Form factors matter? What to tell your mother when she asks if iPads are going to replace laptops

Over the last few years, many people have been excited about smartphones and tablets, proclaiming the end of the PC. The transition that's happening right now feels very big and important.

Over the last few years, many people have been excited about smartphones and tablets, proclaiming the end of the PC. The transition that’s happening right now feels very big and important. Add in whatever other metaphors you’re partial to. The question is: Will something like this ever happen again? I think the answer is no, at least not anytime soon.

To rephrase the question a little bit, think of all the times a slightly less tech-savvy friend or relative has asked you if iPads will replace computers. The answer is of course no. And it’s for the same reason that IT will be ready for the next new form factor.

Not to get too pie-in-the-sky futuristic, but for right now we have a lot of the problems licked. The next device won’t trip us up the way smartphones and tablets have. Why is that? Because we’re beginning to successfully abstract data, applications, and identity from each other and from the devices that are used to deliver them.

We’ve talked in the past about defining the desktop as a collection of applications, data, and user settings and personality, instead of as a physical PC or laptop. Even still, for the last twenty years we’ve had Windows to bind all of these things together. Now our devices and platforms are much more diverse, requiring applications to be adapted for each new combination, and data to be separated from devices.

On the back end, though, data remains the same. I can still open .doc files I made years ago on my brand new iPhone. Now that our data is delivered and synchronized from the cloud. however, that old .doc is much more accessible than it used to be.

File syncing services and mobile information management can make any application into a cloud-synced application. Suddenly, everybody’s desktop is in the cloud! Someone might object, “Not true, I use more native tablet and smartphones than ever!” to which the reply “That’s the whole point!” Using a native application to access cloud-based data gives the best combination of experience and portability. The alternatives would be having a great native experience with data that’s tied to a particular device (a traditional PC), or having portable data that doesn’t have a great user user experience (web apps).

We’re finally reaching a point where the decision to use a certain type of device isn’t dictated by the application or data being tied to the device, but by what form factor is best for the task we’re trying to accomplish. Having said that, many people are attached to specific form factors, even when they’re not the most well-suited for their tasks. It’s easy to poke fun at people that use iPads to take photos or access Windows applications, but I’m just as guilty of being loyal to my MacBook Air. (I’ve been known to use it while standing without a desk or to watch movies on airplanes, but to be fair, this was before I got an iPhone :)

There are still some challenges facing us. There are many applications that used to be stuck to just one form factor, like legacy Windows applications. Luckily we have desktop virtualization technologies that can deliver them to devices ranging from Macs to smartphones to Android enabled refrigerators. Identity and personalization are another sore spot. This is one area where Windows PCs had a definite advantage. Now I have to add the words “consumerization” and “virtualization” to the custom dictionaries of all my devices and and many applications, as well.

The next form factor that comes through won’t be a problem. It will simply be a matter of writing new versions of existing applications. They’ll use all the same data, but present it in whatever way is best suited for the flashy new device or form factor. Am I being foolish to think that IT will be able to get by so easily, or will we have this handled, no problem? I don't know, but I like to believe that now that we've crossed this boundary, we won't be surprised by any new device, platform, or form factor. We can assure friends and relatives that ask if one form factor will take over that the opposite will be true: end users will be more and more free to access and manipulate data from whatever device they prefer.


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25 years ago, we where wondering if PC's will ever replace terminals (3270,VT). It's all about apps and your data. Operating System is just "provider" to apps and data. Most of the user are "consuming" data and small amount is creating it.

We where just lockdown to Windows PC's 25 years, it's very refreshing that now we have choice. Is iPad ideal for work? maybe not, but users want to use it.