My Tablet Has Stickers
When I received my new 9.7” iPad Pro I decided to break tablet tradition and personalize it with stickers, just as I’ve done on laptops (and my Surfaces) for years. I did so because I began with the mindset that this iPad would replace my laptop(s) for full time use (here laptop means my Surface(s), Yoga, MacBook, and desktops). It has been almost a month and that is exactly what happened. My sticker investment paid off. I don’t feel like I’m forcing myself into this mode of working, but rather I am more productive, futz way less with my “computer”, and find many things easier. Work is different, but better.
You can listen to @BenedictEvans and I discuss the strategic implications of this shift on this latest @a16z podcast, Finally a Tablet that Replaces Your Laptop. This post is about adapting to change and some of the things I learned along the way.
Unlike many “use a product for month” tests this is not an experiment. For me this is a deeply held belief that the rise of smartphones (specifically starting when the iPhone launched) would have a profound impact on the way we all use “computers”.
The transformation spans hardware (thinner, lighter, smaller, cheaper, longer battery life, instant on/off, touch, sensors, connectivity, etc.), operating systems (more: secure, reliable, maintainable, robust, etc.), and app software (refactored, renewed, reimagined, etc.). It is the combination of these attributes, however, causing a change as fundamental as the leap from mainframe to workstation, from character-based to graphical OS, from desktop to laptop, from client/server to web — perhaps equal to all rolled into one shift if for no other reason than the whole planet is involved.
Note: This is not a Mac v. Windows or iOS v. Android discussion, so no snickering please. This is about a shift to a “modern mobile” computing platform from hardware to software and the cultural changes that surround that. These two posts provide context that for me has been long in the making: Continuous Productivity and Mobile OS Paradigm.
Every (single) time the discussion comes up about moving from a laptop/desktop (by this I mean an x86 Windows or Mac) to a tablet (by this I mean one running a mobile OS such as Android or iOS) there are at least several visceral reactions or assertions:
- Tablets are for media consumption and lightweight social.
- Efficiency requires keyboard, mouse, multiple monitors, and customizations and utilities that don’t exist on tablets.
- Work requires software tools that don’t/can’t exist on tablet.
Having debated this for 6+ years, now isn’t the time to win anyone over but allow me to share a perspective on each of these (some of which is also discussed in the podcast and detailed in the posts referenced above):
- Far and away the most used productivity tool is email (like it or not). The reality is that these days most email is first seen (and often acted) on a smartphone. So without even venturing to a tablet we can (must!) agree that one can be productive without laptop, even on a tiny screen. Attachments are viewed, opinions are formed, projects approved and more on our smartphones. Tablets make this even easier by adding a keyboard and a bigger screen. Beyond email, the next most used productivity tool is a browser. The same holds here, as tablets have “full” browsers with fully capable rendering.
- Invariably, when debating tablet v. laptop the issue starts with the keyboard and mouse. Many forget that there was a time before a mouse. Even the introduction of the mouse talked about the lack of precision compared to the absolute of row/column keyboard positioning. Then both software (drawing programs for example) and work (value of work products relying on those tools) changed. The keyboard, surprise, has found a home on tablets now. In terms of utilities or extensions, many of these lack analogs on tablets. Many are just irrelevant and arguably for the most part represent points of (historic) personal preference. In particular, so much of the x86 world is about managing files, local storage, and devices and those just aren’t tablet things.
- If you are a developer or a developer-like professional then you’re not going to use a tablet (yet). That’s ok, but no need to try to spoil it for the rest of us. Geez, Windows Office was compiled on Xenix (GIK) machines for the first 10 years. I recognize the special place computer scientists place on bootstrapping a system (it was huge day when we could compile MS C++ with the compiler under development). If all you do is look at 30” spreadsheets writing VBA and creating PivotTables for your execs then a tablet isn’t for you (yet). And so on… This post is about people who use a laptop the way that we know many many people do. It is a good idea for the debate not to center on “developer” scenarios since the vast majority of people don’t do these things, especially when one considers the degree to which many on earth will experience a smartphone as their first and only “computer”.
The crux of all of these is that in times of platform shifts there are two types of people. There are people that embrace the shift, perhaps out of enthusiasm, fandom, or maybe just because they don’t know any better. Then there are people that do know better, but just see the challenges in changing and use those challenges to anchor criticism.
While I am optimistic about change, I am realistic about the pace that change can really permeate through the broad range of people, organizations, cultures, use cases, and more. The fact that change takes time should not cause those of us that know the limitations of something new to dig our heels in. Importantly, if you are a maker then by definition you have to get ahead of the change or you will soon find yourself behind.
Change is difficult, disruptive, and scary so we’ll talk about that. Having gone through quite a few of these shifts, I’ve learned two things.
First, I tend to embrace the shifts sooner and suspend reality sooner. Sometimes this means I ultimately go backwards or undo a change since some shifts don’t really pan out, but it speeds up my own evolution. For what it is worth, most changes eventually happen even if there are a few false starts (Newton, TabletPC).
Second, time and time again our industry finds those that prefer to fixate on obstacles as seeing only one aspect of the change rather than how one change can cause many things to change as a reaction to a new normal. Those who felt the web would never work because dialup was slow, did not predict the rise of low cost and broadly deployed home broadband. People (like me) who said no one could ever communicate through SMS did not consider that we would collectively develop a new way of communicating that was different than email and Word. The way to think about this is that no technology is really the center of a system, but rather a constellation of bodies under the influence of each other.
In one of the amazing Steve Jobs interviews from Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher (June 2010), when asked about tablets replacing laptops, Jobs said to this functionality gap that it was “just software”.
Respectfully, he was partially right. While more and better software was needed, the other part of this shift is the accompanying broad range of other changes that will take place. If you doubt those changes are happening now, then consider how much of your work life/process/culture has changed by the introduction of smartphones. Tablets just took longer because they are not just additive but substitutes. The change is more like email which took two decades to become something resembling a universal tool even after being around for 20 years.
As difficult as they are, we more often than not over-estimate platform shifts in the short term but under-estimate them in the long term.
Platform shifts are difficult.
As difficult as they are, we more often than not over-estimate platform shifts in the short term but under-estimate them in the long term.
By far, the biggest obstacle to change is most people have jobs to do and with those jobs they have bosses, co-workers, customers and others that have little empathy for work not happening because you’re too busy or unable to do something you committed to, the way someone wanted you to do it.
Benedict talks about the “weekly status report” that is a universal tool in most large corporations. Someone crunches numbers, gathers updates and follow ups, and compresses these into a “deck” or an elaborate status mail to be sent out COB Friday or late Sunday night. Most people who do this work don’t get a vote in how the work is done so it remains a fixture in a company.
Then one day an intern or new hire shows up and doesn’t know better and boom there’s a status web page or everyone uses a SaaS product with live data and a dashboard. Not only did the tool change, but the whole process and deliverable is different. That’s how change happens in even the most conservative companies. (Personal note, one weekend in 1995 I came in and moved all the specifications for Office from an IT-maintained SMB file share to a web server running under my desk).
That’s the easy part. The hard part is that change, especially if you personally need to change, requires you to rewire your brain and change the way you do things. That’s very real and very hard and why some get uncomfortable or defensive.
At the heart of the matter is that change is easiest when it is just a generational change. It is easier because you can ride out the change and keep doing what you’ve always done. Whether it is a new programming language, a new paradigm like cloud, or mobile one can almost always find it rich and rewarding to avoid change. But if you embrace change you have to adopt a change-oriented mindset. I watched many consultants and developers stick to client-server and wait out the web simply because there was plenty of work maintaining and enhancing the systems they had put in place. The irony to keep in mind is that those systems came about because at one point those client-server consultants were the renegades displacing a mainframe system. See how that goes?
A change-oriented mindset, especially for technology, is one where you force yourself to let go of the models you developed for how things work and learn new approaches. Re-wiring yourself and letting go of that muscle memory and those patterns that often took years to develop and perfect is incredibly difficult in a technical sense. It is also difficult emotionally. So much of our own sense of empowerment comes from mastery of the tools we use and so changing or replacing tools means we are no longer masters but back to being on equal footing with lots of people. No one likes resetting their station on the tech hierarchy.
That feeling of disempowerment results in so much of the emotional reaction to major changes. A great example of this was the transition from silver-halide film to digital. The very best photographers jumped to technical arguments about the quality of digital images. We can call this the technical buzz-saw when a new technology or approach is dismantled by experts because of very specific and often provable limitations. Over a short time digital got better because of Moore’s Law and digital cameras for professionals were invented. Even more importantly the whole workflow of modern photography changed. Sports, fashion, news were all revolutionized by digital and film could not even compete even if it had more lines of resolution, color fidelity, or just felt better. A whole new generation of pros and experts sprung up overnight, creating images the experts of silver could not even imagine. If you joined in photography after digital you probably look at film as absurdly prehistoric. That’s how change in technology happens.
