“Mobile” vs. “PC”?

In answering a reader question about Flash today, I linked to Adobe’s November press release and I commented:

Granted, Adobe says it’s abandoning Flash ‘only for new mobile device browsers while still supporting it for PC browsers.’ This is still a painful statement because [in part] … the distinction between mobile devices and PCs is quickly disappearing as of this year as PCs are becoming fully mobilized.

But what’s a “mobile device” vs. a “PC” as of 2012? Here’s a current data point, at least for me.

For almost two weeks now, my current primary machine has been a Slate 7 running Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and I’m extremely pleased with it. It’s a full Windows notebook (sans keyboard), and a full modern tablet. How do I slot it between “mobile device” and “PC,” exactly? Oh, and the desktop browser still supports Flash, but the tablet style browser doesn’t…

Since I’ve been using it (and am using it to write this post), let me write a mini-review.

I loved my iPad, and still do, and so I was surprised how quickly I came to love this snappy device even more. Here are a few thoughts, in rough order from least to most important:

  • It has a few nice touches that I miss on iOS, like task switching by simple swipe-from-left (much easier than double-clicking the home button and swiping, and my iPhone home button is started to get unreliable with all the double-clicking [ETA: and I never got used to four-finger swiping probably in part because it isn’t useful on the iPhone]), having a second app open as a sidebar (which greatly relieves the aforementioned back-and-forth task-switching I find myself doing on iOS to refer to two apps), and some little things like including left- and right-cursor keys on the on-screen keyboard (compared to iOS’s touch-and-hold to position the cursor by finger using the magnification loupe). In general, the on-screen keyboard is not only unspeakably better than Win7’s attempt, but even slightly nicer than iPad’s as I find myself not having to switch keyboards as much to get at common punctuation symbols.
  • I was happily surprised to find that some of my key web-related apps like Live Writer came already installed.
  • The App Store, which isn’t even live yet, already had many of my major apps including Kindle, USA Today, and Cut the Rope. Most seem very reliable; a few marked “App Preview” are definitely beta quality at the moment though. The Kindle app is solid and has everything I expected, except for one complaint: It should really go to a two-column layout in landscape mode like it does on iPad, especially given the wider screen. Still, the non-“preview” apps do work, and the experience and content is surprisingly nice for a not-officially-open App Store.
  • Real pen+ink support. This is a Big Deal, as I said two years ago. Yes, I’ve tried several iPad pens and apps for sort-of-writing notes, and no, iOS has nothing comparable here; the best I can say for the very best of them is that they’re like using crayons. Be sure to try real “ink” before claiming otherwise – if you haven’t, you don’t know what you’re missing. iPad does have other good non-pen annotation apps, and I’ve enjoyed using iAnnotate PDF extensively to read and annotate almost half of Andrei’s D book. But for reading articles and papers I just really, really miss pen+ink.
  • All my software just works, from compilers and editors to desktop apps for full Office and other work.
  • Therefore, finally, I get my desktop environment and my modern tablet environment without carrying two devices. My entire environment, from apps to files, is always there without syncing between notebook and tablet devices, and I can finally eliminate a device. I expected I would do that this year, but I’m pleasantly surprised to be able to do it for real already this early in the year with a beta OS and beta app store.

I didn’t expect to switch over to it this quickly, but within a few days of getting it I just easily switched to reading my current book-in-progress on this device while traveling (thanks to the Kindle app), reading and pen-annotating a couple of research papers on lock-free coding techniques (it’s by far my favorite OneNote device ever thanks to having both great touch and great pen+ink and light weight so I can just write), and using it both as a notebook and as a tablet without having to switch devices (just docking when I’m at my desk and using the usual large monitors and my favorite keyboard+mouse, or holding it and using touch+pen only). It already feels like a dream and very familiar both ways. I’m pretty sure I’ll never go back to a traditional clamshell notebook, ever.

Interestingly, as a side benefit, even the desktop apps are often very, and more, usable when in pure tablet+touch mode than before despite the apparently-small targets. Those small targets do sometimes matter, and I occasionally reach for my pen when using those on my lap. But I’ve found in practice they often don’t matter at all when you swipe to scroll a large region – I was surprised to find myself happily using Outlook in touch-only mode. In particular, it’s my favorite OneNote device ever.

