Is a tablet a PC?

Given the success of the iPad, you would think the world had discovered something new. But is a tablet really that different than a PC? Aren’t all the functions virtually the same? Or do tablets, with their new shape and touch interface, really represent a departure from the PC as we know it?

The Experts
Matt Asay
Matt Asay

senior vice president of business development at Strobe says tablets are fundamentally different, from the form factor through to the software and how they are used, and not merely an extension of the PC. View debate

John Obeto
John Obeto

CEO & Chief Technology Officer of Logikworx says poppycock. Tablets are just the latest PC form factor and do all the usual stuff those boxes do. The real benefit will arrive when they become even more full fledged PC citizens. View debate

Matt Asay

Tablets are a revolution, not evolution of the PC

While tablets pay homage to the PC - sometimes requiring manual inputting of data via physical or virtual keyboards, depending on the app being used - they differ in significant other ways. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has tried to tie the two worlds together, claiming that tablets, like PCs, are software centric, without acknowledging that the nature of that software has changed, and often dramatically.

Perhaps the reason we have tablets at all is that the personal computer never really delivered on the promise. It was never all that personal. PCs were initially heavy lumps of plastic that lived somewhere in the home or office. Later came the laptop and netbook, and each step made the PC a bit more personal.

Slate wars: 15 tablets that could rival Apple's iPad

The form factor itself, however, was never truly personal. Nor was the software. Sure, some people put stickers on their laptops and changed their screen savers, but the PC's file system imposes a somewhat impersonal interaction with it, and the closest a PC ever gets to being cradled is sitting stiffly on someone's lap.

Tablets, and the software that runs them, however, are inherently personal. From Day One.

Tablets significantly depart from their PC predecessor in ways that make them a new species altogether, rather than an evolution. Consider, for example, that early on Microsoft came out with its own tablet/slate device, and the very fact that it was a hybrid of the old world (PC) and the new (smartphone) vaporized its chances. With their swiveling screens and bulky presence, old-school tablets failed to excite.

The new world of tablets, however, is very different. Thin, relatively light, and completely dominated by a touchscreen. The brains of these tablets has changed, too: initially it was traditional Windows running on a pseudo-new form factor. Today's tablets, on the other hand, bury the file system and run a lightweight OS that gets out of the way of the apps that increasingly dominate our time and attention.

And while these apps span an array of functions, they skew much more personal than applications on our old-world PCs. Instead of fixating on the creation of Office documents we carry around Instagram, Facebook, LoseIt, etc. Yes, these services are also sometimes available on traditional PCs, either as native or Web apps, but they are increasingly built with smartphones and tablets in mind, with the PC an afterthought.

The PC is all about getting work done. The tablet has a day job, but spends as much or more time having a life.

Though a tablet is not a phone, it has sociability built into its DNA. A tablet like the iPad comes with GPS built-in, and likely has 3G wireless at the ready, too. PCs can be social, too, of course, but that social DNA feels like more of a bolt-on.

And it's not just social. For tablets, the apps are the operating system. When using my iPad I'm married to individual apps, not to iOS. Indeed, I'm guessing few consumers have any idea what iOS is. They have an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab. They don't think about the OS.

The PC, on the other hand, is constantly reminding users of the OS. The primary affinity is for Windows, Linux or Mac OS X. This feeling comes through in the need to interact with the file system on a regular basis, the bother of installing apps, etc.

Microsoft still doesn't get this, which is why Chicago Sun-Times columnist Andy Ihnatko raves about the new Windows 8 tablet interface but pauses to shudder, "Every time the classic Windows 7 interface pops up, it looks like a drunken uncle at an otherwise elegant family wedding."

The tablet experience is different. This is why Apple has been retrofitting Mac OS X to be more iOS-like, rather than trying to make iOS more Mac OS X-like.

Apple is winning because Apple groks this shift in how we use "computers." The tablet has out-personalized the personal computer. Vive la tablet revolution.

Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, an HTML5 startup that provides a framework and cloud services for building cross-platform mobile apps. He was formerly COO of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

John Obeto

Just a new form factor

PC. Personal Computer. As in a personal computing device. A tablet is both a computing device, and in most cases, is personal.

The newest champion of the so called "post-PC" world is the tablet. Unfortunately, for all the promise it holds for mobile computing, a tablet is simply a computer, albeit mobile.

Whenever you see people using tablets, you can separate them into two groups, just as you can 'traditional' PC users: entertainment/multimedia consumers, and productivity users. In both cases it is the apps that bring desktop functionality to tablets. You can, for example, edit video on an iPad. What's more, you see productivity users adding wireless keyboards and other peripherals to tablets, unconsciously re-creating laptops!

Tablets are PCs.

A few months ago, I read a Network World article where the author took issue with Microsoft's Andy Lees' assertion that Microsoft views tablets, aka slate-form factor devices, as PCs. The writer made some arguments that, while seemingly on point, don't hold water. Let me point out a few:

Network World: "The only tablets on the market today that are full PCs are Windows 7 tablets, and they are failures. Microsoft is adding a new tablet-optimized interface to Windows 8 that will run in addition to the traditional Windows interface, but it doesn't make sense to jam a full PC operating system into a device that is more ideal for consumption, rather than creation of content. HP already realized this when it shifted from Windows tablets to the TouchPad, based on WebOS."

Wrong assumption No.1: As noted, the apps make any tablet the equivalent of a PC. Microsoft coming out with an optimized interface for the platform doesn't change that fact, it is simply a reaction to market dynamics. It would be foolish for any player, including Microsoft, to simply ape the iPad. Copying the iPad at this point would force Microsoft to play in Apple's sandbox. By expanding the PC utility of slate devices Microsoft will attempt to redefine the battlefield for tomorrow.

7 new Windows 7 tablets

And why not Windows on a tablet? I am at a loss as to why it is OK for WebOS, a Linux variant, to be an acceptable tablet OS, while Windows is looked at askance. Especially since the user experience on Android-based tablets is crap, from a general consumer's point of view. The contrast in user-friendliness between either Windows Phone 7 devices or the iPhone and any Android phone is telling, a problem that has jumped to tablet devices as well. No matter how polished the Linux-based devices look, they fall short when regular humans, or even the tech punditry's proletariat, try to use them for everyday tasks.

Into that breach would come Windows 8, with a new, touch-enabled user interface, and most importantly, total support for current apps, and complete fidelity for users' data. That doesn't mean existing tablets aren't PCs. It means future tablets will be better than those available now.

Network World: "Applications like QuickOffice, and Bluetooth keyboards let tablet owners do a bit of work in a pinch, when they're not near a full computer. But the appeal of the devices is an easy-to-use operating system combined with apps that let you watch movies, play games, and read articles in fancy news aggregators like Pulse and Flipboard. Work on a tablet, or a phone, is usually a quick edit to a document, not creating a complicated spreadsheet."

Wrong assumption No.2: This statement perpetuates the assumption that tablet users only consume content. Not true. Even with the iPad, tablets are being used for content creation, and Windows tablets will definitely do more. Here, the writer is conflating tablet use by outliers with that of business people who purchase slates to be productive.

At the recent Microsoft Build conference in Anaheim, Microsoft put the discussion to rest with Windows 8. Windows 8 spans tablets, notebooks, netbooks and desktops, creating a unified computing experience across all those format genres.

They are all PCs, they just come in different form factors.

So, yes, folks, a tablet or slate form factor computing device is a PC, which stands for personal computer, since the devices tend to be both personal and are computing devices. No matter what Steve Jobs says it is!

Logikworx is a managed services, systems and security solutions provider for SMBs focused on creating 100% Windows-based solutions built around Microsoft technologies for the desktop, server, mobile and cloud infrastructures.

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