The Subtle Weaning: iPads, PCs, and the Upgrade Cycle

John Gruber on the transition of the iPad from “tablet-computer” to “computer”:

I can tell from my email and Twitter feedback that there is much skepticism among some of you about the iPad as a full-on PC replacement, but if you’re thinking about this trend as switching cold turkey, dropping all Windows/Mac usage in lieu of iOS in one fell swoop, you’re thinking about it wrong. It’s a subtle weaning.

Agreed. I used to be an iPad skeptic, perceiving it as an unnecessary toy jammed in between phones and laptops (or Kindles and laptops). Obviously, I am now a full-blown convert.

And I’m going to get my hands on an iPad Air, not the Retina mini, and it has a lot to do with this very transition that Gruber talks about. I used to think that the iPad, or any tablet, should be essentially thought of as an electronic, interactive magazine. If that’s the case, you want the lightest thing you can find with a sufficiently-large, but unobtrusive screen. But if you want to make stuff, if you want get some shit done, you need more space. Yes, more space for a larger typing surface, but more visual breathing room, too. Squinting is not great for long-form work.

It used to be that as each year passed, I’d writhe with envy over new iterations of MacBook lines (particularly when I worked in an Apple Store and was surrounded by the damn, sexy things). Whatever I had at any given time was fine, yes, but I always new that there was something faster and lighter that would make my life just that much easier, and feel just that much cooler.

In 2011, I got an 11″ MacBook Air. The big change there, other than the obvious size and weight shift from 13″ MacBook-regular territory, was the SDD drive. It made day-to-day tasks not just a little zippier, as one might expect from a processor bump, but vastly faster. Plus, the machine is obviously absurdly light and portable, has a nice high-resolution screen (not Retina-level, of course), and is about the most adorable piece of technology I’ve ever seen to this day. I just love it.

It has its drawbacks, and other products now best it in some important areas. Its battery life is pretty terrible now, whereas the new models get something like 50 years on a charge. And it’d be nice to have the additional real estate of a 13″ screen, or even a Retina display. But what’s new, is that I’m not twisting in my sleep over it. My teeth go ungnashed, my garments unrended. I’d like an upgrade, but I’m cool. I’m set. That SSD really makes all the difference, and to get a new machine would be a little bit silly and profligate.

But if the PC space has matured so much, having crossed the SSD-from-hard disk threshold, the mobile space, while maturing, is still changing at quite a clip. (We talk quite a bit about devices’ different technological thresholds, and many other Apple topics, on the latest edition of the Obcast.) While upgrading my 2011 computer is unnecessary, a 2011 iPad is a different species from the coming 2013 model. A gorgeous, high-resolution display, a genuinely desktop-class processor, and yet it’s far lighter.

Gruber, in the same post, says that the shift we’re seeing is one where folks are “hanging on to old laptops for legacy tasks, [and] spending their money now on new iPads,” and I think that’s right on. There’s less and less need to drop $1000-$2000 on a laptop every couple of years than there ever has been, and dropping $500-$800 on a tablet every couple of years is (comparatively) sane. Especially if that tablet — and this is key — becomes a machine on which one does shit. If you’re just dicking around, sure, get a Retina mini, and you’re probably good for a few years (or for that matter, a 2013 Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HDX).

But for me, I want to do shit. I’m writing this on my current 10″ iPad. If I wanted to write something much longer, or do some deeper research requiring several documents and windows, I have my MacBook upstairs that serves me excellently, and will likely do so for at least a couple more years. But for most of what I do on a computer, I can not only do it on the iPad, but I prefer it.

Maybe in 2010 and 2011, this kind of maturation of the iPad was more speculative. But I think this is a great time for tech consumers — the big, expensive machines, which many of us (most?) still need, last much longer at near-top form. And the more casual and useful device, the tablet (really, the iPad, with a possible nod to the Surface), can do so much more than anyone ever expected, but is still priced low enough to make somewhat-frequent upgrades justifiable.

And hey, I know folks like friend-of-the-blog Matt Licata (who has described himself as the Obcast’s Moltz, with which I wholeheartedly agree) says he’s sticking with his iPad 3 from 2012, because even that is a sufficiently mature device to allow him to do his shit. So maybe were closer to a point where upgrades stop making sense until 4 or 5 years have passed, or when a new technological threshold is introduced and traversed.

(I talk more about maturity in terms of the iPhone line in this post.)

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