When will the iPad replace desktops?

When will the iPad replace desktops?

Summary: While an iPad can't replace a desktop system today, it will be able to - for the vast majority of users - in 5 years. Not only possible, but inevitable. Here's how.


Moore's Law and the limited demands most users have on their systems will mean an iPad-sized device will have the power to run 98% of today's workloads. Even today the iPad's limitations are mostly software, not hardware.

Docking station deluxe Apple is already shipping the how: the 27" Thunderbolt Display. With a single cable to the display users get a gorgeous higher-than-HD 2560x1440 display, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire and USB ports, and a 40Gb/sec Thunderbolt port. Roll into work, plug in power and Thunderbolt cables and a Thunderbolt array and you've got more computing firepower than most workstations did 5 years ago.

Put a Thunderbolt port on a future Even Newer iPad and you're good to go. That's the easy part.

What workload? Most skeptics call out applications such as video editing - rendering, actually - music production and tech apps such as computational fluid dynamics as reasons that masses will never replace desktops and notebooks with tablets. But the masses don't use those apps today and they aren't about to start.

The most common corporate apps - Microsoft Office, email, browsers and project management - can be handled by any 1 GHz x86 or ARM processor. That's why notebooks are taking an ever larger piece of the market: even with slower processors, disks and smaller displays, they can do the jobs that most people need done.

The timeline Moore's Law is still doubling transistors every couple of years, and innovations like 3D chips are aiding performance. At that rate the current A5x dual-core processor in the New iPad will be a quad-core and twice as fast in 5 years.

NAND flash is also getting cheaper. So a 2017 iPad could have 256GB of flash storage - way more than what most people use - and 4GB of RAM for the same price as today's New iPad.

The limits I experimented with using an iPad to replace my notebook. It didn't work for me - but not because the hardware was too slow. A multi-tasking OS is required to flip from writing to research to mail to Skype to photo editing in a timely fashion.

True, transcoding and rendering video is slower than I'd like even on today's MacBook Air. But the rest of what I do is just as snappy as it is on my quad-core I7 iMac - or snappier - thanks to the MacBook Air's SSD.

Where the MacBook Air is today, the iPad will be tomorrow.

The Storage Bits take Desktops and notebooks aren't going away. But for the mass of consumers and corporate workers a dockable iPad with a multi-tasking OS and a larger external display will be all they need in 5 years.

If Apple can retain its current tablet market share - as they did with music players - they will own the PC market in 5 years. Soon Wintel's reign as kings of PCs will seem as quaint as IBM's '70s-era domination of the computer industry.

Comments welcome, of course. For heads-down computer workers - like me and, I suspect, many ZDNet readers, a stable and powerful workstation will always be preferred. But we're a tiny minority of computer users.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, CXO, Hardware, iPad, Mobility, Processors, Tablets

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  • *sigh*

    So, the ipad is going to replace desktops because it will eventually have a docking station.....like a notebook. Are we going to outlaw notebooks?

    Yes, for people who consume information, a viewing-only device like an iPad is sufficient. However, for people who create the data, there will always be a need for notebooks and desktops.
    Your Non Advocate
    • Viewing only? Hardly.

      You can already shoot and edit video, do page layout and spreadsheets, as well as email and browsing. True, you need a keyboard and a larger display for heads down work, but "viewing only?" Get with the times my friend.
      R Harris
      • Sorry Robin you are wrong

        While I agree that a person can do a lot of viewing on their iPad or other tablet it is now and remain an accessory to an actual computer for some time. Even now people say the iPad has replaced their desktop but load on apps so they can remotely access their desktop and use that so it is an accessory to their desktop.

        [quote]You can already shoot and edit video, do page layout and spreadsheets, as well as email and browsing.[/quote]

        Sure that is very true but it is so basic and limited that it compares to the power of office suites and tools of years ago. I think more people do much more advanced work in spreadsheets, page layout, and even in video editing than you think there are. If they are doing that type of work many will do the core content creation on their computer and then do the viewing and minor modifications on the tablet. Email and web browsing I will give you because that works well on most tablets.

        Of course there is always a chance an actual revolutionary advancement in tablet functionality could occur in the next 5 years but I choose to wait until there is actual proof of that happening instead of making up half-a$$ed predictions. Of course if you had a time machine then maybe this blog would be believable.
      • How many words per minutes does video editing work out to be?

        So, yes, it is for viewing only. And, just like a standard camera, it can auto-correct red-eye and a few other video tasks. Yet, no one is claiming that the iPAD is going to replace cameras in five years or that cameras are going to replace desktops in five years.
        Your Non Advocate
      • dedicated devices

        tablets and smartphones are like any other multipurpose device. They try to do everything ( Jack of all trades, master of none ). Sure you can take pictures and video with all these multipurpose handheld devices but for serious photographers, a true dedicated still or video camera can still run circles around them. And personally, I'd much rather watch a movie on my 52" Mitsubishi TV than ANY handheld device.
    • I am old enough to remember people laughing at the PC revolution

      I remember the then "Computer Gods" saying that PCs were good only for word processing and maybe a few spreadsheets, and they would never be able to compete with the Mainframes, Minis and Unix workstations. People said you could never do serious stuff on a PC. See what happened. Don't forget history.
      • RE: Don't forget history

        Yes and there is a lot more to an iPad that is limiting from being an accessory to a PC or a light use device. One thing comes to mind is it's screen. Who wants to work on a 9" screen for an extended period of time. Now it is possible that docking options could become available with more features and the software could mature but once you do that you have made it back into desktop PC. I know that since some bloggers think they can hook up a bluetooth keyboard to their iPad and type up their blogs they think anything can be done on an iPad but that is not the case. Some people it may be all they need but not the vast majority Robin is claiming and definitely not within 5 years.
      • Not with iOS though

        iOS and its walled garden from Apple is too restricting. A tablet with Windows maybe (x86/64, not ARM as WOA will be in a walled garden like iOS) or another most substantial OS but certainly not iOS.
      • Too true!

