Could Your Next PC Be a (Surface) Tablet?
The idea of replacing a PC with a tablet is making more and more sense. The two main driving factors of this is the continued relentless increase of available processing power in mobile devices, and the availability of ports, accessories or peripherals which give these devices the input and output options typically associated with full blown PCs.
It is even easier to imagine this when we look at what smartphones are becoming capable of. Modern smartphones are as powerful as average PCs were not so long ago, and there are docks and peripherals available for them as well. If it is possible to imagine a smartphone with PC-like capabilities when docked to appropriate peripherals, then it is even easier to imagine the same for tablets.
There is a particular threshold of how much computing power does a device need to have for it to satisfy the computing requirements of the general population, and I think we’ve just about reached that threshold on smartphones, and especially tablets. It is the threshold at which the device is capable of performing all of the basic tasks that most people want to use a computer for; things like browsing the web, communications, listening to music, watching videos and basic video editing, browsing and editing photos, email, word processing, and a bazillion of other similarly non-taxing tasks.
What they quite yet can’t do are use cases typically reserved for niches, the biggest niche perhaps being hardcore gaming, and others being professional niches such as video editing, animation, music production, CAD and so on. Most people aren’t in these niches, so it can be argued that most people can already live quite fine with the processing power afforded by a modern tablet, and even a smartphone. In other words, as far as processing power goes, tablets can already replace a PC for the average Joe.
What’s left is making it practical to use a device so small as a full blown PC, and that doesn’t appear to be all that much of a challenge. Full blown tower PCs need peripherals as well. You have to connect the screen, the keyboard, and the mouse. If you can easily connect these same peripherals to your docked tablet then it effectively becomes just like the good old PC.
Not all PCs are desktop and tower PCs, however. Most people nowadays use a notebook of some kind, and are therefore used to the built in keyboard.
Another remaining issue is the operating system. While processing power and connected peripherals can support all of the basic tasks expected of a PC, operating systems such as Android and iOS with their assorted apps might be lagging in expected functionality.
Microsoft Saves The Day
This is where Microsoft seems to be swooping in to save the day and complete the picture. Their answer to these remaining issues is the Microsoft Surface tablet, and Windows 8.
Microsoft Surface represents a tablet which can so seamlessly integrate a keyboard that it could de-facto compete with an incumbent notebook experience. Windows 8 additionally offers a full blown operating system that can support full blown PC applications. This makes every Windows 8 tablet with Surface-like attachable keyboards and connectivity options into de-facto PC-replacement tablets. And that’s exactly what Microsoft Surface and the category of tablets it is supposed to spawn appear to be designed for.
Since processing power keeps increasing it is very easy to imagine Surface-like tablets becoming capable of supporting increasingly more demanding applications, even to the point of becoming good enough for various professional uses as well, effectively passing the processing power threshold for professional applications.
All this said, not everyone is sold on the idea. Some are calling Surface the new Zune, an ill conceived response to the iPad, done the typical Microsoft style. Some believe that Apple has it right by keeping a clear distinction between a PC and a tablet while Microsoft is trying to bridge the two worlds that don’t belong together.
For the sake of argument, the reason why they don’t belong together is perhaps evident in the interface duality of Windows 8. The Metro UI is suitable for a tablet, but not a PC, and the standard Windows UI is suitable for a PC but not a tablet. This means that the user has to switch between the two depending on the setting in which they use the tablet. If they use it on the go they better stick with Metro UI, but once they attach a keyboard, and perhaps a mouse and an external screen, they can use the standard Windows UI.
I’m having a hard time seeing this as a problem. Why exactly is it a problem? Is it is the fact that you’re always running a piece of the operating system not quite suitable for the current use case (Metro when used as a PC, and standard Windows when used as a tablet)? Increasing abundance of processing power will quickly make this a de-facto non-issue, if it doesn’t already.
Is it perhaps a concern over Windows 8′s ability to smoothly handle switching between the two use cases? That’s merely an OS design issue, not necessarily a flaw in the whole concept. Perhaps pushing Metro UI even in the PC mode isn’t the brightest idea, but if this doesn’t work out this is hardly something Microsoft won’t be capable of fixing at some point, as are any other OS design issues that might crop up.
So at this point I don’t feel comfortable writing off the idea that a Surface-like tablet can today or soon enough de-facto replace a PC for a lot of people, and siding with the argument that Apple has it right by keeping a clear distinction. I used to believe in the Apple way, but Microsoft might just be able to convince me otherwise if they execute this right.