that your examples would apply to a MacBook as well. Yes coding is one area that there aren’t the tools, yet, for the iPad. But I don’t think you’d want to do a large report with graphics, edit 4K video, or do really large complex Photoshop work on a MacBook either. It just doesn’t have the processor, RAM, or HDD space. Not to mention that the screen is essentially the same size as the 12 inch iPad Pro. To do this class of very big job you are going to want to use heavy iron. A whole different level of computer. A top end 27″ iMac and several TB class HDD or larger. A Mac Pro. A top end MacBook Pro and a huge external screen. A serious truck. No one would say the MacBook is not a Real Computer to do Real Work, nor should they say that about the iPad Pro. Just because it can’t do what you define as “real” work does not mean that I cannot use it to do real work, which I do.

    Most of the Taxi Cabs around here are Toyota Prius. That is real work done by real cars. They are the best tool for the job. Similarly I do real writing and graphics on my iPad, a real computer. Does it have limitations? Sure, so do all computers. A MacBook has sacrificed some capabilities for portability. So has the iPad.

    But there’s no reason to dis the other guys tools when he’s getting good results with them.

  • Jeff

    Great. Reading is dead. -_-

    As for the rest, me getting annoyed takes no effort and means nothing. But keep pretending otherwise if it makes you feel better. I mean, you can’t win the discussion on real work so I figure you need some sort of victory.

  • Geoff: Real word processors have line numbers. Paragraph numbers. You can’t even use pages to submit a patent application, far from taxing word processor work. Also, they have cross references. Thanks also for picking on word processing and not ither things like development. And even when you can technically do some of the things I say, perhaps in the future, the iPad ui is awful for getting real work done. Like surgery with mittens. Maybe you can do it, but no one wants. I’m glad I got all your panties ina bunch, you know why they’re bunch, because you can feel the pinch of the truth.

    Geoduck, first all of you guys darn know well what I mean by serious and heavy lift. Plus I gave examples, programming, heavy word processing like large reports, technical documentation, books etc. also programming, heavy photoshop and illustration work, large presentations. All of those things are absolutely miserable experiences on an iPad if even possible. And you’ve made my point. It does a small portion of them which means it does not do a large portion of them. I think that’s been inhibited by lack of file system, lack of mouse input, and ui compromised with iOS. Some of that may be lessened by iOS 11, but not enough. So that it might work “someday” doesn’t do squat to help those that have to get work done today.

    Jamie agreed.

  • John:

    The ‘iPad is/is not a computer’ is not a real debate, neither is it a controversy; it’s been settled de facto by adoption and use case for jobs that used to be the sole domain of the PC. Moreover, it has assumed a dominant role for some tasks that were only relatively recently available on the PC but for which the iPad is simply better suited; I would include video teleconferencing in that category, as the iPad allows me to continue moving and working while conferencing, rather than sitting stationary with either my laptop or a desktop.

    I could not agree more with Rene Ritchie’s piece, which has succinctly made most of the points I have made and would have made in this connection. His analysis of the migration from mainframe to command line to the PC GUI to the touch interface in the face effrontery to elitism and myopia rooted in self-centricity, and the disdain and censure they have provoked from each cohort of legacy elite users, is readily verifiable by historic record of written commentary. To argue about whether or not the iPad is a computer is to argue about user choice for specific tasks, and has all of the substance of shadow boxing and the depth of two dimensional analysis.

    I concur with your assessment that the most accomplished tech journalists are the ones with the greatest respect for modern computing platforms and the range of choice and working options that these afford the modern user. I would argue that this is true for every profession. The greater one’s understanding of the craft and the universe of its knowledge and experience base, the greater not only is one’s humility before it, but if one’s grasp truly rises the comprehensive, is one’s capacity to expound that craft in its purest simplicity because one recognises its core principles and proven truths.