By the end of this week when I install a couple of more apps, including the rest of my test C++ compilers, it will have fully replaced my previous notebook and my previous tablet, with roughly equal price and power as the former alone (4GB RAM, 128GB SSD + Micro SD slot, Intel Core i5-2467M) and roughly equal weight and touch friendliness as the latter alone (1.98lb vs. 1.44lb). Dear Windows team, my back thanks you.

So, then, returning to the point – in our very near future, how much sense does it really make to distinguish between browsers for “mobile devices” and “PCs,” anyway? Convergence is already upon us and is only accelerating.

22 thoughts on ““Mobile” vs. “PC”?

  1. You can also switch between apps on the iPad with swipe gestures. You may have to enable it in settings first.

  2. Good question Steve.

    Basically, I cant see how the current tablet hardware can compete with game developer computer needs. I dont like the fact that I need a very powerful computer to work on my stuff but I do need it so my back is not happy.

    What I’, asking is: is there convergence of power (computation/memory) too? I mean real convergence, not just something approaching but that is not near a power-station?

    I like to work outside so this description of the slate looks like a dream to me but I dont feel that it’s reasonable to work on some categories of games on this hardware. Too bad I’m working on one of those games…

  3. These are good points but I have to disagree.

    I still feel like the iOS tablet experience is better on touch devices than Windows 8 when it comes to window management. With the first point that switching apps is difficult I totally disagree. If you turn on the gestures in the iPad settings (not sure if on by default) then you can switch apps with just a 4 finger swipe left or right. I went to the Microsoft Store where I was able to try out Windows 8 on a tablet device and the app switching NEVER worked. It took the employee 3-4 times to get it to work. Also, while on topic of switching apps the Windows Key + Tab Key switches between apps treating the desktop like one big app. This make it difficult to switch apps because with Windows 7 I trained myself to use Windows Key + Tab to switch Windows and now I have to relearn. Another thing that I have always done with Windows is hit the Windows key to bring up the taskbar so I can check the time. Now I have to awkwardly move the mouse to the bottom right of the screen and then up. When in full screen mode on Chromium or IE9 Desktop you cannot go to start using the mouse which is really annoying because it works in most other metro apps so you have to keep changing techniques based on what you are doing.

    With the Windows app store I am disappointed because they will only sell Metro apps. I feel like Microsoft is leaving those who use and will still mainly use desktop apps in the dust by not curating desktop apps. It is extremely hard to find simple, functional, and good looking Windows software. When Apple started curating apps software like Sparrow, which is a simple, beautiful email application (also for iPad) became popular because it was easy to find. Also why does the Smartscreen filter or whatever require elevated privileges prompt for simple application that don’t require elevated privileges? There are simple “portable apps” such as Caffeine that don’t and shouldn’t require elevated privileges so why does SmartScreen block them? It is extremely annoying esp. for kids who are interested in computers but can’t install anything because their parents aren’t willing to enter their password every 10 minutes.

    IDK Why but the Bamboo Fun Tablet does not work well with Windows 8. Do you know a way for it to think the pen is a finger so I can swipe and do 1 finger gestures?

    Here is something I noticed:
    Convergence is already upon us and is only accelerating. – Herb Sutter
    You can converge a toaster and a fridge, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.
    – Tim Cook

    Just my $0.02 I’d like to hear your reply.

  4. @Atul:

    Re app switching failing: Odd, it’s always worked perfectly for me every time. But I suspect I know what it might have been: Some Win7 tablet hardware didn’t have as high-quality touch detection and in particular didn’t go all the way to the edges (and some didn’t have as many touch points, etc.); Win8 certification requires it go all the way to the edges, have a minimum number of touch points, and so forth. See this page, search for “edge” and you’ll find the discussion immediately: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/b8/archive/2012/03/28/touch-hardware-and-windows-8.aspx

    Re Cook’s quote: Cute :) but there’s honest opinion and there’s also misdirection to talk down things your products don’t do. Jobs was good at this in the past, and often talked down as unnecessary something that his product didn’t do, only to turn around when his product could do it and talk about how great it was. I’m an Apple fan, but remember the similar words Jobs said about the stylus (‘you don’t need that, we were born with ten of them, anything with a stylus is a broken design, etc.’)? Yet the reality is that Apple stores have sold styli for the iPad since day one — the first time I walked into an Apple store after the iPad was released, multiple employees had styli in their hands, and that’s not the only time I’ve seen it. From the very start, someone felt it was necessary to carry styli in the stores even though the iPad has no software support for pens and an iPad stylus is just a rigid finger. [Repeat here the notes above about pen+ink and OneNote — Jobs either was wrong about styli, or was just talking down things his product didn’t yet do.]

