What ubiquitous computing tells us about PCs, smartphones, and tablets

What ubiquitous computing tells us about PCs, smartphones, and tablets

Summary: Conceptually mashing together PCs, smartphones, and tablets isn't a terribly helpful approach. An understanding of ubiquitous computing might help all of us understand the pros and cons of each...

TOPICS: Tablets, Smartphones

Looking back over 2012, one thing is clear -- over the total number of waking hours during that year, I must have spent 38% of them arguing (in a good way) with people over whether a tablet can be used for "proper work" and whether putting a keyboard on one is a good idea. This argument is about one thing -- are PCs and tablets so closely related that each one should be able to do what the other one does. Spoiler: no they're not, and no they shouldn't.

For me, this issue comes down to classification. I think it's easy to see one form of computing device and conflate it together with others. A PC, for example, has a processor, memory, and operating system just as a tablet does. And they can be used for similar things. If an iPad and a PC both have an operating system, why should one have a keyboard and the other not? Why should creating Word documents be within the domain of one and not the other?

The point is that a PC is not a tablet, and the tablet is not a PC. If we as technologists fail to hold this separation, it becomes hard to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of each and that makes it harder to make good decisions. What we really need is a better classification that more clearly defines the "PC" and "smartphones and tablets" as discrete ideas.


If you enjoy computing and enjoy the PC, you likely know about the story of Xerox PARC and the origin of the PC. Others have told this story much better than I, but here's a recap for the sake of argument.

The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is a research organisation operated by Xerox. Back in the 1970s they were doing some research into a new form of microcomputer designed for use in office environments. The researchers invented the WIMP user interface that we still use today together with the desktop metaphor and lots of other bits and bobs that we still use today. For me, this research group invented the PC itself -- although that statement glosses over the work that myriad companies did in order to realise the PC into an world-dominating product.

If we look at the early life of the PC, that type of device gained traction because it was identified as a device that could deliver efficiency improvements in commercial settings. (For example, an organisation might be better at managing their creditors with a single PC sitting in an office running accountancy software than if they used a paper-based system.) That "commercial efficiency" defines the essentially essence of the PC. That, right at the core of it all, is all a PC is -- it's just a type of device that can be tied back to a business case with the payout being increased efficiency. The fact that you can use a PC for stuff that isn't about corporate efficiency has more to do with luck and humanity's general ability to bend things designed to do X to do Y than anything else.

Ubiquitous computing

That classification adequately defines the PC, but without a good classification on the smartphones and tablets side, we're in danger of both groups conflating and mashing together. What we need is a way of drawing a similar boundary around smartphones and tablets.

Back to PARC then. In the 1980s, researchers at PARC started to talk about this idea of "ubiquitous computing", often shortened to "ubicomp". The phrase is attributed to Mark Weiser in 1988 when he was the PARC's Chief Technologist. (Weiser died very young at the age of just 47.)

The easiest way to grab your attention about ubicomp is to tell you that one of the central tenets is that it describes a computing environment that is made up of a large number of small devices which coexist in a network. Weiser and his team further subdivided those devices into three sets: tabs, pads, and boards. Tabs are supposed to be wearable devices, although I think that a modern view of these is that they are actually smartphones. Pads are supposed to be handheld devices. Remember how we all laughed back in 2010 when Jobs announced that Apple's new tablet would be called the "iPad"? Not only does no one laugh at the name now, but it appears that the name "iPad" was lifted directly from the ubicomp manifesto. Boards are less frequently found, but they are found in educational environments, and there is some precedent for this sort of device in Microsoft PixelSense (the table-format devices that used to be called Surface), and also in the acquisition of Perceptive Pixel, which is much more like what we'd consider to be a "board". We can tell from this basic definition within ubicomp that things that we call "smartphones and tablets" are defined clearly within the ubicomp vision.

Whilst that prescience is cute, what we're really looking for though is ways in which ubicomp creates a separating force between new types of devices like tablets and smartphones and from the PC. To do that, we need to get a little more wacky.

Ubicomp is supposed to be something that operates in the background of our lives. The likelihood is that, if you own a smartphone, you would have experienced this next concept thousands of times. Imagine that you're waiting in line at the store. You take out your smartphone, check your Facebook account, and put your phone back in your pocket. That is ubiquitous computing in action. The device is there, the network is there, but it's in the background. It's in your foreground awareness for as long as it needs to be, before going back into the background smoothly and without fuss.

