The impending launch of the iPad has had me thinking a lot about where computers in general are going. Mobile computers are moving into larger form-factors and they are bringing their mobile operating systems with them. In addition to the iPad there are also about half a dozen tablets and a few netbooks coming out that run Android. I believe these devices are the start of a new wave that will eventually replace Windows and OSX machines for the vast majority of computer users.
This sort of platform has existed before, but previous attempts never really worked out. This time I think they have a real shot at it, and I think two factors will make the difference this time around. Both platforms have large libraries of apps, and both platforms greatly reduce the cost of owning a computer.
Previous attempts to build small, lightweight operating systems always included a big push to sign up developers. Then they failed to attract significant developer attention because they had no installed base. Then no one could figure out why they should buy one because they had no applications and the installed base never materialized. Both Apple and Google have used the mobile web to bootstrap both their user-bases. Many people are willing to buy the phones because they can read web-pages from anywhere. Nobody balks at developing for these platforms because there are millions of them out there. Then another wave of people are happy to buy the phones because of all the cool apps. As a result each platform have tens of thousands of applications when their mid-sized devices launch.
The cost of ownership factor is also a pretty big deal. For years I have had computer-savvy friends describe to me how they will no longer support relatives on Windows and have purchased iMacs for their parents. It is much easier for a normal person to break a Windows machine than to break a Macintosh, so the unfortunately tech-savvy guy in the family ends up spending more time supporting a casual computer user on Windows. Android and iPhone OS push this much further by removing most of the remaining pitfalls. This doesn’t matter much for powerusers, but for the average computer user it is a big deal.
Some previous attempts at midsized computers (e.g. Magic Cap and Newton) had a similarly low cost of ownership. Some previous attempts at midsized computers (e.g. Ultra-Mobile PCs, Windows-based Tablet Computers, and Netbooks) had a huge software library to draw on but a cost of ownership that was actually higher than their desk-bound brothers. These new mobile-derived operating systems are the first time we’ve seen both factors in the same devices. I think this could be as disruptive as the original Personal Computer revolution.
What do you think? Will these new mid-sized computers cause massive upheaval, or will they fall down the same dark hole as their predecessors and never be heard from again?