Since the iPad’s announcement, its equivalence to the PC has been in question. Two years later, it seems this particular debate is far from settled. The topic has resurfaced recently in light of Apple’s wild success with the device, prompting many to wonder how to interpret one computing device’s accomplishments in the face of an industry that seems to be in free fall. Yet for all the yes it is, no it isn’t arguments revolving around the iPad’s PC-ness, no one has elucidated the reason why the iPad must be categorized one way or the other. Or why it even matters. 1
The obsession with the PC2 moniker itself is interesting, so much its definition is open to interpretation. Is a PC strictly defined as a Personal Computer? Computers have been steadily becoming more and more personal since the term was coined that the only thing we mightn’t call PCs are the numerous server farms powering corporations and our favourite web services. Neither are we defining PC as the distinction between Justin Long and John Hodgeman.3 And it’d be nearly impossible to draw a line at the distinction of what is or isn’t a PC based on it’s internal components, its operating system, or whether it has a physical keyboard or not. Eric Grevstad describes this slippery slope:
But is everything with a chip in it a PC? Surely not, or we’re embracing embedded systems and appliances that have one or two applications at most. A digital camera isn’t a PC any more than a digital picture frame is, even though it may offer simple in-camera image editing.
What people are likely trying to define is whether the iPad is as productive as its PC counterparts, where “PC” in this instance is verbiage for a desktop or laptop. Which reveals the “is it a PC?” debate for what it truly is: the “content consumption vs creation” debate in another candy wrapper.4 Grevstad thinks the answer lies in the anecdotal experiment of watching people use iPads:
But of all the iPads (and infrequent Android tablets) I see day to day, virtually none are running those [productivity] apps. People are using tablets for e-reading, Web surfing, and movie viewing. And—at least for now, at least if you focus on real-world usage patterns—I say Canalys is wrong to count tablets as PCs.
Apparently, it seems Grevstad has never5 seen the real-world usage of PCs in person outside of the workplace, since it’d be safe to assume most people are using PCs at home to browse the web, update their Facebook accounts, and torrent a screener of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Otherwise known as consuming. Nevertheless, it would be as easy to name examples of people using iPads in a variety of productive ways. Which brings us back to square one.
Perhaps we want to measure whether the iPad is as capable as a PC. If the iPad can do every task a PC can accomplish, then perhaps indeed it could be considered one. And while it would be a simple argument to prove the iPad isn’t a PC (say, you can’t program and build an iOS application on an iOS device), it’s a stretch to claim that all PCs themselves are all equally capable. If no one is using the iPad for serious professional film editing, neither is anyone using a netbook or consumer desktop with integrated graphics. Once again, it’s impossible to draw a line based on capabilities alone.
In some ways, it’s curious why anyone would want to equate an iPad to a PC in the first place. Chuck Skoda establishes good reasons why an iPad is actually quite different from whatever we call a PC. The debate frames the iPad’s inability to be a PC an inferiority, while in actuality it is those very differences that make it more desirable. Couldn’t you attribute the iPad’s success to the fact that it eschews old computer interaction paradigms, that it facilitates content
consumption enjoyment, or that it feels infinitely more personal than any PC before it? If anything, doesn’t the iPad demonstrate a market demand for something that isn’t only post-PC, but something un-PC? If so, why are tech writers trying to prove the iPad is something it so clearly isn’t?
Ok so who’s right?
The answer to this debate is immaterial, having nothing to do with the iPad itself and everything to do with legitimizing and justifying its existence ourselves, whatever side of the coin we happen to fall on. No one seriously disputes that the iPad isn’t a computer in some form, from which point it becomes moot whether it’s equivalent to notebook or a desktop tower: both arrive at similar results and similar experiences. The difference is only in implementation. So what’s to gain in proving it can be as useful as a notebook or that it is more useful than a smartphone beyond self-satisfaction?6 Is the twisted logic that if we can somehow prove the iPad is a PC, and PCs are generally accepted as practical tools in modern society, that the iPad must then be more than the luxury item some claim it is? Problem is, this argument only works as a riposte to detractors who make the iPad out to be a toy. It is sufficiently clear to any reasonable person that the iPad can be practical in the modern world, if only by mere virtue of its popularity. But if you’re repeatedly engaging in such convoluted justifications for your own sake, then perhaps you didn’t need it in the first place.7
And what if you oppose the iPad’s PC-ness? Perhaps you’re simply scared of the inevitable sea change computing is undergoing. You want to believe in the the PC’s continued relevance, that’s its implementation methods are still valuable and needed. Acknowledging the iPad as a peer to the PC would be admitting defeat. Maybe you’re scared of losing the status conferred by understanding the complexity of desktop operating systems and computers with removable parts.8
Or maybe at its essence, the whole debate is another example of the sports fan, “I’m right your wrong” mentality the tech community is often prone of expressing. Sides are picked, allegiances are made, and the fires of rivalry are stoked.
But is the iPad reeeaaally a PC?
Shawn Blanc makes the best effort to sort through the naysaying to understand what it is that is actually driving this forum on the iPad’s PC-ness. He describes the cause…
There will come a time when the majority of consumers who are in the market for a new personal computer will consider (and buy) an iPad or other tablet rather than a laptop or desktop computer. And when that time comes, the debate about the iPad being a PC or not will be over.
The market will decide that the iPad is a PC by buying them instead of laptops and desktops.
The fact that: (a) such a young device could be such a smashing success; and that (b) it could disrupt the decades-old PC market, are both interesting topics for discussion. And that discussion is manifesting itself as: “is the iPad a PC or not?”
In the end, Shawn comes around to a similar conclusion as the one I’m presenting: that the discussion says more about us than it does the iPad.
It seems that those arguing against the iPad being called a PC are really trying to make their own point that, for them, an iPad could not replace their PC. When they say the iPad is not a PC what they mean is that either: (a) there’s no way I would or could give up my PC and use an iPad instead; or (b) the iPad is not yet a PC, but it probably will be soon.
His focus is on those arguing against the iPad’s PC-ness, but similar points could be raised for people arguing for it: that they’ve simply arrived to early at the party and aren’t ready to admit they still do need their PCs.
The answer Blanc arrives to is as such: that what we are attempting to determine through this debate is the precise moment in time when our primary computing paradigms shift from those proposed by traditional PCs to those from modern, touch based systems like the iPad. Denying that the iPad is a PC becomes an attempt to delay that moment, to push it back to some later date, in the hope it may never come. Meanwhile, those claiming it is a PC have simply acknowledged that the shift is occurring as we speak.
So in the end, even if there is no definite answer, we may be able to come to some understanding as to why we are so eager to discuss the iPad’s PC-ness. One thing is for sure: the arrival of the iPad has and will continue to simultaneously massage the ego of some while unquestionably deflating those of others.9 Which ego you end up as is all a matter of your ability to deal with future-shock.