No niche for iPad: A cautionary tale on 'needing a purpose'

Tablets are slowly but surely replacing the clunky desktop machine. In a blind effort to increase efficiency and productivity, ZDNet's Zack Whittaker attempted to do exactly that — but not with the result he first expected.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on

After almost two weeks with the latest iPad, I walked back to the Apple Store in Grand Central, New York and handed it back to the blue-blazoned staff hipster who greeted me at the top of the stairs. 

"Was there something wrong with it? And, do you need a replacement? We can get you a replacement, no problem," signaling to holler over a fellow colleague. But I declined.

"There's nothing wrong with the tablet," I said. "I suspect it's actually a problem with me."

Within the 14-day period in which Apple consumers are granted a stay of financial relief on their purchases, I returned my tablet not with a heavy heart but nonetheless with a feeling of disappointment in myself. It's not that I didn't like the iPad. The build quality was excellent, the software functionaliy was superb, and there was nothing but the highest of intent for burgeoning productivity potential.

It was that I simply didn't need one. And not just an iPad, a test case as it turns out, but any tablet for that matter.

Cue the back story. 

Tablets fulfil many requirements and uses. So long as you can find at least one.
Image: CNET

I fell into the Apple ecosystem. At first, anyway. But I don't think of myself as an Apple user. I am the kind of person who will use whatever tools that are necessary for the job in hand. It just so happens that I've become accustomed to the way these devices work together, just as other same-brand ecosystem devices do.

Almost two years ago I bought a MacBook Air. Still to this day, it has become a crucial, necessary, ultraportable laptop that has, granted with its occasional failings, has served me well. The battery life is acceptable, so long as certain conditions are met, but in spite of the likely unique gripes rather than hindrances, it's a fine piece of kit.

But above all else, OS X was the driving force for change. Gone are the days where apps weren't available. That's the cloud's business now. And thanks to the App Store, many previously unavailable apps have migrated to the Mac. 

Pleased with the design and the quality, but above all else the OS X operating system that had become so simple to use yet powerful by design, I ripped out the cords on my desktop machine — that whizzed and whirred in the corner of my home office with a subtle yet constant background-fading drone — and I replaced it with a Mac mini.

It was all too easy. I looked for a catch, but there wasn't one. 

A staunch Windows user for my adolescent and early adult life, there should've been a level of discomfort and disconcertedness. But there wasn't. With fond memories of blue screens and translucent windows, I began to prefer a sense of simplicity.

The last step was my eventual move to the iPhone, albeit for a second time. The first was not the best of experiences but as a result of my confidence in the Apple ecosystem, I thought it was at least worth another try. And it was worth it. 

We can tick off the MacBook Air, the Mac mini — and all the peripherals to really go all-in — and the iPhone. (In between, I'd also bought an Apple TV, but it just makes sense when you're downloading TV and movies). The next logical step, surely, was to get an iPad.

With glee and excitement, I picked it up from the Grand Central store the following day on my way to work. I configured it, I synchronized my music, my pictures, apps and everything else. 

And then I went back to work. 

Not on my iPad, but my MacBook Air, which I take with me to work. I took my iPad home and it was sat there on my coffee table for three days until I picked it up again. It wasn't that I was avoiding it, and I wanted to use it, but I didn't have any particular reason to use it. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the iPad. And, I suspect there is nothing particularly wrong or different with any other tablet. It simply doesn't fit into my lifestyle.

My iPhone is my primary email communication device, plus my music. That sticks me firmly in the "prosumer" category. But because of my job, I require a keyboard. Granted, typing on the iPad is not the most difficult thing to do in the world, but it's less natural than a keyboard. I'm automatically drawn to a keyboard.

That said, it's a fine device but I have, as part of my one-brand ecosystem, other devices that at least for me are better suited for purpose.

Even for "play" and non-work reasons, there was nothing drawing me to it that I couldn't already do on my ultra-portable iPhone, my keyboard-enabled yet still light and portable MacBook Air, or my work-personal life separating Mac mini that allows me to walk away from it at any point.

If I were a financier, a marketer, or an artist, a tablet may be perfect. But not for me. 

And you know what? That's OK. It's my problem, and not the fault of the tablet. 

While there's an obvious point: "Why did you buy it in the first place?" The simple answer is: you often don't know how something is going to fit into your lifestyle unless you try it first. 

There are, believe it or not, some business takeaways from this. After all, as a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) employee and a "prosumer," much of these apply to me as much as the wider general business population.

The key takeaways:

  • Don't rush into a tablet-buying decision. As simple as it sounds, don't get caught up in the trends. If you're a CIO or IT buyer, above all else find a purpose for investing in tablets. Survey your staff, or monitor BYOD usage.
  • On that note, BYOD should be actively encouraged first and foremost. It cuts down on IT budgets, particularly if you invest in a back-end mobile device management (MDM) solution to organize and secure those tablets. Any formal corporate tablet rollout should come second. It gives staff the flexibility to bring their own device first before IT spenders fork out precious budget for something that may not be used.
  • Don't discount the PC yet. Latest market figures suggest that there is a massive consumer decline in PC shipments. But enterprise and business figures are still widely unknown. Anecdotal reports suggest that PCs are still core to desk-work productivity, which makes sense as tablets can suit one industry and not another. Also, people love using tablets for sitting on the sofa and winding down. Any decline in PC shipments in the enterprise is likely to come in the coming few years. Never underestimate the power of a physical keyboard.
  • Finally, while iPads may be recognized as "the" tablet for business and enterprise customers, following successful major deployments across the banking and finance sectors — besides government, it's considered to be the most security-focused industry — but don't put all your eggs in one basket. Smaller and cheaper may be more effective and efficient, and a widescale iPad rollout may not justify the costs. Get a small test pool in order and rotate across staff to determine which device is better suited for different kinds of workers.
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