    What does that mean? For computing, let me borrow from and paraphrase a core truth from one of the world’s great religious texts; the computer was created in order to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the computer. The most best computer for any individual is the one that is most appropriate in the moment, meaning that it can accomplish the task and is available to the individual where they are. For my use, that range spans the gamut of macOS, iOS and watchOS devices. This does not mean that one option is innately superior to the other, or that each of these devices or OSes are completely interchangeable. That these are not wholly interchangeable does not lessen their value proposition to specific users in specific instances, or relegate one or another option to an inherently inferior position. Rather these options extend the power of human productivity by extending the range of circumstances under which that productivity can continue unabated. Why should that not be celebrated rather than censured? Who would not want that range and capability extended yet further, especially if it can simplify the logistics of workflow and productivity with both efficacy and security? Who would prefer a world with fewer options or more restricted choice? That defines a loss of freedom and being shackled.

    I just returned from an international conference, where I had to serve not only as chair, but present my and other people’s work before an audience of the world’s leading experts on respiratory viral infections and interventions. The only tool I brought with me was my iPad Pro. It ran all day on a single charge and enabled me to run the conference by allowing me to take notes, conduct video conferencing with colleagues off site, prepare my slides, download additional references and data to make those slides, edit other presenters slides and presentations, communicate via multiple platforms including email, Twitter, iMessage, Skype and any other means and, oh yes, stream my early morning workouts before heading to the conference room. There was no essential task that I needed to do for that conference that I could not do on my iPad Pro.

    That said, there are tasks that I still cannot do on my iPad Pro. These include data analysis with some form of Stata (my analysis tool of choice), or write scientific manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication, which means being able to use ‘cite while you write’ insertion of adaptive referencing with a reference manager like Endnote with either MS Word and/or Pages, to name just two examples. Whether or not I shall be able to do so in future (I believe I shall); none of that lessens the value proposition for my professional use of the iPad for the tasks it affords me; tasks for which as a portable platform it is optimally suited relative to other options.

    By whatever title, moniker or epithet one wishes to style the iPad, or any other device, I call it progress.

  • I can’t move a ton of gravel with my Prius. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a “real” car.

    I can’t do that with my pickup truck, not in one load, about 4 though 5 would be more realistic. You would need dozens of trips in your Prius.

    Anyway as Geoduck said, define “heavy lifting” and “serious” work. A computer best suited for heavy and serious video work would be overkill for someone in real estate or something that doesn’t need to move tons of gravel in one trip.

  • Of course it’s a real computer. For those that use portables I don’t see why it couldn’t suffice. For others, the screen size is a big issue, as are the input methods. Attaching it to a larger screen would help, but the way I work (constant shifting between apps and tabs, many trips to the clip board, extensive use of spotlight etc.), if it required touch, my arms would get very tired. Also, after you pair it with a screen, a keyboard, and input devices, you pretty much have yourself a Mac! 😉

    My beef is that the people at Apple seem to want us all to be clones, and of late, the slight arrogance that used to be charming or in good humor is becoming legitimate hubris (granted, that is the general tenor of Silicon Valley these days). They do not know what is best for everyone, and they can’t predict the future any more than you or I (and ‘creating the future’ is a farce if it requires manipulation or coersion). One would definitely have to not be thinking things through to blithely follow along, in my opinion.

    When I say something doesn’t meet my needs, I actually *mean* that it doesn’t meet my needs, I am not confused or unenlightened, and neither is anyone else sharing that sentiment. Not being afflicted with said hubris, I don’t presume to make other people’s decisions for them. If they are happy with their tablet, then good on ’em.

  • John K:
    You seem to be haggling over whether an iPad can do “heavy lifting” and “serious” creative work, but you haven’t defined what that means. This is a severe weakness in your argument.

    Can I write on my iPad? Yes. Can I draw and do graphics on my iPad? Yes. Can I edit video and audio on my iPad? Yes. Sure, as Geoff256 said I won’t be editing a Marvel movie with one but so what? I can’t move a ton of gravel with my Prius. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a “real” car.