    Re Bamboo: I don’t know, haven’t heard of it. My only real-world user experience to date is with the Slate 7.

    @jeskeca: I know, I said the same thing before I got one (“yeah, show me a Windows tablet with 9-hour battery life”), because remember I love my iPad and its battery life.

    Here’s my experience with the Slate 7:

    First, I didn’t measure but it’s way more than three hours — I used it on two transcontinental flights last week (reading + gaming + OneNote-ing and some email) and it was fine each time, never came close to running out.

    Second, I was surprised to discover I don’t have to think about charging it, because I use it docked daily and it just stays charged automatically. With the iPad, I always had to watch if it was low and remember to plug it in somewhere at night if I wanted to charge it, because I didn’t use a music dock or similar with the iPad (granted, if I had used a dock regularly this wouldn’t be a difference since it would also have stayed charged automatically then, just mentioning what I discovered in my own use here with the iPad the the Slate 7).

    Just my $0.02. YMMV, but I do suggest you try it before passing judgment if that’s feasible — I’ve tried both and was surprised by the results.

  5. When it comes to inking and stylus support I find working with apps like SketchBook Pro for iPad and more recently Procreate (with its incredibly responsive and rotatable, zooming canvas) a dream. When not coding I do a lot of sketching, either using my Wacom or the iPad and thus far I’ve not found the combination of gesture driven zoom / rotate plus stylus or finger on the later to be a barrier to speedy creatively.

    Looking forward to trying out a WOA tablet when they arrive, they will need to at least match the retina screen tech and general hardware production values that Apple deliver before I even consider laying out cash for one… Personally my next purchase it’s likely to be whatever replaces the MacBook Pro, particularly if it has a retina display – older displays just look like pixel art these days :-)

    Oh… and it’s a crying shame about the lack of C++ 11 on Windows XP Herb. In these austere times we have plenty of clients in the finance sector who will hold onto XP until the bitter end. I do understand why you chaps had to do it, XP is just turning out to be the OS equivalent of IE6… :-S

  6. @Tom: BTW I agree iPad is absolutely great for sketching and drawing — look at the just-released iPhoto and at Adobe’s most recent products that really showcase its capabilities well.

    But that’s not what I mean by “ink” — ink means handwriting, in particular that feels and looks just like real ink on the page, just as easy to create and just as legible, for doing things like reading papers and writing notes in the margins. I’ve found nothing on iPad that is anywhere close to OneNote + pen for this.

    Sketching and drawing, absolutely and gorgeously yes. Ink and handwriting, not so much, just crayon-level support.

    Imagine writing exactly as on paper — with the same speed, the same look, and the same freedom to write or draw anything with natural precision — and if you change your mind to use another word or redraw something you just naturally briefly reverse the pen to erase anything with a quick touch of the pen’s “eraser end” and then smoothly resume writing normally with hardly a break. That’s the normal, zero-impedance experience. It’s really as easy as paper, which is the current bar for best-in-class ease of use.

  7. @Herb:
    I found your article quite interesting. I own an iPad3 and previously used iPad2. What I was desperately missing is the mentioned Ink support. It really is so stupid of Apple that they don’t have decent pen support. When I read a book or a paper (and this is basically the primary use for the iPad in my case) I want to be able to write annotations.

    Even though I was a little bit concerned with that you missed the App-switching on iPad. I did too ^^, but rather because I don’t do switching too often. But if you write an article like this, you should really check this out, before you say something bad about the home button alternative ^^. It just harms credibility for the rest of your article. Besides the Ink support, which will hopefully come with iPad 4, there is not much you can say against it. So you shouldn’t try. The Windows 8 tablet really is something different and meant for different folks. So there is no need to compare them at all.