That's a key difference between ubicomp and the PC. I've been at work now for about nine hours. Apart from a small break for a lunch, I've essentially been staring at a screen for that entire time. The PC isn't a background device -- it's a foreground device. The PC's tendency to be a foreground device comes from its commercial efficiency roots. When you're at work, you're supposed to be busy and you're using the PC as a tool. When you're using a ubicomp device, you're just using it for the period when you need to be using it whilst getting on with the rest of your normal life. (Of course, there's nothing to stop you from using a PC, turning away from it and using a smartphone in which case you're doing both. And there's also nothing to stop your digital life subsuming your entire "in real life" life, in which case what's background and what's not background becomes a bit fuzzy. But I digress.)

Next up is the idea that ubicomp is about "calm". This is related to the idea of a device receding into the background but has subtle implications of the user experience (UX) itself. The way this has practically worked through in ubicomp operating systems is by eschewing windowing operating systems and going for a single-serving approach. What "calm" means in this context is taking steps to not overwhelm the user both in terms of data presentation, and also in terms of the cognitive load involved in actually using the interface. A single-serving approach does this really well. Another way in which the user cannot be overwhelmed is by reducing the amount of intimidation by ramping up the security and trust on the devices compared to the PC. Thus, locking down devices and making them much more simple achieves this goal of creating "calm".

The final tenet of ubicomp is (literally) about philosophy. In a 1994 talk that Weiser gave he spoke about how in order to understand ubicomp you have to "start from arts and humanities: philosophy, phenomenology, anthropology, psychology, post-modernism, sociology of science, feminist criticism". Critically, he goes on in that talk to say "This is the most important part of the talk. You may not get it on first hearing. Patience". What he was trying to underscore here is that the sociological aspects of ubicomp devices trumps the technology. Features and specifications should have only have an impact on the design of ubicomp devices insofar as they're necessary to actually build the device. Ultimately, the user shouldn't care whether about things like does it have a dual-core or quad-core processor.

Personally, this mirrors my own experience. Whenever I talk to people about, for example, why being able to run Word on an iPad isn't relevant it's in this area where myself and that individual diverge. Yes, of course you should be able to run Word on an iPad -- it has a screen, a processor, memory, and an operating system, but if you do that it's unsympathetic to the ubicomp vision. Ubicomp is about one's relationships with others and also with oneself, not about work.


The reason why I wanted to do this piece on ubicomp was to try and show that as technologists our natural inclination to conflate PCs together with smartphones and tablets ignores a lot of very obvious work that happens to have come out of the same organisation as the PC itself. Whether or not its important that PARC invented the PC and ubicomp is something I've yet to make peace with. The more romantic-slash-superstitious side of myself tends to think it is relevant. The more scientific part of me wants to write it off as coincidence. But whatever the reality, the point is that these types of devices are different, with different histories, progenitors, and philosophies.

What I think we can learn from this is the importance of a deliberate separation. Without wishing to bash Microsoft's tablet strategy in Windows RT, Windows 8, and Surface, it does show what happens when you try and merge the world of the PC with the world of ubicomp. It's a bit like trying to cross-pollinate an aspidistra with a koala -- there's a fundamental problem with the genetics that stops you from achieving a sensible result. Windows RT fails miserably in achieving calm because there's so much of the PC world inherited into a ubicomp device and the PC world is not calm. One of the key things that Weiser and his team were looking to achieve with ubicomp was undoing the damage caused by the PC's lack of calm. Microsoft seems to have totally failed to get that. But, on the other hand, an understanding of ubicomp lets us appreciate more keenly what Windows RT and Surface is good at -- it's just a different sort of PC.

You may be expecting this, but iOS is a particularly good example of a ubicomp operating system, something which I attribute to Steve Jobs and Apple actually setting out to design a ubicomp devices with the iPhone and iPad. For what it's worth, trying to draw out from history whether Jobs was a student of ubicomp is more difficult than you would think. You can see evidence of ubicomp in Apple's design decisions throughout the company's life. (A salient point here is that Apple's whole ethos has been far less about building computers to drive commercial efficiency and much more about the user's relationship with themselves and others.) A nice illustration of Jobs seeming to be interested in ubicomp comes from the launch of the iPad 2 in 2011: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough -- it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices". That statement mirrors Weiser's own words about ubicomp quite elegantly.

For me, Apple's primacy in the technology market today stems from it being in harmony with normal people seeming to want to do computing in a "ubicomp way". In much the same way, Microsoft's primacy in the market stemmed (note past tense) from the market seeing opportunities coming from commercial efficiency improvements.

The question is, which part is the more important going forward. I can't see how it can possibly be the PC simply because there is much more non-work stuff than work stuff in our society. Ubicomp, FTW.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets, Smartphones

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  • Interesting

    What's interesting about this ubicomp philosophy is that if you look back, I don't think you'll ever see that Apple originally tried to sell the iPad as a "work" device. If I recall correctly, the original advertisements for it were pretty-much as an entertainment-lifestyle device. You watch movies and play games on it. You read books. You browse the web and perhaps listen to music. Incidentally, it has a build in keyboard/pad, but that's not important.

