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Tablet sales will soon overtake PC sales. It doesn’t matter. Physical boundaries between devices are blurring to the point where a continuum stretches from smartphones through tablets to laptops.

The big disconnect isn’t tablets versus PCs, but mobile versus fixed.  

At Gigaom, Kevin Tofel reports Nearly 1 in 4 computers sold last quarter were tablets. Raw numbers show 28 million tablets sold in the last quarter compared with 88 million PCs.

Tablet sales are up 50 percent when compared to the same quarter last year. PC sales are down 8.6 percent. If those numbers carry on in a straight line – they won’t but bear with me here – then tablet sales will go past PC sales by early 2015.

That’s dramatic considering modern tablet sales began in 2010 with the first iPad.

It gets confusing when you look at the most recent devices to hit the streets. Apple’s iPad mini sits somewhere between a full-sized iPad and a large screen smartphone. As you go from small smartphones through to tablets, there are touchscreen mobile computing devices at every step from three inches to 10 inches.

Microsoft’s Surface may be a touchscreen tablet, but add the optional keyboard case, and physically it is close to an Ultrabook. Samsung sells a tablet that is essentially an Ultrabook with a detectable screen.

The only noticeable discontinuity in the device spectrum is moving from a large screen laptop to an all-in-one desktop. And given the lightness of today’s all-in-one’s even that step is no longer a huge leap.

Phones, tablets, PCs are not three markets. They are one market with a device spectrum.

Tablet wi-fi cellular landscape

Wi-Fi-only tablets outnumber cellular connected models by roughly 10-to-1.

We can argue about the exact ratio. The graph above shows data collected by US-based analyst Chetan Sharma up to the end of 2011. It shows a slight movement from Wi-Fi-only to 3G connected models – a trend which may have accelerated since then. And Sharma’s numbers are American – things may be a little different here in New Zealand.

While America has proportionately more free public access Wi-Fi hotspots than New Zealand, I suspect the overall pattern here is much the same.

Wi-Fi in all the right places

It makes sense. Most connected homes now have Wi-Fi, so do many offices. When you’re out and about there are plenty of coffee shops offering free or low-cost wireless connections.

Mobile data is great for smartphones. Most people use their phones while on the move and have the devices permanently switched on. Tablets are mainly used intermittently, for most of us the benefits of a 3G – hopefully soon a 4G – cellular connection are not as compelling.

Big savings from Wi-Fi only

It costs about NZ$200 more to buy a 3G-equipped Apple iPad than one with just Wi-Fi. In the case of today’s bottom-of-the-range model that’s a premium of more than 30%. Add to that the cost of feeding its Sim card and the sheer administrative hassle of dealing with an extra mobile account. This all adds up to a lot more cost for not much gain.

Most of us carry a mobile phone where-ever we go. At a guess I’d say for almost every tablet owner, that phone will be a smartphone.

Smartphones can easily act as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. So on the rare occasion when you find yourself needing a tablet connection and there’s no handy coffee shop, you can link your tablet to the internet using your phone. this is simple.

It may cost you extra to do this in the US, here in New Zealand there’s no extra charge. You will need to pay for the data consumed by your phone, but there’s no need for an extra Sim card or mobile account.

So, unless you have a specific need for 3G, buy a Wi-Fi only tablet and put the money you save towards a better smartphone.

Phillip Smith comments on my story about Microsoft matching Apple’s tablet pricing.

He argues the iPad is as different from the PC as the PC is different from the minicomputer. Smith goes on to say Apple has moved to the new era while Microsoft is still stuck in last-era thinking.

An interesting point.

I disagree partly because the post-PC era is so young, we still don’t know where it is going.

And anyway, Microsoft is having an each-way bet.

Microsoft’s double-edge strategy

There are two Microsoft Surfaces. One has Windows 8, the other has Windows RT.

Both Surfaces are closer to the PC model than Apple’s iPad. They are stepping-stones on the post-PC path. The iPad was a great leap forward. Although Apple and Microsoft are heading in roughly the same direction, their tracks are not parallel.

The Windows 8 version is, essentially, a PC dressed in tablet clothes. It runs PC software and will largely be used as a PC replacement. Microsoft’s subliminally emphasises this in all the promotional material – you almost never see a Surface tablet without a keyboard. Which is not a huge step from the Ultrabook.

The more tablet-like Windows RT device will only run apps from Microsoft’s app store and it offers better battery life.

Presumably corporations will love the Windows 8 tablet as it stays in their comfort zone. The RT device is more likely to appeal to consumers.

While many Surface customers will at least have considered an iPad before opting for Microsoft’s tablet. It won’t be true the other way around.

Think Ultrabook

You can connect the dots like this:

  • Old school PC,
  • Ultrabook,
  • Touch screen Ultrabook
  • Windows 8 Surface
  • Windows RT Surface
  • iPad.

Sure Windows 8 is a brave, risky, out-on-a-limb departure for Microsoft. But it is still Windows. It is still essentially a personal computer operating system. Even on a tablet. Even when reworked for touch controls. Maybe not so much with RT, but even that version is still a PC operation system.