    The screen of the iPad3 for itself is ground breaking. This is no joke, the iPad2 screen was already good but when you compare them both it seems like gold&dirt side-by-side. The battery lifetime of iPad2 was also amazing, I used to recharge every few days only, while reading real PDFs (not a kindle abomination, but the real stuff) quite up to 6 hours a day…

    The main issue with the Slate is the battery lifetime. 3 hours really suck. What good is a mobile device for where you need to carry a recharge equipment with you and most importantly, recharge while using it ^^? No thanks. Until there is a Windows 8 tablet with at least 6 hours lifetime, and I mean stable lifetime while using it and not some artifical benchmark, there is no way I would switch! And even then it would still have to beat the iPad in a lot of other categories or for that matter, beat the real iPad battery lifetime first ^^, which is about 10 hours… A tablet, and a notebook for that matter, must live a day of work without recharging to justify their “mobile” attribute and not “desktop replacement”…. Additionally, the Slate looks very heavy, not necessarily in weight but for its size alone.

    Using compilers and stuff on a tablet… Huh? I never had the urge to do this. For such things I still use good old desktop or notebooks… I don’t think tablet should try to replace notebooks. Tablets are specialized devices, for their lack of keyboard and mouse alone. I wouldn’t want to do anything but writing Ink and touching. Writing text on a tablet’s virtual keyboard is horrible, seriously… And no one in hell is going to make me carry a real keyboard along. Then I rather carry my DELL Latitude. It has up to 7 hours battery life, which could even be extended to 11 with a battery bay, and comes in one part; and the horse power to drive Visual Studio and 3D programs and stuff…

    The moment you carry recharger, keyboards or stands with you… you just traded in your notebook for something worse. One of the many reasons why iPad is so successful is because you need neither of them. No recharger, no keyboard and not stand, since the stand is the SmartCover… Elegance and a solid software are much more important for a tablet, to have a reason for existing. It should be like a fridge, something I can rely on and which just works. By the time I install Windows 8 on it, it will also have the very same issues as we have with Windows 7 and this is something I wouldn’t want for a tablet…

  8. @Emanon: Yes, I work for Microsoft. No, nobody asked me to write anything, nor did I consult anyone — I’m just reporting my personal impressions as a satisfied user of public hardware and software from multiple vendors.

    @Christoph: I agree that the weight of keyboards/stands/chargers would matter, if I carried them. I didn’t count them because I don’t — I don’t carry a separate physical keyboard; the cover is also a stand (I’m using this one: http://tinyurl.com/8xxuo3p), and the charger is very small and light (not quite as small and light as the iPad’s, but less than the already-light charger for the notebook it replaces so it’s still a net lightening — again remember I’m comparing this against both devices it’s replacing, not just against either one).

    Re display: Yes, I love the Retina display on my iPhone 4 (it’s where I do a good half of my reading) and I don’t know whether we’ll see a Win8 tablet with a Retina display this year or have to wait till next year.

    Re compilers: I’m not using compilers “on a tablet” (at least not mostly) — I use those at my desk with a keyboard and mouse the usual way. The key point for me is not that this device is replacing my iPad, it’s that it’s replacing both my Windows notebook and my iPad — I get to no longer carry around two separate devices, which I have had to do until today even though I nearly always am using only one or the other at a time. It’s so seamless to be working normally at my desk with all my apps and compilers, and then when it’s time to go to a meeting just pick it up without thinking and have my full work environment right there, including what I was just doing. Yes, I could do that with a laptop, but not with the pick-up-ability and finger interaction. Now it’s “no compromises.”

    One last minor thing, but convenient: Because the Slate 7 has a physical tablet form factor like an iPad, I didn’t have to take it out of the bag at airport security on my flights last week. Very nice.

    Bottom line: YMMV, I’m sure it won’t be for everyone just as an iPad isn’t for everyone. But one clear sweet spot is for anyone who is currently already using a Windows notebook and also has (or wants) a tablet, and can now consider eliminating a device.

  9. More on Tim Cook’s quote yesterday:

    Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day does not please the user. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.