        IBM considered their first PC to be so much of a toy computer that they put a cassette tape interface on it for storage. Worse yet (for them), they made it completely non-proprietary, ceded the operating system to Microsoft, and essentially gave away a multi-multi-billion dollar industry of which they ultimately had no part.

        Ironically, now MS is in the position IBM was in 1980.
      • I also am old enough

        But look at what those mainframes, minis and workstations had for hardware and look at today's PCs. THAT is why you can do some serious stuff on PCs today. At the time, PCs had about 1/10th the RAM and CPU and Disk of a Unix workstation.

        I'm not saying that the tablets of today won't get there. But look at how long it took to get PCs to the level of the older hardware when those claims were made. It will take at least that long before tablets have that kind of power.
      • @nfordzdn

        Not only that, IBM used the less powerful 8088 8 bit cpu over the more powerful 8086 16 bit cpu.
      • I was there...

        And yes, I heard those comments as people scoffed at me for using a PC. Long term, the tablet might make inroads into traditional PC usage, other than content consumption. But the processors are currently too slow, they don't properly multi-task, they don't allow for quick data entry (without an external keyboard being attached) and they can't display multiple windows.

        It is more like comparing a Smart with an SUV and an MPV, the Smart is more economical and easier to manouver in town, so why would you buy and MPV or SUV? Because you need to carry stuff around or you have a family with more than two members.

        I see tablets, notebooks and desktops currently targeting very different markets. There is currently some overlap, but none of them is a 100% replacement for the others.
    • Ipad no but Windows 8 Slate & notebooks

      Ipad is a consumption device plain and simple it will not replace notebooks let alone desktops for data creation. Software, the need for an external monitor, and keyboard/mouse will prevent that. That said...

      A windows 8 Slate, built using the Transformer form factor ( Slate (*Tablet*), with a keyboard dock that has a large battery built in) could replace notebooks, not desktops. The reason for this is the form factor makes the Slate(tablet) an ultrabook/notebook. It addresses all of the issues above. Slates are typically larger screened and not 4:3, Windows 8 especially the x86 version will have full software support, the dock has keyboard and mouse support.
      • lol

        Windows tablet as a winner? Where is it?

        Dreaming, you must be dreaming, or are you really lying about Windows. Baby, you take Steve in your arms, and though you're wide awake you think your dream is coming true.

        The Danger is Microsoft
    • Hmmm

      Can't create on an iPad?
      You might want to tell that to the people who are making music and editing videos on Garageband and imovie, Avid Studio, and now iPhoto.
      • If your a hipster that likes lengthening your work time to look cool...

        The iPad is for you! Get an MBP or iMac if your looking to get those things done effeciently.
    • Windows 8 Slate on a Dual Monitor could easily replace a Desktop, not an iPad

      Right now, I work with a laptop and a dual monitor. I do 90% of my work on the monitor. I could see a Windows 8 slate being paired with a 24 inch monitor with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse and you are ready to go. The entire desktop would be running on the monitor and be very productive.

      The iPad, even if put on a dual monitor, you still wouldn't be able to run desktop apps.

      The iPad would only replace the desktop for users that use simple tasks that don't require desktop apps. Which I'd have to believe is the small minority IMO.
    • The future is already here with the Transformer Prime

      Desktops will not be replaced by tablets. They will be replaced by laptops. However, today's tablets will be replaced by devices like the Transformer Prime that has all the features needed to take it into a new category. It has a dockable keyboard station, multi-tasking OS, and you can easily connect it to an external monitor. No need to wait 5 years.
      • The transformer Prime is little more than a netbook...

        ... with a removable display. It hardly even qualifies for the name "transformer."

        That said, it's biggest advantage is its OS, not its hardware. Also, this comment like almost all those before it completely ignores the advances we make in technology every year. It is highly possible--in fact I expect it--that tablet OSes and desktop OSes will merge within these next three years to the point that laptops will become superfluous and the only reason to own a full desktop is if you have a full-time need for the larger display and increased processing power of the x86-series chips (or perhaps their successors if there are any.) Both Microsoft and Apple are showing moves towards making mobile computing more powerful by emphasizing their touch capabilities in a place where a keyboard is simply too much bulk. I'm not saying that tablets (slates) will totally replace desktops, but then, neither was the author of this article. Rather, it will replace the average users' need for one by offering acceptable computing power in a much easier to use form factor.
    • That is a good point. What does Apple use to design their iPad on

      Was the iPad 2 created using an iPad 1, or did they use more powerful PC's to do that? Was the iPad 3 designed and built using the iPad2?

      In the PC world (which includes Apple's Mac), each new PC was used to create the next generation PC.

      Is this the case with the iPad, or are they still using PC's to create next generation iPads?
      Tim Cook