Angry Robot

The Shifting Middle

Ben Thompson writes

At the first iPad presentation, Steve Jobs was at pains to explain that the iPad would only work as a product if it found a spot between the iPhone and Mac where it did some number of things much better than either. […] Over time, though, that middle has shrunk.

Phones have gotten bigger and Macs have gotten smaller and get better battery life.

Last year I bought an iPad mini for the first time. Initially I loved it, and was thrilled that I could carry it everywhere I brought my bag. But increasingly I realize that I don’t use it that much. I mostly use it at home, where it might as well be the bigger iPad Air.

There are very few things the iPad can do that the iPhone can’t, and that’s why – when you’re out and about – you’re almost always going to reach for your phone. The iPhone Plus may well be just as good for reading, which is one of the main things I use the iPad for.

Thompson notes that “the downside of a bigger phone is reduced convenience and portability, opening up room for a device that is even more portable and always with you – the Apple Watch.” If you’re carrying a big phone that may not be usable one-handed, you can see why you’d want a smartwatch. A lot of my iPhone uses are relatively brief interactions that require a minimum of data presented: weather, figuring out when the next streetcar is coming, seeing a notification, fast forwarding a track. You can see how this could be taken over by something on your wrist.

Tablets are far from useless, however. I prefer a touch interface to a mouse or trackpad for many computer-y tasks (web browsing, feed reading, photo editing, music creation, games). Also, the sheer size of a tablet makes it better than a phone at other things (games, reading, video).

But it strikes me that a) I want the biggest size since it will only get used at home, b) I don’t need the newest, fanciest model, and c) maybe don’t even need it to be iOS. The video apps I use are all on Android as well – it’s really just games that would make me stick with iOS.

That is something Thompson notes: there was an opportunity for the iPad to define itself through killer apps, and Apple has mostly blown it. When you see a good iPad app, it’s impressive: all the fun and usability of a phone app, most of the power and real estate of a desktop app. The iPad is more of a computer alternative (and eventual replacement) than it is a phone. The middle hasn’t vanished, but it has moved, and may be swallowing one of its neighbours.

I realize these are dull first world problems for people who have more than one fancy gadget. Still, it’s interesting to see how computing changes over the years based on both tech and how people actually use the things.