Can phones and tablets do "real work?"

Can phones and tablets do "real work?"

Summary: Some readers were skeptical that "real work" could be done on a tablet. Get over yourselves! People did "real work" even before computers were invented.


In Will iPhones replace desktops? and When will the iPad replace desktops? I touched a nerve with some people who dismissed the iPad as a "viewing device" and missed the larger picture: a tablet has a network, a display, a CPU, storage and runs programs. It is a computer and it can do real work.

Will tablets and smartphones wipe out notebooks and desktops? No, no more than PCs wiped out servers and supercomputers. But let's step back and think about what "real work" really is.

It's simple Charles Babbage, who conceived the first stored program computer, sold it as a tool to compute astronomical and mathematical tables. The first general-purpose electronic computer in the US, ENIAC was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory.

Babbage's Difference Engine and ENIAC had 2 things in common: they were, by today's standards, dreadfully slow and a massive advance over less automated methods. Despite its size, cost and inflexibility the ENIAC was capable of "real work."

Fast forward to the first PCs. With 8 bit processors, 16k of RAM or less, single-tasking operating systems and tape drives for mass storage they had less compute power than a microwave oven today.

But stick VisiCalc, the 1st popular spreadsheet, on one and finance and operations geeks could do "real work." Yes, the UI was pathetic, performance arthritic and storage capacities laughable, but people did "real work" on VisiCalc.

Hot Box Or take the hot FORTRAN box of the early 80s, the DEC VAX 780. Standing almost 6 ft. tall and about 8 ft. long, this $300k machine typically supported 8 heads-down coders. All with a 5MHz 32-bit CPU, 8-12MB of memory and less system bandwidth than your handy USB thumb drive.

Can you even buy a microcontroller with such low specs today?

The Storage Bits take Of course the critical element in most computer systems isn't the CPU but the I/O. That's why the iPad's main I/O subsystem, the Retina display, is a big deal: it quadruples the bandwidth to the human eye.

What I suspect readers mean to say is "I can't imagine doing the work I now do on my desktop/notebook today on any tablet or smartphone." And that's largely correct.

What the "real work" on a tablet looks like will be very different than "real work" on a notebook. It will be touch - not keyboard - based, intensely visual, highly interactive and optimized for on-the-go and short action cycles.

People with those needs in health care, law enforcement, emergency services, field workers and media creation are obvious candidates. But new uses and users will emerge as well.

Yes, it won't be your work that gets done. But to the people who use it, it will not only be real, but wonderful too.

Comments welcome, of course. In grad school I did "real work" on a programmable calculator. Never again!

Topics: Mobility, CXO, Hardware, Laptops, Processors, Storage, Tablets

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  • Real Work

    Is actually easier to do on paper than on a tablet or a phone, except for things its impossible to do on paper, like email.
  • "Real Work" usually means "The work I do not others"

    So there you go.. IF I can't do the work I require then the device can't do real work:) It's not based so much in logic as emotion.

    Pagan jim
    James Quinn
    • I Disagree

      Even if what you stated were true of people, that doesn't make it based on emotion rather than logic. It makes it based on personal experience rather than imagination (that's not a jab; you should be willing to use imagination to put yourself in another's place).

      However, most people mean that you can't do things that require a lot of input well enough on a tablet. For example, reading email can be part of your job and completely necessary, that doesn't make it "real work" in people's minds. Most people who would do well with a tablet as their main computing device don't use a computing device to do their "real work." Their "real work" is management, or sales, or driving a truck, or something else like that. That is, it is something that involves people or something else other than the creation or processing of data. The tablet is great for referencing the data they need or the organization of their real work, but their real work doesn't directly involve the tablet.
      • Creation too!

        As an example: you are being rushed to the hospital. The paramedic is using an iPad app to record symptoms, vital signs and treatments administered, all of which are mostly from drop down menus or voice recognition. The amount of data created isn't large, but its timely collection and dissemination are critical to a good outcome.

        There are lots of situations in health care like this, where verbally transmitted data just doesn't reach the right person at the right time, resulting in 10s of thousands of deaths and many more injuries. The apps have to be built, but the data creation doesn't have to be a spreadsheet to have real economic value.
        R Harris
      • Creation data

        OK, so you came up with a use case for a tablet-footprint data collection device. And, it is quite valid. However, I cannot help but pick at nits here.

        In the EMT example, medical equipment can already collect the data and transmit it wirelessly. Rules and regulations for medical devices are extremely stringent. Creating a medical grade voice recorder in a tablet format to replace existing FDA approved equipment is a small niche market.

