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The Changing Landscape of Personal Computing

This article was originally published on December 2, 2012.

I’ll try not to give too much commentary on the way Apple does things, but the company has certainly made its mark in how we view personal technology and computing in 2012. Just as the iPod revolutionized portable media players and the iPhone made waves in the smartphone world, the iPad changed how we look at the way we access our media, data, social networks, and the Internet as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong. When the iPad first came out, I thought it was a ridiculous product. I used it quite a bit right at release since I was working in Apple retail at the time. It just seemed like a giant iPhone to me, which wasn’t saying much. I have three netbooks and found them far more useful than a limited, locked-down touchscreen tablet. But, being a new Apple product, the iPad sold like gangbusters and we quickly started seeing premium tablets hit the market in an attempt to compete. I’d say it worked. Apple’s market share continues to shrink as electronics giants like Samsung, Acer, Asus, and Motorola present us with non-Apple options that are both functional and sexy.

Still, I didn’t really see the allure of the mobile OS tablet. Windows 7 is such a fantastic operating system, ran great on my 1.6GHz first-generation Atom netbook, and let me do every single thing I wanted out of a computer. I finally bit the bullet and got my first Android tablet, an Archos 101 Internet Tablet. It had a terrible screen, poor build quality, and was still running Android 2.2 (Froyo) when 3.0 (Honeycomb) was about to make its public debut. It was also s-l-o-w. Suffice it to say, that particular product was a poor way to enter the world of mobile tablet devices.

My next purchase was an HP TouchPad after the fire sale. I got lucky and found someone selling one locally, already rooted and dual-booting WebOS and ICS, for a very reasonable price. It was worth it. The TouchPad had the potential to be a fantastic product for its time. However, it was too expensive and a little too limited, lacking storage expansion and a useful selection of applications. Unfortunately, HP’s adoption of WebOS was too little, too late. But we’ll save that article for another day. I mostly used ICS on my TouchPad, and really enjoyed the ICS experience. Android had matured from a mobile phone OS to a true mobile device OS, and the new “HD” applications hitting the Android Market were absolutely fantastic – things like Moxier Mail, high-resolution web browsers, and tablet versions of social networking clients.

It’s only gotten better since the initial release of Honeycomb. Google Play is now full of tablet-optimized applications that can give you a near-computer experience on a device that weighs less than a netbook, has a great multitouch IPS display, and offers excellent portability.

And now we come to the real game-changer – Asus’s Transformer series. Looking back at reviews of the first hardware iteration, it had its share of problems – dead displays, failing keyboard docks, and some seriously questionable customer service. Asus is on its third hardware revision with the Transformer TF300 series, available with 3G and 4G cell radio options as well as a wifi-only model. I have been fortunate enough to get a TF300T (wifi-only) for Christmas from my wonderful partner, Jay.

I gotta tell you – this is a mind-blowing device. The TF300T is light years beyond what the iPad can do. Asus has already released an official Jellybean update, which I installed as soon as I got the tablet. This turned out to be a mistake, since now I can’t root Android without installing a warranty-voiding bootloader unlocker, but we’ll worry about that later. What I really want to bring to light is the capabilities of this device.

The hardware is nothing to sneeze at – a quad-core Tegra 3, 32GB onboard storage with a microSDHC slot, a 1280×800 IPS display, an 8 MP rear-facing camera, and HDMI output. Add the keyboard dock to that, and you’ve got yourself a full QWERTY keyboard, multitouch trackpad, a full-size USB host port, an SDHC slot, and an extra battery. As of December 2012, the whole package can be had for around $500 USD. Not bad, considering that even the most expensive ultrabooks still don’t offer the all-critical touchscreen. And, of course, the Tegra 3 is far more battery-friendly than even a clocked down i5 or i7.

The software is where Android really starts to shine. I’m writing this article using the official WordPress Android app, which painlessly connected to my self-hosted WP installation and gives me an excellent, tablet-optimized interface for managing posts, comments, and other content and settings. In the four days I’ve had my new toy, I’ve already found a great file manager, RDP client, and multi-protocol instant messenger app. I can do everything on this that I could do on my Windows 7 netbook. The only thing you might say I’m missing is Photoshop, but that’s the best part – if there’s anything I really need to do without going over to my main desktop, I can just remote into it. The more I’ve used Android on a tablet, the more I’ve realized how much better the mobile OS experience is on a small screen.

Face it – low-resolution displays with full operating systems like Windows 7, OS X, and all-in-one Linux distros like Ubuntu are plagued with problems. Even a 1280×800 display isn’t optimal if you want to get to your widgets and use a lot of modern websites. A native Google Maps app in Android is light years better than using Google Maps in a browser when you’re using a small display. You can see more of your map and the entire experience is a lot smoother. Native applications for accessing message forums, Wikipedia, and blog sites make it significantly easier to consume that content compared to trying to use a standard web browser. Even light word processing is easier – as much as I love Microsoft Office 2010, the ribbon is just obnoxiously bulky on a low-resolution display.

So what’s the point of this monologue? Mobile devices are inevitably the future of personal computing for many consumers. That much is clear. What is less obvious is how important these devices should be in enterprise IT. The agency at the USDA I currently work for has been piloting both iPads and Android devices – including the TF300T – as a cheaper, more portable alternative to traditional laptops. And guess what? It’s working. We have Citrix environments set up for Android and iOS access, which gives users a complete workstation environment from a device that costs half as much as a laptop and provides twice as much convenience and functionality for the average business user. As these mobile OSes become more prevalent in the enterprise world, we will see more security and management solutions, similar to what has given RIM an edge for so long with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server product. The open-source nature of Android fundamentally makes it possible for businesses and government agencies alike to develop secure, locked-down versions for large-scale deployment.

What I think is even more interesting is to look at how little Apple has really adapted to this changing landscape. The company has become particularly complacent about the products that both revolutionized consumer devices and skyrocketed the company to the financial behemoth it is today. iOS has very little to offer business users compared to the expandability and customizability of Android. And, of course, this doesn’t even touch the threat that Microsoft presents to both operating systems with Windows 8 RT. Metro may not be wildly popular yet, but it’s a new product, and it’s only a matter of time before we see the same breadth and diversity of applications already present in Apple’s app store and Google’s Play store. It’s also very exciting to see the new convertible tablet ultrabooks hitting the market in Q1 2013, but again – part of the allure of the mobile OS is how well-suited it is for small, portable devices. Metro does that. The traditional Windows and OS X desktop doesn’t.

The iPad’s been out for just shy of three years now, but if you ask me, the tablet revolution is only just beginning. Devices like the Transformer bring the missing link – a real keyboard and mouse for doing real work – to an already fantastic product. I’m looking forward to other brands developing similar solutions, especially as Windows 8 gains traction in the mobile device market.