Rumors of the Tablet's Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Farhad Manjoo is disillusioned. In two recent New York Times posts, he's wondered aloud whether there is a real place for tablet computers in an era when phones are getting bigger and laptops are getting more portable. "Tablets have lately been suffering and identity crisis; there doesn't seem to be much to do on a high-powered tablet that you couldn't do better on a phone or computer," he writes.

Unboxing my new iPad Air back in November 2013

Unboxing my new iPad Air back in November 2013

Really? How quickly the advent of something shiny and new (<cough>the iPhone 6</cough>) makes us jaded about the previous coolest-thing-ever. It seems to me that there's a lot you can do on a tablet that you can't do nearly as well on a phone or a computer. Just to start:

  • Reading e-books
  • Reading newspapers, magazines, and comics
  • Consuming articles you've saved to read-it-later apps like Pocket
  • Web surfing (as opposed to more directed, work-related research)
  • Saving content to Evernote or Pocket (which is super-easy using the new extensions in iOS 8)
  • Video calls with family and friends via FaceTime or Skype
  • Reviewing photos (and basic photo editing)
  • Watching streaming or downloaded video
  • Navigating in Google Maps or Apple Maps (from the passenger seat, of course)
  • Note-taking (preferably via an external Bluetooth keyboard like Logitech's)
  • Reviewing e-mail (but not processing it -- a laptop really is better for that)
  • Playing graphics-rich games like Infinity Blade
  • Doodling / drawing with apps like Paper or Brushes

I've been a huge iPad fan since day one. (Seriously, I was 20th in line at the Boston Apple Store on April 3, 2010, when the original iPad debuted, and 15th in line at the San Francisco store on November 1, 2013, when the iPad Air came out.) It's my go-to device for lightweight information management activities, especially reading.

The truth is that I can't stand to read anything longer than a few hundred words on a laptop screen or desktop monitor. I also don't read much on my phone, unless I'm in a taxi or a grocery-store checkout line and it's the only device I have with me; the tiny screen just isn't conducive to immersive reading.

So if it weren't for the rise of the tablet, I'd probably consume a lot less digital content overall. The iPad screen, which is larger than the pages of most hardcover books, feels pleasingly capacious. And the device itself has gotten so light, at least in its iPad Air iterations, that the old sore-wrist problem (from holding it for long periods) is a thing of the past.

I'll admit that the iPad's unique advantages may be eroding with the advent of larger smartphones. I'm intrigued by the iPhone 6, which seems like it might be big enough to have iPad-like qualities when it comes to displaying text and photos. Then again, I was totally underwhelmed by the first iPad mini, partly because it seemed so small.

Critiques like Manjoo's overlook the rapidity with which iPads and similar tablets have invaded retail stores (where they're great as inventory management and point-of-sale devices), medical clinics, classrooms (though certainly not without controversy), and even airliner cockpits, where they take the place of the old "flight bag."

You don't see smartphones turning up as serious work tools in such environments. They've got roughly the processing power and the connectivity as tablets (and better cameras). But they don't have the screen real estate needed for information-rich tasks.

You wouldn't try to shrink a Rothko painting down to the size of a Renaissance portrait. So I'm puzzled by the new argument that bigger phones make tablets superfluous. My bet is that if you took away Manjoo's iPad, within a week or two he'd be writing a column about the the shortcomings of his phone and his laptop as devices for immersive info-consumption, basic data manipulation, and casual creativity.

Addendum, Nov. 3, 2014: I do agree with Manjoo's remark that there's been a slowdown in the creation of compelling new tablet apps. That's a sentiment echoed this week by experience designer Khoi Vinh, featured in a Wired report on LayUp, his new iPad app for designers. Vine says "I feel like there's a huge white space in the iPad market, in taking advantage of its specific capabilities." Agreed -- it's been a good while since anyone came out with something as new and intriguing as Flipboard, Paper by FiftyThree, or StarWalk. But we should probably keep in mind that the iPad has been on the market for only four years; the iPhone has a three-year head start. Developer interesting comes in waves, and it probably wouldn't take much (maybe just a few cool new apps like LayUp) to fall in love with the iPad all over again.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist