Are tablets changing the way computers work?

The portability of tablets makes them extremely popular in office settings, since they’re easier to take to meetings than laptops.
The portability of tablets makes them extremely popular in office settings, since they’re easier to take to meetings than laptops.
© Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In the computer market, tablets are tearing it up. Whether it's an iPad or one of Apple's many competitors, consumers can't get enough of these slim, touchscreen machines. By 2016, more than a third of Americans will own a tablet [Source: Jones]. Sales of tablets will blast from 56 million in 2011 to 375 million in 2016 [Source: Gillett]. That's a whole galaxy of tablets. So it seems fair to ask – are tablets changing the way computers work?

After all, tablets are a lot different than the computers we were accustomed to before the iPad came along. Pre-iPad, we mostly used keyboards as our primary input devices. Tablets (and their smaller smartphone cousins) have acclimated us to the idea of everyday touchscreen interaction.

Size is another consideration. Tablets are smaller than even the most compact laptop. Yet they're loaded with strong-armed processors that muscle their way through Web browsing, games and other graphics-heavy apps with ease.

As a result, the way we interact with our technology has shifted. It used to be that business professionals whipped out their laptops at meetings. Nowadays, it's anything but uncommon to find everyone from bankers to artists deploying tablets for serious business.

In spite of all of that, we'll put one myth to rest right away -- tablets aren't replacing traditional computers. They will definitely take a bite out of laptop sales, but they may actually boost desktop numbers [Source: Gillett]. That's because although people love tablets for lightweight, portable data consumption, when it comes to hardcore content creation, such as for video editing or multimedia presentations, you still need high-horsepower CPUs, big monitors and a complete array of input tools. So as of 2012, researchers estimated that there will be around 2 billion PCs in use in 2016 [Source: Gillett].

Yes, the computer as you already know it will continue to survive. To really thrive, though, old-school computers will have to learn some new tablet-influenced tricks.

Keep reading and we'll explore the ways tablets are taking on traditional computers, and how they're warping the way we interact with digital devices of every kind.

The Tablet's Triumphs

Tablets are in use everywhere -- even on construction sites.
Tablets are in use everywhere -- even on construction sites.
©iStockphoto.com/David Jones

Tablets, how we love thee. Let us count the ways.

Compared to laptops, tablets are easier to tote and much more portable, and they allow you do ditch the power cord and bag full of accessories. They're less costly than full-fledged laptops. The batteries last longer. They turn on instantly. And they are inarguably prettier and more aesthetically appealing than any regular PC.

Tablets are also benefitting from (and helping to perpetuate) the fast adoption of cloud computing, in which all of your data is stored online and, thus, accessible from any WiFi-enabled device. Why lug around a beefy laptop when an itty bitty tablet can access files from the virtually fail-proof cloud?

Of course, you already know why. Tablets in their current incarnation can't replace a robust traditional computer. A decked-out laptop or desktop has enough processor power to run dizzying circles around tablets. And although apps designed for tablets are great, they certainly can't match the flexibility of applications made for a "real" computer.

All of that aside, are tablets really changing computers as we know them? They sure are.

That's particularly true when you consider command input. Because there's no mouse or keyboard, the touchscreen becomes central to the tablet experience.

As tablets first became popular, many software developers were slow in adopting a touch-first mentality, and still thinking of software interfaces as working best via a mouse or keyboard. Now, developers are catching up and integrating all sorts of clever ways to make touchscreens easier to use. Many touchscreens now recognize multi-touch and gesture-based commands. A lot of tablets now recognize voice commands, too, and the accuracy gets better with every update.

It's touch, though, that's shifted our perspective on interacting with our technologies. So will touch take over every aspect of computing? Probably not. If you take a tablet and make its screen larger, you have to move it farther away from your body, which makes touching it a chore. And your fingers' oils will be much harder to remove from a screen larger than your smartphone's [Source: Pogue].

But touch, gesture and voice commands are probably going to get much better, very soon. On the next page you'll see how.

Phablets and Frames

Microsoft entered the tablet market with the Surface in 2012. The Surface Pro was released in early 2013.
Microsoft entered the tablet market with the Surface in 2012. The Surface Pro was released in early 2013.
Image courtesy Microsoft

Tablets are morphing the way we input commands, but they're also pushing along the evolution of hardware design. As evidence, check out so-called "phablets," which are smaller tablets -- sporting screens between 5 and 8 inches (12.7 and 20.3 centimeters) -- with the calling capabilities of a phone. Phablets have much of the power of a full-size tablet but in a smaller form factor, and they also let you ditch your smartphone.

Phablets are so small, though, that you'll be hampered if you try to create much content. Power users may prefer tablets with larger-than-average screens, in the realm of 13 or 14 inches (33 or 35.6 centimeters). Lenovo, Dell, Sony and other manufacturers are racing to offer all sorts of these bigger hybrid devices that blend elements of laptops with tablets.

For example, even Microsoft has gotten into this hardware war with its Surface and Surface Pro tablets. The Pro, in particular, might be one of the better examples of the direction that many companies will take their hybrid machines. It runs a full version of Windows 8, which means you can skip weenie apps and instead run full desktop programs, such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. The Pro is only half an inch (1.3 centimeters) thick, so you're getting many of the capabilities of a laptop computer in a device that's only slightly larger than most tablets.

Yet the Pro is just one drop in a sea of tablet-related products. Some computer industry pundits fully expect a whole new style of personal computer to emerge. Those computers might be called frames.

Frames will feature large displays and have an array of cutting-edge input devices, especially voice and touch inputs like those found on tablets. You'll wirelessly dock your smartphone or tablet to the frame when you need a large screen or a more powerful processor.

To interact with this kind of computer, you'll whip your hands around in the air like a symphony conductor and the frame's sensors will understand your commands. And when your stationary work is complete and it's time to hit the road, you'll just grab your portable device and go.

Cloud capabilities, again, will synchronize and coordinate all of your content between portable gadgets and motionless frames. This system will work so seamlessly and effortlessly that the lines between each of your machines will blur.

If all of this sounds like a pretty profound shift in the way we interact with our technologies, well, it really will be. And you can credit the proliferation of tablets with spurring many of these changes.

Tablets themselves may eventually go by the wayside. But for now, these ultra-portable computing devices are helping to shape the future of computers as we know them.

Author's Note: Are tablets changing the way computers work?

I never wanted an iPad. I had my trusty laptop and that was all I needed. Then one day, my fiancée won a drawing for an iPad and things changed. It's not that her tablet instantly won me over; actually, I hardly used the thing for months. But slowly I found myself reaching for it, particularly when I just wanted to wander the house without having to drag around my laptop's brick-sized power supply. The iPad is just easier and more fun to use in some situations. It's easy to see how tablets are bringing all sorts of new ideas to computer design, which I'll be excited to see in the years to come.

Related Articles

Sources

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