    Just as with Jobs’s statements about the stylus, IMO Cook is either wrong about convergence, or just talking down things his products doesn’t yet do. Let me carry on with his metaphor, and improve it:

    I agree you wouldn’t ‘converge’ a fridge and a toaster; but we did happily converge a fridge and a freezer which accomplished similar-but-different uses with similar basic engineering that benefit from sharing rather than duplicating, and tablets and notebooks are like fridges and freezers, not like fridges and toasters. It’s true that people appreciate the convenience of a fridge, and you don’t always need the full power of a freezer — but when’s the last time you bought a kitchen fridge that didn’t also have a freezer? The market for those small beer fridges without freezers continues to exist as a niche, and that’s fine; but the mainstream market has gone for convergence. It’s the way of things.

    As with fridges and freezers, and cellphones and PalmPilots, so too with tablets and notebooks – people who use the former often also use the latter, they are built using similar/overlapping technologies, and both of those create pressure to converge and remove duplication.

    Cook said this notebook+tablet convergence is “probably not going to be pleasing to the user.” We’ll see if he’s right about most users; all I can say based on my personal experience is that this convergence very much pleases this user, and I think I’m very hard to please in this case because I loved my iPad which set a high bar for beauty and responsiveness. As I see it, this is a fridge+freezer and cellphone+PalmPilot convergence — it’s desirable to have one device that does the job of two.

    Let’s mark Cook’s argument and my argument and come back in two years and see what percentage of the tablet market is “special-purpose tablet device only” vs. “converged dockable tablet + PC that’s great for both tablet apps in the hands and desktop apps on the big screen and keyboard.” I think there’ll continue to be a market for both, but Cook and I have different views (or at least different public views) on their relative sizes. Let’s check back in 2014 and discuss.

    In the end, having more choice in available products is good for us as users. If a product doesn’t work for you, definitely you should ignore it and not use it. If it doesn’t work for enough people, it will and should stay in a niche or die off. FWIW, I find that this one happens to work very well and beautifully for me.

  10. Thanks for the article Herb.

    @Emanon – perhaps it does read a bit like that but it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to be assimilated into the Microsoft spin machine than Herb Sutter (I have no connection to Microsoft but I have met Herb).

    Herb – I’d be interested in the results of your compiler experiments – please let us know

  11. I like your major point, and I completely agree that this is where we are headed. But when I checked for the exact specs of a slate 7, I was in for a surprise: A Slate 7 is more expensive than even a 13″ / 256 GB SSD AirBook, even if you buy a Windows license on top of that. Yet there is no downside: The Airbook wins on most fronts (cpu, memory, disk, battery life, compatibility (linux + OSX + Win can be installed), and you can even play games on it. There is no touch-screen, and it’s slightly heavier (though if you add the cover and the keyboard and the charger, even that’s not true). Do I really need a touch-screen that badly that I should compromise on every other front?

    I need a mobile device for work abroad, for travel, to write code at a hotel, to upload my photos, to watch a movie on the plane, to send mail and browse the web. An Airbook does all that. A Slate 7 does most of that, and offers nothing more. If the Slate had 10 hours of battery (like an iPad), and a retina display (like an iPad), and Windows 8 (and VS2011), and cost 500$ (like an iPad), we’d be in business.

  12. Regarding the “dark silicon”-part of Herbs jungle talk: if the compute power of mobile and PC comes close to each other, why would you have different devices? The current iPhone can stream video to the appleTV: there’s your remote screen. Just add a wireless keyboard/mouse, a few million cores via “C++ AMP for the cloud” and you have a very capable platform. Really soon now?

  13. I have a slate 7. I bought it on release day since my company was too cheap to send me to Build. It is an amazing device, and has no equal. No equal. It should. It should have many. But it has none, at least not that I have seen. I am a professional software developer, and have a strong bias for Microsoft technologies.

    Comparisons on battery life need to be apples to apples. Yes, the iPad lasts longer. But the brightness of the screen is amazing on the slate 7. Yeah, if you turn it to 100% it eats the battery. So… don’t do that. When indoors, especially in a dark room, I run it at 0%. Yes. 0%. For typical household lighting I run it at 20% brightness. I typically run at 100% brightness when in direct sunlight, and the device is usable. I’m not well versed on the iPad and screen brightness, but when I looked at those comparisons and that all devices were at 100% brightness I came to the instant conclusion that the entire test was invalid. 100% means nothing, they should have had them at a consistent brightness output (measuring white brightness output with an external device and configuring each system to be at that brightness).

