Apple’s iPad 3 launch later this week has dragged the “PC killer” speculation back out into the open, with the third-gen iOS tablet expected to further trounce traditional computing as shoppers vote for fingers not mice. It arrives to an increasingly crowded market, however, with not only Android tablets mustering for a second wave, but Windows 8 waiting in the wings. Both platforms will bring potent hardware to take on the iPad, too. As PC manufacturers – especially those of Windows-based tablets – have discovered, though, there’s more to challenging the iPad than throwing specs at it.
There’s a lot of argument over what, exactly, a PC is. Some have a relatively defined explanation: a Windows-based desktop, laptop or netbook, definitely not a Mac or a tablet. Others are more open: a Mac desktop could be a PC – a “personal computer” – even though it runs OS X, though an iPad wouldn’t be considered a PC. The distinction is variously based on form-factor and software and processors, though Apple’s pack-leading sales success has scythed through much of the confusion and given consumers something of a beacon to cling to.
The iPad 3 seems set to continue along that path, though Windows 8 will muddy the form-factor waters significantly. There’ll be the regular desktop and laptop models, of course, but Windows 8 is Microsoft’s keen play for the tablet market too. It’s counter-productive to package them off separately, though: some will be full Windows 8 machines running on x86 processors from Intel and AMD, while others will be Windows-on-ARM models, running on chips from NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others.
The former will be very much like keyboard-free notebooks, capable of doing everything your Windows 8 desktop can, while the latter will be more appliance-like, trimming flexibility in the name of ease-of-use and prolonged battery life. Are they both PCs, though? Are only x86-based Windows 8 slates truly PCs?
Boiling down definitions to form-factors or software isn’t particularly helpful. Neither is branding something a “killer” product solely because it looks different. The sluggish growth of the PC market is unsurprising, because it’s another sign of differentiation becoming affordable. Ten years ago computers were relatively expensive: you had one of them, most likely, not a laptop and a smartphone and a tablet and maybe a desktop too. Now you can pick up a laptop for less than a base-level iPad. This isn’t about price, it’s about functionality and needs.
"The iPad 3 is likely to be faster and more graphically skilled"
For some, the iPad satisfies their needs. It’s capable of great browsing and multimedia playback, has a wealth of third-party apps to choose from, and is increasingly able at content-production rather than just consumption. The iPad 3 is likely to be faster and more graphically skilled: it’ll be even stronger competition for casual gaming devices and the like.
Those for whom that sums up their computing usage have a decision: they can opt for a “traditional PC” or pick an iPad instead. Those who need something outside of that skill-set can opt for a more traditional computer. Finance has become less of an issue; they could in fact choose to pair a cheap desktop with a tablet, or a gaming notebook with a tablet, or any combination.
Shrinking PC sales is an inevitability, as users spread themselves across the various options. Some won’t need the flexibility – and potential headaches – of a traditional desktop or laptop; for them, a tablet will be sufficient. That’s down to usability, though, not mere specifications, and Android and Windows 8 OEMs will need to make sure they’re doing more than just out-playing Apple on the spec sheets if they want to stand a legitimate chance in the marketplace.
A “personal computer” seems a pretty good definition for the iPad, all in all. Perhaps rather than simply branding it the triumphant PC killer, we should be spending more time looking at how demands made of digital hardware have evolved, and how the iPad’s combination of form-factor, software and specifications are increasingly ticking boxes for everyday users.
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Writing for R3 Media since 2006, Chris Davies is currently executive editor for SlashGear, Android Community and the other network sites. Based in London, UK, he's responsible for SlashGear's editorial decisions and covers all forms of consumer technology. You can follow him on Twitter.