    All the while, Microsoft was poo-pooing this "non-productive" piece of hardware. I mean, you can't run Office on it, right? Who would use it? I remember seeing my friends who work at Microsoft posting images of new iPad (1.0 version) buyers on their Facebook pages and saying, "What fools...." I wondered why they considered this foolish as the iPad seemed pretty darn cool to me at the time.

    You're right. Microsoft still doesn't seem to get it. They just *have* to marry the form factor with *work*. You can't have a device you'd use simply for pleasure. Not only that, but it seems that in spite of Apple's best efforts *not* to have a device used for *work*, people are shoe-horning it into the office anyway.

    Actually, though. A Surface Pro might be perfect for someone doing graphics design. Put Adobe Photoshop on it...seems like that would work well. Likewise, tablets seem to be a good idea for doctors offices, etc.

    For me, it all boils down to what you want to do with the device. For me, a tablet *is* an entertainment/play item. Other than perhaps a specific work task such as graphics design, I would not need one for anything else.
    • Not only that

      But the sucess of the iPad in commercial settings comes primarily because it is unicomp device and not a "computer". It lets workers become more productive by working in the background.

      This is especially true for the management types, who could "afford" to not sit in front of the display 8 hours a day. This is the sole reason, why managers get iPads first, not the "toy" nature.

      It seems the world is already severely pissed of by the "PC", just as it was pissed of by the "mainframe" at the time the PCs took off. Nobody wants the "Tamagotchi" amymore. The "Tamagotchi" being defined as something that needs constant care, always tries to stay in your foreground and would "die" otherwise. The typical PC, running Windows, that is :)
    • Agree with you

      ...that MS has been trying to marry the form factor with work. It looks like they're now trying to find the next PC replacement, whereas Apple is continuing down the path of companion device.
      I understand and also agree with that philosophy. Not a single professional, in their right mind, will dump their desktop for a tablet. Ergonomically, at least, it would never make sense. However what the iPad has done, is show these office pro's that one does not need to lug around their laptop, along with wires and chargers, into meeting rooms anymore. With the right apps, an iPad (along with any tablet for that matter) becomes the perfect companion device.
      Same goes for other professionals, such as photographers. Their powerful desktops will remain in the studio for the heavy duty work. However he/she can now focus on carrying around their primary working tools, cameras, lenses, filters and if need be a companion device such as a tablet either to show off their work or preview it.
      There's many more real world examples where tablets make perfect sense not as a do all end all tool, but more as the right tool for the job at hand (along with the necessary app of course).
  • Great article!

    I truly enjoyed reading each and every one of your sentences. Wish more technologists could understand these things...

    • Good info, but...

      I stopped reading when poor grammar got in the way.
  • My thoughts

    Here are my thoughts:

    First you are bending history a bit, the PC was already populair before WIMP and iOS was based on Mac OS X, which is the OS of a PC or PC-like system the Apple Mac.

    You don't need lockdown, lockdown eventually just gets abused by the companies selling these devices and software. If this is gonna be the ubi-device, then I want more freedom as a user, not less ! What you want is what Linux distributions have delivered for years: only install trusted software from trusted sources by default. We are also seeing more and more sandboxes being used as a security measure or to run untrusted software. Even ARM-chips support full hardware assisted virtualisation.

    When you say these devices can't merge, then you are wrong. It is Microsoft which tried it, but got it wrong. I've been saying for years that the dockable smartphone is coming. Just like Ubuntu has a few days ago announced plans to create a smartphone which can be docked. And when it is docked it will allow you to use the device completely differently like a desktop machine. Microsoft tried to merge the interface, this was wrong. Ubuntu isn't trying to merge the interface. You have the same device with 2 seperate interfaces, probably running different applications as well. But the data stored on the device which you use might be the same and is replicated to the cloud.

    It is inevitable the PC, smartphone and tablet markets will merge. Because the technology exists or will exist in the near future. Just look at the Anandtech article about the hardware performance of the ARM Chromebook in comparison to the previous generation Intel Atom-based Chromebook. The ARM Chromebook was faster, more efficient and everything else.

    There are already scripts to install an Ubuntu desktop on the ARM Chromebook and it really can work as a full laptop (it is not yet as fast as a $500 or $1000 laptop, but did you really expect that with a price of only $249 ? But it is obviously as fast as a laptop of 3 years ago which was fast enough for most people).

    The chip in the ARM Chromebook is the same ARM chip which will be in the next generation high-end smartphones of 2013. This is also one of the ARM-chip which supports full virtualisation.

