Can phones and tablets do "real work?"

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!