        But again, this is not quite the same thing as "data creation" in much the same way that Symbol bar code scanners are not "data creation" devices but "data collection" devices.

        So, yes, a tablet is a useful form factor for data collection, just like a bar code scanner. The UPS guy already has a "tablet". The 7-11 clerk already has a "tablet" with a bar code want. But these types of niche solutions are just that. wireless bar code scanners do not replace PCs.

        So...fundamentally we may be stating the same thing here. We differ on the definition of "real work". The mic and the camera are useful data capture devices, but are not real "data manipulation" devices.
        Your Non Advocate
      • Sorry Robin, that example doesn't count

        Most people are not paramedics so you are talking about a niche market. Niche markets don't count.

        Please try again.
      • A Paramedic's "Real Work" Isn't Data Input

        A paramedic's "real work" isn't data input. It's providing emergency medical care and delivering you to a hospital. Yes, communicating symptoms is important, but noticing them is the part that takes a paramedic's expertise.

        A survey taker of some kind would be a better example, but as I said in my other post, a tablet is only best in a situation where the convenience of mobility outweighs input efficiency. Even a survey taker is there to find and make contact with people more than to just input data.
      • @R Harris .. i can partly agree on your first paragraph

        - it's actually partly feasible. But your second, anecdotal, sensationalized - and not backed with any data whatsoever paragraph ... not so much.

        [i]" ... There are lots of situations in health care like this, where verbally transmitted data just doesn't reach the right person at the right time, resulting in 10s of thousands of deaths and many more injuries. "[/i]

        Do you have official, industry recognized, independently vetted statistics to support your claim? Y'know, i'm going to say your second paragraph is mostly baloney. Now, just to clarify: according to Harris, all the data transfer delays, latency, personnel mis-communication - and malpractice - is attributable to *not having* a tablet handy??? Okay, right.

        ... Wow! Thanks for the heads-up genius ... there's nothing else for it but for us to all go with the suspension of disbelief thing and ditch all our other computing devices and bow to Harris's "superior powers of deduction and logic".

        You know what? On second thoughts, i think i'll go with the 'less logical' choice and stay with the Cheetos and an ice cold beer.
  • Honey, I shrinked the scanner, PC, camera and of course.... Telephone

    I used my smart phone to complete my unfinished work, my Android with the help of TeamViewer installed on it. I was able to complete a lot of work while travelling back home. On the other instance, I needed to scan a lot of documents and couldn't find anywhere close. I used my smartphone to capture the image - make it as a PDF and uploaded instantly. With Dropbox, I have the data syned to my work PC, office laptop, Home laptop and my smartphone, helping me to update the document while I am travelling. The easiest most available device which is switched ON is ALWAYS your phone and it really helped me a lot. On another instance, I could ping my colleagues for an urgent issue while I was on the Lift. Not all the time would I want to make myself available. With awesome technologies, comes more responsibilities.
    • Yeah! Back in the day I remember a Palm ad on TV

      A new employee was given the tour of the new facility he'd be working at. In the process he's handed a Palm phone and told of all it's abilities and the cut line was "It's like having your office with you 24/7" I remember think my reaction would be to drop said phone and grind it into the floor using the heal of my shoe" Then none pulsed look up at the manager/tour guide and say "No thanks. Where is the break room?"

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
  • ummmmm, OK....

    "Will tablets and smartphones wipe out notebooks and desktops? No, no more than PCs wiped out servers and supercomputers." Great, at least you stepped back from that statement.

    "But let???s step back and think about what ???real work??? really is" OK, lets do that ... please.. but you go into some weird discussion about Charles Babbage and visicalc? Why not mention the Antikythera Mechanism too?

    How about this analogy. The shovel was not replaced by the backhoe, we still have shovels. But the Apple Ipad will replace both backhoe and shovels for moving dirt.

    Granted, you mentioned a few use cases where data consumers have the ability to look at Business Intelligence and data mined information. Yet, you did not mention how the data producers are going to create the data in the ipad footprint.

    And that -- fundamentally -- remains the issues. The ipads are great devices for the consumption of data. They are poor devices for the creation of data. Especially data created for consumers who need it in health care, law enforcement, emergency services, and field workers

    Do you honestly believe that an ipad is a suitable input device for a 911 call center or that medical research clinical studies will be performed on an ipad?