Underlining this, Surface runs Microsoft Office. An umbilical cord back to the PC mothership.

Sure, there are people who use iPads like PCs, but one can also work on those devices in an entirely non-PC like manner. Theoretically that’s also a possibility on the Surface. I just don’t expect many Surface users will end up using it that way.

None of this is about one device being better or worse. They are tools designed from different philosophical perspectives and, best of all, they offer a real choice, not just cosmetic differences.

It took Microsoft until the autumn of personal computing to get its popular word processing software right for journalists.

That’s no co-incidence. Nor is it a co-incidence that Fairfax, Australia and New Zealand’s largest publisher, recently moved its journalists from Microsoft Word to Google Docs.

Challenges from a newer, simpler breed of computer hardware and the first serious software competitor in over a decade forced Microsoft to lift its game.

Today journalists have the tools we want. Not for the first time.

The bit where Bennett praises typewriters again

More than 30 years ago I learnt to type on a manual typewriter. At the time there was no such thing as a personal computer.

I owned a portable typewriter long before there were laptops. It made me feel like Ernest Hemingway.

Regular readers might wonder why I keep referring to typewriters. I see typewriters as the gold standard for simple, straightforward reporting.

Typewriters get out of the way of your writing. They don’t come between you and the words. They are efficient. They require discipline; you have to get the words right the first time because editing means hard work. This forces you to think better and to write better.

Computers do the opposite. They encourage mental laziness.

The ideal word processor is simple, essentially a typewriter that puts text on a screen instead of ink on a page. Nothing else. OK, maybe spell checking to catch typos.

Just about everything else is a distraction.

You mean a text editor?

Probably. I could just as easily use a text editor. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing this using the WordPress full screen text editor. There’s nothing on the page I’m writing but my words.

My favourite iPad writing tool works much the same way. It is almost invisible and feels just like using a typewriter.

The first word processors were much the same. WordStar was the first one I used professionally, a few years later I discovered WordPerfect. This was before WYSIWYG screens. Hell, it was even before computers had colour screens.

Both early word processors stayed out of the way. They’d let you cut and paste sections, make text bold, search documents and spell check, but they never came between me and my writing.

The move from MS-Dos to Windows killed the early word processors like a meteorite wiping out dinosaurs.

By the time the dust settled, Microsoft Word was the only plausible option. It was a slow, awkward beast. In those days few PCs were powerful enough to run complex programs like Word, so there was a lot of lag-time — what engineers call latency. Word was horrible to use.


Microsoft needed Word to be all things to all people. Which was a problem.

It meant Word contained far too many features and options that made no sense for a journalist. Mail-merge, page layout, proofing tools, collaboration stuff, indexes and long document features were all no use whatsoever when I had to get a story on an editor’s desk by 7pm.

Journalists don’t even care about changing typefaces. If we altered font sizes it was just to make text more readable on-screen in the days before zoom functions.

Word 2013 fixes all that

Over the years I’ve searched for Word alternatives that better replicate the typewriter’s feel and simplicity. I’ve found good tools including text editors. I particularly like a bare-bones word processor called Q10.

Meanwhile Microsoft did something interesting with Word. Since Word 2007, the company pared away at the cruft surrounding Word’s user interface. All the functionality and complexity is still there, but increasingly it is now hidden from sight unless you need to use it. The result is a remarkable less-is-more return to simplicity.

Word 2013 takes that further. The ribbon bar across the top of the screen now automatically hides leaving a bare clean screen. I use the draft view which is still less distracting and often hit alt-v then U to get the full screen view – like every Word user I’ve learnt a number of shortcut key codes.  This one gives me a perfect white page, just like a sheet of paper in a typewriter.

Word is now close to my gold standard.

Word 2013 beta woes

We’re not quite there yet. I’m writing here about the beta version of Word 2013 and found a couple of flaws which mean the word processor falls short of perfect.

First the early betas would have spectacular crashes. They wouldn’t just temporarily stop the computer working, damage the application or lose documents. In one case I had to reinstall Windows. Since those early days I’ve only seen one or two minor gliches, so presumably Word is largely stable now.

A problem with disappearing cursors remains. Sometimes the cursor drops out of sight completely, it makes it almost impossible to navigate and edit documents. This can be fixed with a reboot – at times two reboots – but that’s clumsy. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this by the time the official software launches.

Word 2013 on a tablet

Perhaps the most exciting feature of Word 2013 for a journalist is that it will work on a Windows 8 tablet – in fact Microsoft promises versions next year for other tablets.

It looks as if the PC era is drawing to a close, tablet sales are rocketing while PC sales decline, in a year or so tablet sales will go past PC sales. I used to worry that the end of the PC era might mean the end of decent portable word processing, now I’m excited by the prospect of Word 2013, a Windows 8 tablet, a decent wireless keyboard and SkyDrive cloud storage.

Together they add up to the kind of mobile digital typewriter I could only have dreamed of when I started out as a journalist. It took a generation but Microsoft, and me, are just a step away from the destination.