My four ways to cope with change:
- Free your brain. You just have to learn the new way of doing something without judging it. People who learned WordPerfect mastered “reveal codes” and once you used a graphical word processor you saw how much easier things could be with WYSIWYG, if you let yourself. My favorite example was always the person with a WordPerfect document “bug” like an incorrect indent or font change that was debugged by looking at the codes and finding the mismatch. Showing them how to just select the text and directly format what you see was a real breakthrough even though many continued to say they preferred the use of reveal codes.
- Everything was once considered weird, hard, awkward. If you know how to do something one way, being shown a totally different way often scrambles your brain. In fact, just about every new way to do something looks more difficult than what you know. What most people forget is how arbitrary most ways of doing things are in the first place. As much as there is design effort, always remember that someone started with an idea and just honed it within the constraints at the time. In the first computer tools for editing, the general model was to select what you wanted to do (bold, delete) and then choose the text to apply that to. The mouse people decided that selecting text and highlighting first and then choosing the verb would be “better”. And so it was. It is not hard to see how this could have evolved in reverse with no difficulty at all.
- Things that seem easy are really crazy when you think about it. Some of the more difficult debates center around flows that we get used to yet only in hindsight seem literally crazy. My favorite one of these is solving the problem of drag and drop to an obscured target window. You know what this is — you drag something to the tray/task bar and hold it there over an icon until you get a visual indication of “ok now you are going to highlight a window” and then magically the obscured window pops up and you drag. Putting aside the physical dexterity required, the craziness of this solution only arose because the model for drag and drop could not be reconciled with the model for overlapping windows. Almost no one knows this trick but boy the people that do feel it is essential.
- Most of problems are solved by not doing it the old way. The most important thing to keep in mind is that when you switch to a new way of doing things, there will be a lot of flows that can be accomplished but are remarkably difficult or seem like you’re fighting the system the whole time. If that is the case, the best thing to do is step back and realize that maybe you don’t need to do that anymore or even better you don’t need a special way of doing that. When the web came along, a lot of programmers worked very hard to turn “screens” (client-server front-ends) into web pages. People wanted PF-function keys and client-side field validation added to forms. It was crazy and those web sites were horrible because the whole of the metaphor was different (and better). The best way to adapt to change is to avoid trying to turn the old thing into the new things.
OK, Some Things Were Annoying
My brain was free and I was willing to unlearn 30 years of computing to switch to a big phone with a keyboard attached. Was it all fun and easy? No. Of course I had some experience in switching to an OS that wasn’t a “full PC” in a prior life and as I mentioned I am motivated.
What kind of productivity did I do?
I did everything I do on a laptop and more. Because of what I do now, I’m often at the receiving end of work products from a lot of people and I don’t get to pick the tools I use — entrepreneurs send documents in any number of formats (Keynote, PDF, Docs, Sheets, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more), tools for document signing/viewing/securing, information products that have sites or apps, all of the cloud storage products, line of business tools, and so on. I also do a lot of work in initiating creation across all sorts of data types (structured, words, images, video). I communicate a lot across a dozen or more different tools. I write a lot of long posts. I do a lot of email. I make and consume spreadsheets. I create and deliver presentations. I use line of business services. I do a lot of things with data. I use the web a lot. In short, I use a lot of different software to do a lot of different stuff.
I have not yet experienced something where I had to go back to my laptop.
I found nothing “missing”. I want to offer some balance and provide some fodder for debate. This is not the list or even important stuff, since part of these shifts is everyone finds their own 5 things that drive them nuts. There are some things that I could not figure out how to work around easily and I found about as annoying as trying to drive on the wrong side of the road (i.e. an arbitrary choice I had to adjust to but found difficult).
- Command-Tab list too short. I switch between apps via command-tab a lot, but iOS limits that to 8 items rather than scroll the list. So if I happen to want to switch to something I used much earlier I have to get to it via home screen. Since I don’t always keep the stack in my head I sometimes end up switching twice. I could do slide over and scroll but that is a lot of work. While trivial, this is the one that continues interrupt my flow the most. It is both a nit and a hit.