    It's nice to see you back away from the earlier claim that we live in a Post-PC world with the desktop is dead. But, you still have not highlighted how the iPAd is a useful form factor for manipulating Big Data.
    Your Non Advocate
    • It's not difficult to find specific area's where a tablet and or smartphone

      would not fit at least in todays world. Of course someday when true voice recognition/control comes into being that might change as well:) The point being yes you can do real work on a tablet and or smartphone and by that I mean something you get paid for. Not all real work but at least some real work.

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
  • Real Work

    Depend in what real work means to you.
    If for you "real work" is read emails, watch a movie, lisen to music or type a 485 word post on zdnet...then you are fine.

    For most people I think real work is something totally different.

    You can do real work with an iPad when you remote desktop to a windows pc.
    • Or a Mac:)

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • Yes

        Yes..or a Mac
    • Be more specific

      What can't I do with my phone or tablet that a majority of the world would need to do?
      Michael Alan Goff
      • The majority of the world?

        The vast majority of the world does work that doesn't require iPads, iPhones, or PCs. Therefore, none of those are required?

        I have an iPad and I can do "real" work on it in places where I can't do "real" work on a laptop or PC. I'm not as fast at performing that work however, even with my bluetooth keyboard.

        The majority of people who work in offices or work at front counters and are able to have a desktop available are going to be more productive with that desktop than they would be if you took their desktop away and gave them an iPad. iPad allows you to be productive in new places where productivity was not possible before but if that is not a requirement of the job then iPads will make you less productive.

        So that is why I believe iPads will not, for a very long time, replace desktops or laptops. For the majority of the world that is currently using desktops, taking away that desktop and replacing it with an iPad would make them less productive. For those who must be very mobile and could benefit from using a computing device without being "tied" to a desk, iPads help.
      • That depends...

        You forgot to include such minor details such as:

        "What do you do with your phone or tablet?"

        "Who pays for the connectivity?"

        "What happens if I go over the allotted bandwidth to do my work on?"

        But especially that first question - what do you do? Then we can go into further detail, where it won't take long to put out forms of work that these toys cannot do.

        After all, even Siri does nothing more than send recorded voice over the network to a server farm. The phone is doing virtually nothing. Some Siri users think the phone does all of the work and they couldn't be more mistaken. (In short, phrases like "Smoke and Mirrors", "Bait and Switch", you name it, will be around for some time...)
      • Trying to be more specific

        I work in a Hospital (mid size...2500+ PC.., ~600 beds)...
        We used Unix, Linux and Windows Servers....Virtual/Racks...etc

        Just the program to process/storage/view x-rays, and mri...NO iPad can do this...maybe show the image and zoom in and out...with some lagging for sure...
        We use tools to create and distribute really complex reports (Crystal/SQL reporting services) NONE of this reports can be created/modified using an ipad ...You need a mouse, keyboard, and multiple monitors setup to be efficient..plain and simple.
        The dbs (mumps/oracle/sql server) in the hospital stored everything since you step into the hospital, from the prescription you take, who order the drug and who give the drug to you in what day and time..what food you eat in the hospital....medical records are really detailed. How many words per minute can you type in a touch screen.

        Pick ANY industry...
        - Video Games (I a fan)...Uncharted/Gears of War/skyrim created using ipad...I don't thing soo.
        - Movies. No way they are going to use ipads to create cgi.

        When you are watching a movie, playing a game your are not are enjoying the results from real work using PC/Mac...
  • Yes, they can!

    Currently, most software that allows one to do 'Real Work' is designed for PC/Mac desktops and laptops.

    Once tablets are more accepted into business, 'work' software will start getting designed for tablets.

    Before 2008, my work REQUIRED a laptop/desktop. In 2008, I went on my honeymoon with a laptop and an iPhone. Two days into the honeymoon the laptop died. For the remainder of the honeymoon, I managed most functions of my business using the iPhone. Few function weren't possible.

    That spurred me to redesign all my business's functionality to be doable on an iPhone or iPad and now, I'm one of those who can do 'Real Work' on nothing more than an iPhone.

    And most businesses will do the same. Future software development will have to take into account the new reality of the existence of smart phones and tablets and people will encourage such development as it allows them more freedom.

    So yes, currently, phones/tablets can do a good deal of 'real work' and giving it enough time, phones and tablets will be able to do way more 'real work'. The appropriate software will be sought and smart software developers will exploit the new field of tablet/smartphone business software.

    However, just like you can't use a car these days to haul dirt in a mine, some jobs will always require full fledged keyboard/mouse/monitor PCs/Macs.