Mid-sized computers might actually work this time

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?


8 Responses to “Mid-sized computers might actually work this time”

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green commented on :

    I always sound like a stick-in-the-mud on these topics, but it seems that tablet PCs are a solution looking for a problem. Now, my GF does digital art and enjoyed her tablet PC, but when it came time to buy a new one (note: champaign and computers do not mix), she opted for a more traditional model.

    I just have to wonder if there’s really a need for a device between palmtops/netbooks, laptops, iPhone/smart phones, and desktops. What type of programs are going to be too big to run on the iPhone but too light to want to bother with a laptop? The only thing I can think of is ebook software, but that seems pretty specialized for something like the iPad.

    Maybe I’m wrong and Apple has an ace up the sleeve or the Kindle has paved the way for people to want an Apple-brand ebook reader. We’ll see, I guess.

  2. Joe said on :

    *insert old man impression here* :)

    I wouldn’t get too hung up on the form-factor. In my mind the interesting shift that is happening is in the operating system. Shifting to a mouse instead of a touchscreen might be tough, but apart from that both Android and iPhone OS would scale up to a laptop sized (and powered) device just fine. I think we’ll see these operating systems in a bunch of different form factors before things settle down again.

  3. DaFox wrote on :

    You’re scaring me joe.

  4. oskar wrote on :

    I am quite sure that at least Apple has developed the iPad for a specific niche audience. Basically defined as “apple fans who read e-publications rather than paper news.”

    This audience has a problem already since they have to carry laptops around to places such as the kitchen table.

    After success in this niche apple will expand the design towards new audiences. Some will even adopt the iPad from outside this niche but those users are less predictable.

  5. Joe said on :

    If you’re talking about the iPad form-factor that’s true. It’s for reading and watching video you’ve purchased from iTunes. People will use it for other things, but those two are what it will be best at.

    The future of the iPhone OS is significantly less targeted. Apple will never come out and say what their plan is with regard to OSX vs. iPhone OS, but given the way the iPhone OS is growing, it’s not looking good for OSX.

  6. Alex commented on :

    I think for the average Joe (sorry, couldn’t resist) computers like the iPad could be a future. I mean, what does the normal PC user do on his computer? Read mails, browse the web, play a bit, hear music and watch a video occasionally. I guess the iPad does that well enough and you can easily take it with you on the couch or to bed. It might actually work out for these devices now.

    If you’re an enthusiast though and want to do more… I wouldn’t want to give up mouse and keyboard for working on the computer.

  7. oskar wrote on :

    I guess the market now has decided the outcome to this question?

  8. Joe replied on :

    2 million iPads could still be those Apple fans you referred to. I don’t think we can really say that the market has decided until we’re up to 100 million mobile-OS-running tablet computers. :)

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