- Apps don’t always have all of iOS APIs implemented. Once you get into using a lot of apps and moving productivity information between them, the connections between apps matters a lot (especially when you don’t think of everything as a file). iCloud Drive has support for third party locations (Box, etc.) but not every app supports going through iCloud Drive to get to data sources (this is the opposite of share to via the share sheet, but the share from. Most apps are good share destinations.). In fact many apps have their own “curated” set of connections. I suspect this will change and is not unlike how most early Windows apps did not use standard OS dialogs (mostly because many didn’t exist until Windows XP). For now it can be rather convoluted to “attach a file” from within some apps. Many talk about this as a PDF problem but it applies to any sort of email attachments where you want to edit and then get it back into the Reply message. I try to be cloud-only but with external connections attachments are often preferred. Android with its native file system can work around these limits, but it also opens up a complex, legacy, namespace that regular people should not ever see.
- Copy/Paste. Copy and paste was a huge invention in the move to a graphical OS. If you weren’t there at the time then you don’t recall how bumpy a road this was. One constantly battled with “clipboard formats” and whether you had a pair of apps that could talk to each other (DIB, BMP, UNICODE, https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/ms649013(v=vs.85).aspx). Tablets and the web have all but eliminated this but still a lot of apps don’t make it easy to copy or paste. The social apps and web sites are notorious in this regard. Most apps are not very good at consuming formatted text or images on the clipboard. This will likely change.
- Screenshots. Screenshots are something that have seen a dramatic rise in use with smartphones. They have become the universal clipboard format. On Windows I use add-ins such as OneNote. The Mac has had great screen capture since 1984. Smartphones and tablets are still brute force full screen like Windows, but there are no add-ins to select regions or prevent adding the screen to your photos. Capturing and using a region of the screen takes a lot of steps and you end up with an image in your photo roll. One can only imagine everyone at Apple wrestles with this and maybe it will get fixed soon. I also hope that someone uses EXIF/meta data to make it easy to automatically capture ALT-TEXT for accessibility/readers.
- Cloud storage fragmentation. When you go tablet you really want and need to go cloud. This is a huge positive. I can lose or drop my tablet, or upgrade, without any worries or lost time. I can switch between tablet and phone and never even think about “where’s that file”. On a laptop, many people (a) use their desktop as a work file area and (b) feel the need to keep everything with them all the time (for performance, latency, etc.). I was both of those people. The cloud should fix all this. Except as a practical matter I end up floating in many clouds all the time. Some say this is a new problem, but of course anyone who has worked in a company with a plethora of files servers, SharePoints, and now cloud storage already has this fragmentation problem. This isn’t new on a tablet. What is new for some is that you can’t break all the clouds by making a local copy of a set of related work products for convenience or in other words fool yourself into solving this problem while creating a massive security issue. To solve this I create a temporary cloud solution as my “desktop” if it doesn’t break security rules.
- Keyboard handling. Even though iOS is based on OS X code and keyboards have been part of the iPad since launch, there is very uneven handling of basic stuff like keyboard focus, tab, shortcuts. A lot of apps, even iPad only, have a lot of bugs in keyboard handling. These manifest itself with things like being stuck in a field unable to leave without a touch or copy failing because command-c isn’t trapped. I suspect very few apps are testing broadly with a keyboard. Android has similar issues as we know. This reminds me of Windows apps that didn’t test with color screens or without a mouse.
These are a few, but not all, of the things I wrestled with this month. None are deal breakers because I’ve committed and because, frankly, I have empathy for both app makers and platform makers. Many are not even new as I used an iPad Mini with a keyboard for many months when it came out. Most of these are consistent with my Android tablet experience as well.
There are also limitations in apps and sites that one runs across where the mobile browser experience is delivered to a tablet. Having transitioned to the web the first time this is totally normal. You can wager that everyone with a product is trying to get their full experience to the mobile OS as fast as possible, whether that is mobile browse or an app.
I have not yet experienced something where I had to go back to my laptop. Some things surprised me because I thought they would not work (for example, signing legal documents). I’m sure I will find some things soon.
OK, Some Things Were Much Easier
So while there were clearly some problems, I also had a longer list of things that improved in my daily work by switching to a tablet. Some of these might surprise, but given the underlying trends I believe to be the case others simply confirm that bias.
- Flow between social apps. On a laptop there are clearly two types of “tabs” in my browser. There are all the news/social tabs and then the work tabs (or apps). Because they mostly are all contained in one app (browser) there is no OS way of switching. So app switching is kind of awkward (switching between ALT+TAB and CTRL+TAB, or Command-Tab and Command-~). On a tablet I have one model for switching between these meta-contexts because everything is an app. I find myself moving with much more flow and things feel much more elegant because of that. The fact that most social and news sites have apps and are focusing their energy there only makes this more of a benefit.
