Cars, trucks, iPads, and laptops

When the touchscreen generation would rather have a Chromebook.

google chromebook pixel 2015 right side

Google's new Chromebook Pixel for 2015 has a USB-C port and an SD card port on the right side. 

Credit: Image: Rob Schultz

Steve Jobs famously likened touchscreen devices to cars and traditional PCs, including the Mac, to trucks. The idea was that in the future–especially as older people who grew up with keyboards and mice and were accustomed to them–computers would become marginalized, powerful tools that would be used for specific purposes. General-purpose computing, on the other hand, would become the province of the ubiquitous car.

This story is frequently told in the context of the iPad. The argument is that the iPad and touchscreen tablets like it will ultimately replace the PC. And while that may yet happen, I think it misses the larger point. This entire thing has already happened. The world is being transformed into a smartphone-using culture. The smartphone is already the car, and everything else is a truck.

So let’s talk trucks, and consider the iPad again. With the release of the iPad Pro–I’m writing this story on one right now–we’ve all been considering the question of if the iPad fits into getting work done. My feeling is that it absolutely can, though it will be a big adjustment for those of us in that keyboard-and-mouse crowd.

The assumption many of us have made, myself included, is that it will really take a new generation of computer users, those weaned on iPhones and iPads, before the iPad and other touchscreen devices take their place as the computing trucks of the future. It makes sense, right? Kids love iPhones and iPads. The touch interface is easily understandable, even by small children. The future is inevitable.

So here’s the problem with that way of thinking. My daughter, born in 2001 and raised in a world of iPods, iPhones, and iPads, has two devices she absolutely requires in order to live. (My understanding is that she would shrivel up into some sort of husk and die if either of them were to go away.) One of those devices is her iPhone, of course. She is endlessly iMessaging, Instagramming, Snapchatting, and FaceTiming with her friends.

The other device is a laptop. (A Chromebook Pixel, in this case, but it could just as easily have been a MacBook Air.) In fact, when I offered her the use of my iPad Air 2 instead of her laptop, she immediately dismissed it. A native of the 21st century–the century where the keyboard and mouse are left on the sidewalk with a cardboard FREE sign as we embrace our tablet futures–is flatly refusing to switch from a laptop to a tablet.

Of course, I asked my daughter why she prefers the laptop to an iPad. Her school relies on Google Docs for most of the work she does, and she likes being able to do that work on the laptop. (Given the limitations of the Google Docs apps on iOS, I didn’t even try to convince her that her experience on an iPad would be equal to that inside a Chrome browser tab.)

But beyond schoolwork, the main way she uses her laptop is as a video player. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, you name it–she’d rather watch most shows on her 13-inch high-resolution laptop screen than on the 60-inch HDTV in my living room. (Some of that is because this is a screen that she can control and watch without being bothered by another family member.)

She also seems to have been burned by her middle-school experience with iPads, which apparently was rife with buggy apps.

In the end, my daughter’s judgment about the choice was fairly simple: “I feel like you can do more with a laptop than with an iPad,” she told me during an exclusive interview as I drove her home from school.

(As a Mac user, I also have to point out that while my daughter used to use a hand-me-down iMac, she now is exclusively using the Chromebook. So when she says “you can do more with a laptop,” she isn’t referring to native apps–only tabs inside the Chrome browser.)

One teenager’s opinion won’t decide the future of tablets and laptops, but I’m intrigued by the fact that her choice was the opposite of what I expected. Perhaps the computer users of the future are more open to old-fashioned computers than I thought. Perhaps the lack of native apps on the Chromebook isn’t a stumbling block for them, because they live on the web.

Still, if my daughter had to pick only a single device to use, it would undoubtedly be her phone. Her love of the iPhone makes me think that sometime, in the future, she might be willing to try an iPad again. But I’m not sure I’d put money on her switching from a laptop to a tablet anytime soon.

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