Mobile devices are not typically viewed as productivity devices. The mobile Internet of the pre-iPhone era could barely handle basic Google searching. The iPhone changed everything. It, along with the iPad, actually brought basic computer tasks to mobile. But, I would argue that until recently most users primarily used mobile devices for content consumption not creation. Work has traditionally been reserved for the desktop. For the last seven years iOS and Android have been in a battle against Mac OS X and Windows. While the smartphone and the tablet still aren’t quite the productivity devices that can replace our laptops and desktops, the gap is closing quickly. We’re now at a critical point in mobile technology. Microsoft created the ultimate hybrid between productivity and mobile with the Surface. And, Apple is following its path with iOS 9 and the iPad.
Tablet sales have been floundering for the last year and a half, and the tablet market has seen considerably slower growth. Why? Tablets – like the Apple Watch – are an in between devices. Not quite a laptop and not quite a phone. The upgrade cycle is slower, since most tablets are Wifi only and are not purchased on a mobile contract. Convincing customers to purchase a five or six hundred-dollar tablet is difficult when there are many comparatively priced Windows 8.1 Ultrabooks.
The release of Apple’s iOS 9 might change all that. It borrows from Windows 8.1 by incorporating desktop windowing. The iPad will run applications side-by-side in Split View – an essential feature for those users primarily interested in using their tablet for productivity apps. The Slide Over feature allows apps such as Messages or Twitter to quickly be viewed while in another app. Picture in picture video is even coming. The keyboard is also getting an upgrade with a built-in shortcut bar (for cut, copy, and paste), keyboard customizations, and a new cursor control that turns Quicktype into a Mac-style track pad. Wireless keyboard accessories will also get an upgrade with new shortcuts that are launched by holding the Option or Control keys.
Long-standing desktop features are slowly working their way into mobile devices, but the gap between mobile and desktop is closing from both directions. Personal digital assistants, a phenomenon that began in mobile, will soon come to our laptops and desktops. Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant is already present in Windows 10. Google Now is a feature of Chrome OS. Presumably, it will not be long before Apple incorporates Siri into OS X. Windows and Chrome have support for touch input. Apple stubbornly refuses to include touchscreens into the Mac, but its multitouch track pads do provide touch input by proxy.
The obvious laggard is Google’s Android. Until the release of iOS 8, Android touted many features that Apple had yet to offer. In fact, Samsung’s version of Android (sadly named Touchwiz) was the first to incorporate side-by-side app windowing. Now, however, Android seems a little behind the times, and its place as a productivity-centric mobile OS seems unlikely. Google appears to be taking the Apple approach by having two dedicated OS’. There are tech journalists who see this differently. Tim Bajarin wrote an article in Re/Code arguing that Android has become the new Windows.
The obvious difference, however, is that Android is inconsistent. Windows’ look and feel is consistent on all PCs, and as a result manufacturers have to differentiate in their hardware features. Microsoft also has a long legacy it has to support. Bajarin sees Google continuing to dominate the mobile and IoT space, but that’s not the same as having productivity or enterprise appeal.
However, Google has closed the mobile-desktop gap between Android and Chrome (and the web) through its material design strategy (MDL). This new visual language is supposed to unify the experience among all platforms including the web. Google has even released a MDL Lite library to help web developers get started implementing this in their websites.
How long until mobile and desktop computing are one?
Since the dawn of iOS, Android, and Windows Mobile, tech journalists have been speculating how long it would take before each company makes one OS for everything. Marco Tabini outlined in a Macworld article that Apple would never merge iOS and OS X, since their purposes are very different. Many speculated that Chrome and Android would merge after the two OS’ were put under Sundar Pichai’s direction. While Chrome and Android share some features there is no indication from Google that a convergence is coming anytime soon.
Microsoft is leading the way in this regard with Windows 10. With a unified development platform for creating apps that run across many device sizes, Microsoft is positioning itself as the most “accommodating” company. Why juggle between different devices and experiences when you can have Windows on everything?
One questions remains, however. Is there an advantage to having these mobile-desktop paradigms separated?
There are many arguments on both sides. I think that having a “one OS for everything” approach is a fool’s game. Creating a website that is responsive on all devices is difficult but doable. But the functionality of a website is pretty limited in comparison to an operating system. As soon as Microsoft says Windows 10 powers its phones, its customers probably started thinking “why don’t all my games run on my phone?” Putting the same OS branding on all devices doesn’t make them equally capable. All these devices have a different engine driving them. It’s a problem of customer expectations – something that Apple was trying to avoid when it first released the iPhone. Similarly, their message for the iPad was “it’s not a Mac, but it can do a lot of the same things and it has great battery life.” Having the same branding across devices is problematic, and it’s a disservice to users.
My expectations for iOS devices are low because I know their capability is limited. That being said, what I previously thought was impossible on mobile is quickly becoming possible. This whole article was written on an iPad using Microsoft Office in the Vancouver Airport. My Mac would have made it easier, but the iPad was definitely serviceable.
Obviously, as computing gets more powerful our little pocket devices will gain more features and capability. But the desktop will get more powerful too. Canonical has promised that the Ubuntu phone could be the only device you need, as the phone can be docked with a monitor to become a full featured desktop machine. Again, until phone hardware is capable of running the majority of our desktop applications, devices like the Ubuntu Phone create a false set of expectations for users. Only those users with the most basic of needs won’t be disappointed. And perhaps in the future such all-in-one devices will cover the needs of enough of the population that it won’t matter.
All the discussion on convergence is about the physical devices, but what happens behind the scenes is just as important. I can run Microsoft Office on all my devices now. And for the most part, the experience is pretty comparable. But this experience is largely thanks to the cloud. The user can be presented with a front-end interface, but a lot of the heavy lifting is done in the background. My documents are synced to the cloud. My music is also synced to the cloud, and with streaming services local playback isn’t an issue.
I think convergence is going to happen. Mobile devices are clearly catching up to their desktop counterparts. But this doesn’t mean the variety of devices we’re accustomed to will disappear. People like choice. In five years, I think a device like the iPad will be able to do most of what today’s basic PC users need. But some people will prefer to have a traditional laptop or desktop experience. Other users might be able to get away with a phablet. Perhaps even the smartwatch will start to replace the need for the smartphone. Screen-size is the limiter though.
The interfaces of all our devices are designed around the physical constraints of the screen. In order for a phone to become a full desktop, it needs to be augmented by a monitor. For an iPad to replace a laptop, you need to add a bluetooth keyboard (and maybe even a mouse). For a watch to function as a phone, you probably need wireless headphones. This is a two way street. For your laptop to act as a tablet, it needs a touchscreen (like the Surface). While each of these devices can technically become more powerful through augmentation, tablets, phones, watches, and laptops all function best when used as they were intended. We have different devices for different purposes. You could operate a kitchen with a Swiss Army Knife, but it’s better to have an array of tools for preparing your meals.
This choice is essential for driving the computer industry forward. All device categories borrow from each other, and this drives innovation. We live in a time where the simplest of devices can become productivity tools, even if they weren’t intended for that purpose. It’s here that mobile is really closing the gap with traditional computing, and in doing so it’s raising the expectations of users to deliver a more seamless experience.