- Weight, connectivity, instant on/off. I have a small bag and my paper notepad weighs more than my tablet+keyboard. I don’t carry a hotspot or use my phone battery to drive wifi for my keyboard device. I don’t walk down the hall with my laptop open to avoid going into standby (or worse hibernate). Everything with carry weight, 4G connectivity, and on/off is vastly improved.
- Second screen. Even when using a laptop or desktop people have been using a second compute screen forever (amazing how many people still use a calculator while using Excel). Smartphones are second screens for many people. The same holds when using a tablet even though they are the same computer “type” and close cousins in form factors. I use my phone to do phone things (get a Lyft while typing out an email) or to avoid context switches while working. This is no different than a PC, but somewhat better because the overall contexts are much closer. I don’t have a clear model but just find myself doing this.
- Different apps is like having two devices/second screen. The way I feel like I have two “different” devices is that I did not put all the same apps on each. On my phone I have “phone things” or phone-only things. I don’t put any of on-demand or service apps on my tablet (reservations,, transportation, etc.). I do have most productivity apps on my phone though because I often scan things on the go or quickly share things while mobile. I definitely rely on all aspects of iOS Continuity which is a great balance of having “the same but different” contexts across devices. I love being able to use messaging apps with a keyboard, since for many people I work with messaging has replaced email.
- No window management futzing. I no longer dread a restart (or failed resume from standby) messing up my windows. I spend no energy arranging things anywhere. For everyone that says full screen is difficult I just think of all the time I saved by not futzing. It has long been known that most people run most apps “full screen” on laptops anyway but now you just don’t worry. And for every person that complains about full screen apps there are full screen modes in laptop software and writing tools that minimize distractions anyway! One could expand this to futzing in general and the difference between a PC OS and a mobile OS, but that just starts a flame war. This is very much like giving up on manual transmission or self-inflicted oil changes.
- Presentations. Having an tablet is great for presentations. I can carry it with me or do a fireside chat holding it and running things exactly as I did when creating it. Using AirPlay is easy because it is in most places I go and if not I do carry the dongle for HDMI (which I need on most of the laptops I use anyway). The ability to drop the keyboard and the overall device size/weight make this one a great scenario. I love having my notes handy as well in a “socially acceptable” form.
- Photos. I am an aspiring amateur photographer and have used every organizer and editor over the years. Part of this transition is just trying to do things in the native way. I’ve found it incredibly easy to take photos and import them from the storage card and then edit (using a variety of tools). I do really love the ability to easily combine photos from my phone camera and several other cameras as well as photos sent to me into one album that shows up across devices easily. This has been a surprise given how much I am wedded to my old way of working.
- Don’t worry about local files ever. On my laptop I have to force myself not to worry about files. Apps all default to local storage and so it is easy to create backup problems without thinking about it and solving this with sync engines that drain the battery seems suboptimal. On a tablet you can’t mess this up and it is a big relief (and one security hole closed). I basically don’t think about local files. I don’t create copies or security problems. I just stick to the cloud apps.
- Universal charging. I don’t carry a charger around because even on all day coast-to-coast flights or full days of writing I don’t have any problems with battery life (please no debates over battery life). What is really cool is that I can find a charger and/or a charge cable anywhere. Hotel alarm clocks can charge my tablet. Lyft drivers offer cables. I can buy a charger/cable at Walgreens if I need to. In the remotest parts of Africa I can find a cable and solar. I travel with a third party two port charger and two cables and never worry. Plus I can put low-cost chargers in different places I work without a significant capital expense!
For many the jury is still out on this shift. I know that. Many people have jobs that require specific tools or work products that can’t be done on a tablet. Many are part of corporate cultures that take time, effort, and evidence before they change. My view is that this shift is now in full swing and we will very quickly see a world where many many people can and will be tablet first, or tablet only.
As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.
The biggest change that will happen is not with the tablet platform or apps. That change has happened. What needs to happen is the cultural change that will permit the technology change to happen.
In old business culture you communicated with your boss or team through in person meetings or printed memos stuffed in an interoffice mailbox. Email was invented 45 years ago but it didn’t become part of mainstream corporate culture until the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. The tool change was one thing but what really changed was how people worked and the expectations of communication. While it took decades, once the change started happening it became normal for someone 5 levels down to send mail to their boss or to fire off an incomplete thought/idea, or to send rough drafts of documents to many people. What were seen as limitations or defects became the positives of the technology shift. It is hard to overstate what a huge change that was at the time.
The shift to this new form factor and new platform will bring with it cultural changes that take advantage of what are perceived as disadvantages. As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.
— Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)