    But even trying to compare an iPad to a Slate 7 is, in my opinion, pointless. They’re different devices. The iPad can not do what the Slate 7 does. Nor should it. The iPad is a consumption-only device. The Slate 7 is a hybrid consumption / production device. If you want a convenient toy, get an iPad. That is not a dig. I love toys, and for the typical consumer, the iPad is probably the better device. But if you are judging the Slate 7 by the criterion that makes an iPad a great device, it will of course fail. The Slate 7 is big, heavy, and hot. But that is not why you buy a Slate 7.

    You buy a slate 7 because you want the power of a laptop in a tablet form factor that is touch friendly. I write code on the Slate 7. More UI tweaking with the pen in Expression Blend than is VS11, but it does run VS11 and I can tweak code in VS11 running side by side with Blend on this device, and I can do that for hours without killing the battery. Under that use, I find that I have to charge the device daily. Days with heavy use do require intra-day charging, but this is not a win for the iPad. The iPad does not have this problem because it does not support heavy use at all. The Slate does heavy use for 3 hours. The iPad does it for 0 hours.

    The retina display is great, and the MS OEMs need to (and will) implement similar devices. The Slate has a USB, SD, and HDMI out. These ports seem to be missing from the iPad. Sure, there seems to be an adapter for USB and SD, but it is huge and attaches to the middle of a side. Plugging that thing into the iPad kills its beauty and convenience. I often have a USB device plugged into the Slate 7 while using it and it is in a really convenient slot.

    On the subject of ink, the Slate 7 is great. While at church I use the Slate 7 to take notes. I use Microsoft Journal, a desktop app, for notes. I use a Metro bible app to follow along in the bible. I can dock the bible app to the left 20% of the screen, and take notes on the right 80%. In my mind that is a great picture of making mobile and desktop play together and what Windows 8 brings to the table. If you consider yourself one that uses mainly desktop apps but want the convenience of a tablet form factor, you are a Windows 8 fan, you just may not know it yet. I will give my anecdotal evidence here – more than once at the end of sunday school I have had a line of people with iPads considering buying my tablet because it does things theirs can not.

    @Atulio: The store focuses on Metro, but MS has announced desktop app support in the final store.

    @4fingerswiping: How am I going to 4 finger swipe to switch apps with only 2 thumbs on the screen? Hopefully I just don’t understand iPad app switching swipes.

    @K: Yes, you really need touch that badly.

  14. I’m not sure what the point is here Tom, but it should be obvious that when I called it big, heavy, and hot, those were relative terms. Compared to your desktop workstation, it is small, light, and cool. It may “instant fail” for you because of these characteristics, but the iPad equally “instant fails” for me because it doesn’t support the heavy use scenario.

    We all benefit from a marketplace with choice.

    The slate 7 is the first, foolish device. I think Herb’s point is, and I know my point is, even this first, foolish device has caused a pile-up of $5000 laptops that sit in the corner gathering dust while the Slate 7 goes with me everywhere. It doesn’t replace the desktop, but it does broaden what I can do while mobile to include many traditionally “desktop” experiences.

  15. Ah well, fair enough. I’m not anti Microsoft, far from it, I’ve been programming professionally on Windows for > 17 years now. At work I find my trusty Precision workstation a joy, the rest of the time I’m either using my iPad or writing software for it on my Air.

  16. Maybe I’m reading a different blog post. Either that or many of the comments are missing Herb’s point.

    This isn’t really a review claiming this hybrid device is better than that tablet device or that other laptop. It’s about convergence. He used to need two separate devices for their respective strengths, but hybrid devices have gotten good enough that he no longer needs two specialized devices. And one may assume that hybrids will continue to improve. If they’re not good enough for some user yet, presumably they will be soon.

    The point is that, as developers, we need to be ready for this convergence. We shouldn’t get too locked into the idea that we’re working on a phone app or a tablet app or a laptop app or a desktop app. Those lines are getting blurry. Soon, almost all of our devices will be high-performance, multicore, networked, mobile, high-resolution computers with various input/output conventions.

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