Tablets like the iPad are great for consuming information but what about creating? (Photo Credit: Apple, Inc.)
If there was one thing obvious at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it's that just about every company in the consumer electronics industry envies the success of Apple's iPad.
Tablet PCs have been around for more than a decade. But until Apple came out with its little iPad, they simply never gained any traction. Microsoft certainly tried with various versions of its Windows tablet editions, starting with a version based on Windows XP. And at last year's CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a prototype of a Windows "slate" PC from Hewlett-Packard that was supposed to be aimed at consumers, but when it finally emerged in October 2010, it was an enterprise device released with little fanfare. In the meantime, HP acquired Palm and is expected to announce its own line of consumer-oriented tablets later this year based on Palm's webOS.
Besides Apple, the biggest player in tablets is likely to be Google, whose Android operating system is being adopted to work on scores of new tablet devices. Even before the tablet-friendly "Honeycomb" version of Android was announced, several companies, including Samsung, began shipping tablets based on phone-centric versions of Android.
End of PC Era?
With all the hype about tablets, it's no wonder that many observers, including my San Jose Mercury News colleague Troy Wolverton, have observed that the reign of the PC may be ending. Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who owes much of his fortune to the Apple II and Mac PCs, declared the PC to no longer be a consumer device, saying last June that "PCs are going to be like trucks," and that most people won't need them.
Jobs might be right but I'm not sure that's something to celebrate. His analogy to trucks refers back to a time when most people made their living growing food or working in trades and had to haul around goods or tools. Most of today's workers can get by with cars.
Great for Consuming but not Producing
After using an iPad for several months, I'm convinced its a great device for consuming media but not great for producing it. Just as we have fewer farmers and craft people using trucks to haul their goods to market, we'll have fewer people producing documents, spreadsheets, reports, software, professional quality videos and other "goods" that require a PC with a keyboard, a powerful processor, lots of storage and plenty of input ports for accessories.
Is that a good thing? I don't think so, especially if tablets wind up replacing PCs in schools.
Teaching Kids to Program
Unlike the iPad, Apple's ultra-lite MacBook Air has a full-sized keyboard to create and program (Photo: Apple, Inc)
There was a time when kids were encouraged not just to use PCs but to program them using tools like Logo, Apple's own HyperCard or even HTML to build their programs and websites from scratch. I admit that blogging or even posting status updates to Facebook can be creative work, and there certainly are many examples of kids being extremely creative with their video cameras and cell phone camcorders. But there's more to creativity than posting a clever phrase on a social networking site or pointing a camera toward a funny or interesting scene.
When your only keyboard is a virtual one on glass, you're less inclined to write serious essays, stories or books. And though we are seeing an explosion in video creation, there is also the art of video editing. That can be done on a tablet with the right software but -- for now at least -- can be done more effectively on a more powerful PC.
Smartphones and laptops have created an enormous demand for applications or "apps," and that represents an opportunity to keep the art of programming alive. But in the vast majority of cases, the preferred hardware for creating these apps are PCs and Macs, not tablets and phones.
Of course we're not going to see a complete end to productivity. Just as there are still a significant number of people who buy trucks to haul produce, products and tools, there will continue to be professional programmers, writers, accountants, videographers and others with access to whatever tools they need to do their job. But I worry that this group, just like farmers and skilled craft people, will become a smaller and smaller segment of our population. And I'm especially worried that an increasing number of them will be working from outside the United States at lower wages.
I fear we are becoming a nation of technology consumers rather than creators. Whatever form factor we wind up having in the technology in our homes and schools, I want it to be useful for helping young people understand how to build, program and enhance the technology itself.
I give Steve Jobs a lot of credit for creating products that make it easy for the rest of us to consume technology. But I also want to make sure that our kids have the same opportunity as Job's one-time partner Steve Wozniak had to help create the technologies that they and their children will use.
This post is adapted from a column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News