    So I guess I disagree.
    • docking your smartphone

      Why would you want to dock if your smartphone, ever? (provided, it has its full functionality without docking, that is).

      What you imagine is turning your smartphone into your PC. This is not what unicomp is about: it is about spliting your "PC" into multiple smaller and networked computers, each doing its own task, best.

      This "splitting" is what had been happening with the help of Internet for few decades now.

      Computers tend to decompose with time, as they become more complex and powerful. You just can't keep all the power concentrated -- we already lived in the mainframe era.
  • Not Quite There

    This is some excellent thinking, but there are at least two problems that I can see.

    1. The ubicomp concept of the board, and your interpretation there of

    2. Your attitude towards Windows 8 and Surface.

    One part that I like is your discussion of the concept of "calm" and the "single-serving approach". I have heard other describe this as one of the features of the iPad, and one that they like. Someone referred to the lack of distractions. You are focused on the one task.

    Now, the concepts of tabs, pads and boards can also be simplified as worn, even if it is in your pocket, carried, in hand or in a bag, and fixed, as in something that you walk up to and then walk away from.

    How is the board different from your PC? First, it lacks the single serving approach, as you discussed, but in any other way, once you turn it on, it is a board. It is there when you need it, and when you do not need it, you walk away. The biggest difference is in how we use it.

    If you leave your PC on at home, like I do, then it is a home board, except for the interface and I admit that is a big difference between the calm board and the PC. Except.....

    If you really look at Windows 8, you would see that the modern (nee Metro) interface is a single serving approach. Okay, yes the snap function allows you to do two, but the basic concept of Windows 8 no longer involves windows, everything goes full screen by default.

    Think about the commercial of the little girl painting on a Windows 8 All-in-One PC.


    This is the experience of a tablet in large form, and it is mostly a single serving approach.

    So, Windows 8 can be a calm, single-serving approach OS, just like iOS and Android and Windows Phone. It is, however, a dual headed monster, with the uncalm, old-school, multi-serving approach lying just beneath the Desktop button.

    The tragedy of Surface and Windows RT, is that it has even a vestige of that Desktop. I can only assume that Microsoft did not have time to create modern versions of Office and the other things you can access from Desktop mode, and I hope that the next version of Windows RT will kill the Desktop mode.

    Now, if we go back and look, Microsoft has covered all the bases of ubicomp. Windows Phone covers the tabs, Windows RT and Windows 8 can cover the pads, and actually either Windows RT or Windows 8, thrown onto a tabletop, or just an enormous touchscreen makes for a board.

    And, my actual dream is that I will be able to use all three, pretty much as if there were one device, just by getting them close to one another. The board would be my smart TV running Windows. I can stand at the screen and manipulate, or I can use either my Windows tablet or phone. Maybe throw Kinect into the deal and use gestures from the couch. But, just by getting them close to one another, each would be able to access content (I still want to say files, but I think content is more calm) from the others, as if that content was stored right on the device.

    I find that a much more desirable and likely scenario than anything I see coming out of Apple in the next few years. I actually think Android might be ahead in that game right now though.

    But, there is one last thing where I agree with you completely. Since the coming of the iPhone, I feel that Apple has been concerned with the idea of making technology both invisible and personal. The technology of the device is unimportant, and they have created devices that people seem to have relationships with. Personally, I find that a little scary, but it certainly has been successful for Apple.
    • Microsoft Office

      Actually, the Office developers could not figure out how to make an interface that suited the Metro environment for Office.

      If users really need 2 or more different environments as suggested by the article then it isn't very strange they couldn't make that kind of application fit.

      Calling the Metro interface calm is just hilarious. With all the bright colours, it just screams as you.
    • Re: basic concept of Windows 8 no longer involves windows

      This is the biggest mistake Microsoft made this century. They should have not named it Windows. This utter confusion could have been avoided.

      I agree with you, Microsoft has covered all bases. On paper. On theory.
      However, they are not good in any of these areas. In any business, in order to be successful and lasting, you need to stay focus.

      The most fundamental issue Microsoft does not understand is that you do not need the same OS/platform on all device types. You only need interoperable protocols. This is what the Internet is based on and this is why it is so sucessful: removing the homogenous requirement and requiring protocol interoperability.

      Why would you want your TV to run Windows, or any user accessible OS at all? All it has to do is support one or more protocols for what it does (displaying still or moving images). Such protocols already exist, AirPlay, WiDi, etc.

      The 'brain' behind all this might be indeed a computer running Windows. Somewere in your basement and communicating (wirelessly, if possible) with your TV, your Kinect HID, tablets, phones etc. None of the other devices needs to be running Windows, though.

      Think about it.

      Computers are here to serve you, not for you to serve them. If you need to care for an Tamagotchi, that's entirelly different story. :)