What's a computer?

What’s a computer?

What’s a computer?

My guess is, if you’re like most people, hearing this phrase will set you off about how dumb Apple’s most recent iPad commercial is.  Or, specifically, how dumb the last two seconds are of an otherwise really good commercial.  Honestly, I could go on and on about how strange the end of this commercial is, but I’ll spare you all but the most important takeaway for now:  Apple wants you to rethink what a computer is.

Yes, technically, an iPad is a computer, as is your smartphone, and a Google Home, and your Amazon Fire Stick, but that’s clearly not the intent.  Rather, Apple wants you to think of the iPad as a replacement to your actual laptop.  Specifically, your Windows laptop.

Apple’s messaging on this has been weird over the past few years.  Executives have said on multiple occasions that the iPad is a “PC replacement,” but on at least one occasion, did mention that they specifically mean Windows PCs, since, I guess to them, a Mac is not a personal computer.

Isn’t it a little strange for a company that makes computers to be posing this question?  Well, that’s a little complicated because of how Apple has been treating the Mac.  The messaging for their own computer line has been weird for a while now, with reminders that Apple still cares about the Mac and the Pro market, while years pass on the calendar since the Mac Mini and Mac Pro have been updated.  Sure, Tim Cook said the Mac Mini is important to their Mac lineup, and new Mac Pros are supposedly coming sometime this year, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to a Pro user that needs a modular, powerful Mac that their only choice right now is to buy hardware that is over four years old, or buy an iMac Pro and hope they never need to upgrade anything inside of it.

But the iPad would never replace a Mac Pro or a Mac Mini anyway, so why be concerned about those products?  Well, Apple’s current notebooks have been on the receiving end of a number of negative articles that, shockingly, aren’t just clickbait.  There are legitimate problems with the butterfly switch keyboards, both in reliability and usability, and while these issues may not affect everyone, it is very apparent to anyone that is paying attention that Apple has a public relations problem with the current MacBook Pro when people are literally longing for the last generation of the product.



And just to be clear, these two examples are from totally different worlds.  Marco Arment is a popular developer and co-founder of Tumblr, and Justin McElroy is a podcaster/video game journalist.  It’s not just techies thinking they know best, or regular people not understanding how a product works – this is all sides of the spectrum saying that something here is wrong.

So now, we have this sentiment that Apple either doesn’t care about the Mac anymore, is doing a bad job with the Mac, or both, coupled with the fact that now there is a commercial out there telling you that you don’t need a computer anymore – just use an iPad.  It is not hard to understand why the Apple-loyal, Mac-diehards are becoming disenfranchised.

But what about Apple’s side of the argument?

I’m somewhat of a pro user, by which I mean that I do require “pro” functions quite often, despite my main computer being 2015 12″ MacBook with a paltry Core-M CPU.  When I do graphics manipulation in GIMP, it struggles, but I have a beefy desktop rig to handle my serious, pro-level workloads – and it’s a Windows machine.

My MacBook is where I do almost all of my writing and most of the work that I do on my projects, like this website.  That doesn’t require a gaming computer, so realistically, because of my specific situation, wouldn’t anything with a keyboard work for me?  Hold that thought, I’ll come back to it.

Last year, I bought a 10.5″ iPad Pro shortly after they were released.  It’s the first iPad I bought since the original back in 2010, and it wasn’t a no-brainer purchase.  I agonized over it for about a week before pulling the trigger, and even then, I felt almost certain that it would end up sitting on my desk collecting dust after a couple months, just like my old iPad had.

But, surprisingly, it didn’t.  I use it constantly, every day, far more often and for more time than my MacBook.  However, I can’t bring myself to do real work on it.  I won’t buy a keyboard for it, because I am familiar with that experience, having owned a Surface Pro 3.  If you are unfamiliar, it probably isn’t hard to imagine that typing on a flexible keyboard cover is not the best typing experience.  It’s not bad, but it’s not optimal.  Sure, I could go all out and get any number of Bluetooth keyboards, including a mechanical one if I so chose, but that isn’t a realistic solution for a portable productivity device.

Ah, productivity device, though?  Well, not so much, for me.  Clearly, I am using my iPad more for consumption – watching videos, browsing reddit, using Twitter/Facebook, or playing Fire Emblem Heroes.  I should be able to type this very article up on my iPad, but I can’t bring myself to do it because I’d have to make certain compromises, and I don’t want to make those compromises.  I just want my computer to do the things I expect a computer to do, and if the iPad makes that more difficult, then it’s not replacing my computer.

Just to make sure you see the distinction I’m making, this is not to say that the iPad can’t do the things I need my computer to do, I’m saying it makes those things more difficult.

This is the real question that a consumer has to ask themselves when faced with the opportunity to purchase something like an iPad instead of a new laptop – not, “Can I file my taxes on the iPad?” but rather, “Can I just as easily file my taxes on an iPad?”  Of course, replace that with whatever you use your computer for.  In my case, it is easier for me to write novels on my computer, so why use an iPad?  Sometimes I write on an airplane tray table, sometimes I write while lying on the sofa – both things that are much more easily done on a real laptop.

And on the flip side, remember to ask the question of how hard it will be to maintain a computer, should you go that route.  These days, it’s not a difficult process, but it is leaps and bounds more difficult than the seamless platform that is the iPad.  This is an important distinction to make as well, because for people that routinely have computer problems, it would likely be easier to deal with certain compromises and inconveniences on the iPad than to deal with virus removal, problems that occur when your computer applies updates, and all of the things that your average Joe doesn’t understand how to fix.

iPads have the advantage in that case because not only do some of those problems not exist, or are much more rare, but if something happens, you very likely have access to an Apple store and in most cases can get same day or next day support.  Microsoft is working on that with their own stores, but even many metropolitan areas still do not have easy access to one, including a city I lived in for 12 years before moving to an area that has two of them.

As you can see, whether or not an iPad – or any tablet – can replace your computer is a very personal choice, and I believe Apple absolutely nailed that messaging until the girl in the commercial uttered that one simple phrase at the end.  I understand what they were going for, but the way they went about it was so, so wrong.  Apple yanks us out of this interesting tale of this girl’s life that shows off what the iPad can do and establishes that this very-likely intelligent human being doesn’t have the cognitive ability to properly answer a simple question with extremely clear context.  It’s honestly a little insulting.