Tablets

No, Tablets Won't Replace PCs Anytime Soon

I'm a big fan of tablets. I recommend them for most organizations as a springboard for encouraging employees at all levels to innovate, as well as for friends whose computing needs begin and end with email, Web browsing, and when they start to feel adventurous, e-books and online news feeds.

But let's not get carried away. From now through the foreseeable future (defined as three years for every business except the Psychic Hotline), tablets aren't going to replace PCs for most employees. There are just too many things PCs can do that tablets can't and, in many cases, aren't going to do.

Here's a look at where tablets fall short and where they fit in.

The tablet in the business environment
To make sure we're using our words the same way: If you give an employee a tablet and run a VDI client on it, the tablet hasn't replaced a PC so far as your software architecture is concerned. VDI doesn't replace PCs; it's just a different way to provide them. That, in fact, is the whole point -- your software doesn't have to change.

Also: As mentioned previously in this space, no matter how much we blather on about untethering knowledge workers, most employees who use PCs need them for heads-down production applications. Customer-service call centers, insurance underwriters, accounts payable staff -- fill in the blanks if you like, it's a very long list -- aren't going to get their jobs done on tablets because ... do I really have to spell this out?

But the PC is more than a software platform. It's a portal -- a window into a universe of information and capabilities. From that perspective, it's reasonable to ask whether tablets might, in fact, replace PCs as the employee portal of choice.

The answer: It depends on the employee. The more sophisticated the employee is in using information technology, the more likely it is the employee will want a tablet as an adjunct and won't accept one as a replacement. They'll want the tablet because when it can do what they need it to do, from anywhere and in a comfortable sitting position (for the employee, that is), untethered because it has batteries that last a day.

Where tablets fall short
For those employees, the tablet will be complementary rather than a replacement because of the long list of shortcomings when comparing current tablet technology to PCs.

Tablet shortcoming No. 1: Windows.

Here we're talking about the user interface style, not the Microsoft OS. PCs (I include Macs in the category) let you have more than one application open simultaneously -- that is, you can see more than one application at the same time.

Whether you're cutting and pasting information from a Web page into a document, clicking on a link in an email to open a Web page, or pasting an Excel chart into PowerPoint, having everything open in front of you makes a big difference. But you knew that.

(Of course, Galaxy Note 10.1 and the forthcoming Windows 8 Metro do include two-app split-screen capabilities, so window functionality may mature sooner than my three-year "foreseeable future." Let's hope.)

Tablet shortcoming No. 2: Screen real estate.

An average desktop PC has more than 200 square inches of real estate on hand. A laptop has about half that, which is still twice what an iPad provides. If a desktop or laptop user needs more, adding a second monitor is cheap and easy.

Whether the employee is working with a big spreadsheet or a layout-intensive document, is moving information around from one application to another (using the windowing capability), or is accessing an application while viewing a scanned document, having enough screen real estate is a bigger deal than just avoiding eyestrain. It allows for certain forms of work possible that would be impossible in a more cramped situation.

But you knew that too.

Tablet shortcoming No. 3: Work that goes beyond text entry.

Here are features I use all the time that aren't even glimmers on the iPad's horizon, whether your mobile word processing app of choice is Pages, Quickoffice, Office2HD, or Documents to Go:

  • Style-driven interparagraph spacing (although each app places space automatically between paragraphs, only Documents to Go users can specify the actual before and after spacing)
  • Mail-merge
  • Footnotes
  • Image captioning with automatic table and figure numbering
  • Cross-references
  • Document markup and commenting (although Office2HD on the iPad does Word-style -- and Word-compatible -- commenting and markup)

If you're sophisticated in your use of Microsoft Word, you knew all of this without my having to mention it. If, on the other hand, you're among those who say, with pride, "I only use 10 percent of Word's features anyway!" then you probably also say, with pride, that you don't know how to balance your checkbook.

Some advice: Learn more features. In this day and age, it's a hallmark of basic professionalism.

Tablet shortcoming No. 4: Printing.

While you can print from iOS and Android devices, caveats abound. To put it simply, with a PC I can print without hassles, on the printer I already own, without requiring new software.

Tablet shortcoming No. 5: Document scanning.

With a PC you can connect to any of a wide variety of cheap scanners or all-in-one devices. With an iPad, you can't. Sure, there are apps that "transform" your iPad into a scanner, but when it comes done to it, they don't cut it compared to what you can connect to a PC.

Tablet shortcoming No. 6: Pivot tables.

I don't use pivot tables very much, but I know lots of people who do. If you perform or consume analytics at any level, this is a big deal. If you did better on your SAT verbals than math, you won't care.

Tablet shortcoming No. 7: Blogging.

Many blog technologies use the TinyMCE editing system. Many people blog, which means many people use TinyMCE -- though likely not on their iPads because several of the selection-based features of TinyMCE don't translate well to the platform. With Android, it's even worse. (To be fair, the situation is improving, but we're a long time into the tablet "revolution" for it to still be as bad as it is.)

Tablet shortcoming No. 8: Backup and restore.

I have an external hard drive I use to back up my laptop. Combined with Allway Sync (or whatever other backup software you happen to like), backing up a PC is straightforward, even if you don't have a centralized IT department to handle the task for you automatically.

With an iPad, you can back up to your PC (hint: this means you're using a PC), or you can rely on cloud-based storage that automagically keeps your tablet synchronized with online storage.

But autosync isn't the same as backup and restore, for a very simple reason: Autosync propagates your mistakes to the cloud, at which point you're sunc -- that is to say, sync sunk. Autosync protects you from device failures, but not from the dreaded oh-no second (the fraction of a second separating your pushing the wrong button from your realizing you did so).

Tablets vs. PCs: Augment, not replace
I got tired of adding "but you knew that" -- except there's nothing here you didn't know. There's also nothing here those touting tablets as complete PC replacements for "average users" don't know. But there's a difference between what people know and what they know right now, when we're talking about the subject, because the usual discussion is about what tablets can do, not what they can't do.

Bottom line: For many employees -- those with heads-down production responsibilities -- tablets are irrelevant. For the rest, tablets are more likely to be an add-on technology, not a replacement. That's annoying from a cost perspective -- and yet another good reason to encourage BYOD.

This is the opportunity that was Microsoft's for the taking. Given the disastrous advance reviews Windows 8 has been receiving, though, it looks like Microsoft won't be taking advantage of it -- which means, sadly enough, that we won't either.

This story, "No, tablets won't replace PCs anytime soon," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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