    For more and more people an iPad can do a higher and higher percentage of their creative work. I used my iPad2 for ~10% of my creative efforts. My current iPad Air and iOS10,. and better software has brought that up to ~50%. For the first time last year I created our Christmas card, did final layout, exported it, posted it online, printed it, and mailed it just with my iPad. My writing is mostly done on my iPad. Just final editing is easier on the Mac. Drawing and graphics are almost completely done on the iPad. LumaFusion along with a 10.5″ iPad Pro, Pencil, and iOS11 this fall will likely move all of my video editing off of the Mac.

    So, what is this “heavy lifting” you are talking about? Increasingly an iPad can perform more and more of the work you seem to think requires a Mac.

  • Go ahead, tell me what “real word processors” have that programs on the iPad lack. I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with something. I’m sure you.l be able to tell me why famous authors can use DOS programs to make some of the best novels of our time while somehow “huge reports” require a big and heavy word program.

    You’re also right about the illustration work. It isn’t like Jim Lee used an iPad Pro to quickly sketch up Batman or anything. Disney artists didn’t use it or anything.

    Look, coward was the wrong thing to say. You’re not a coward. You’re just old, stuck in the old ways of doing things. And no, I’m not arguing that you’ll ever be filming the latest Marvel movie using an iPad. Always use the best tool for the job. But to argue that heavy lifting work can’t be done on an iPad is myopic and a good sign that you’re just getting old.

    Don’t worry, though, I’m sure the kids will stay off your lawn.

  • No Jeff, the cowards way out is to join a bandwagon and not think about things too much. Just because the iPad isn’t good for heavy lifting and serious creative work, doesn’t mean it’s not useful for someone that doesn’t do work like that. Most executives read email and don’t do too much heavy lifting. Grandparents are not exactly heavy on creating big PowerPoint or keynote presentations. So it’s a perfectly reasonable machine for masses of people who will not be taxing the device with any real hard work. Developers? Filmmakers? People making really huge reports that need a real word processor? Real heavy Photoshop work? Will have illustration work? Desktop publishing? All those things are quite a bit heavier than checking email and Twitter.

    If you can’t reconcile those things, well I can’t help you.

  • The better way to get the news is from a variety of sources. You should no more assume that what is written by traditional print journalism or spoken in broadcast journalism is true than what is read on the net. All news journalists and consumers are prejudiced. Many simply get the news from sources that align with their prejudice.

  • The proper answer to “Is the iPad a “real” computer?” is “Yes, next question.”
    I remember people who said “real” cars had to have a V8 engine.
    Those people were also idiots.

  • And a dose of humility.

    You want the digitratti to have a dose of humility? HA! For every Rene Ritchie that may be pragmatic there are 10 more like Robert Scobble and Jason Calacanis whose tech-snobbery is probably what is turning people off to the tech world and having companies complain there is no talent!

  • Most folks would pay no attention to someone who said:

    “You can’t succeed in life if you drive a Japanese car.”

    So why pay any attention to similarly inane remarks about which tech device to use?

  • @John Kheit: Yiu both insult the argument that the iPad idea that heavy work can be done on an iPad and say YMMV. That’s kind of a cowards way out. Just say you have no respect for the argument that goes against yours and be done with it. Don’t play both sides.

  • The real question is: What happened to the Apple Computer Company? And that’s where nobody cares. The old mojo has been lost for at least a decade now. I’m ridin’ the New Boss’ iOS Co. now!!! Yeee Hawwwww!!!

  • I thought I should clarify that the John I was referring to was Mr. Martellaro, not Mr. Kheit.

    Oh, and as long as I’m here again, our mileage does INDEED vary. I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

  • Realizing the vastness of what we don’t know ought to engender, instead, humility.

    Well dang John, you’ve certainly nailed it. Well done. These days there’s a real scarcity of good writing and you sir, have done a fine job.

  • Renée can Bite it his with his banal PC platitudes. The reality is that thus far, people that actually do heavy lifting work, creative,s need something more then the iPad. And spare me the handwaving about those that use the iPad is a glorified cintique.

    Perhaps iOS 11 will change that, time will tell, but I suspect in large part, real heavy lifting work will still need to be done on a Mac. Banal PC platitudes won’t change that, nor will being spineless about the reality that stares at us daily.

    As always, ymmv

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