Last night I was perusing the Windows store for productivity apps and stumbled on the Syncplicity app. It is gorgeous, not to mention useful.
For those of you who aren't aware, Syncplicity is EMC's enterprise cloud file share and collaboration tool. There are clients for MacOS, iPhone & iPad, Android, Windows Phone, Windows (pictured right), and Windows 8UI (pictured left). There's also, of course, a highly functional web interface. Like DropBox, it is highly addicting to the end user.
It wasn't until I started using the Windows 8 UI client that I realized why we've invested so much in two different applications for the same operating system. It's because I actually use both on the same device: On my full-time laptop with a terabyte drive, I sync all the folders actively, and barely ever use the Syncplicity interface, just relying on the "engine" that replicates the data to and from the Syncplicity cloud. On my travel tablet where only have substantial, but nonetheless limited storage, I've installed both clients. I sync a handful of folders actively, and then rely on the Windows 8 UI for the rest of them.
This made me realize that the marketing is real. I truly do have a tablet when I want one, and a laptop when I need one. Syncplicity has exploited both. It also makes me realize that Apple has some important decisions to make in the near future.
Steve Jobs was very clear that iOS and MacOS solve two different problems, and in the context of the iPhone, he was right. The legacy of that thinking means that the OSes that originated for phones (iOS and Android) are designed primarily for content consumption. iOS is particularly unsuited for content creation as it lacks an end-user accessible filesystem - very handy for security, but makes it very clunky to do things that you barely even think about in a desktop OS environment.
Those lines get blurred in the tablet world. I've had Android tablets before, and my whole family (aside from myself) has iPads. I've never traveled with either as they all lack the functionality I need for multi-day travel (robust email, fully functional excel, word and powerpoint, VPN clients, etc). I'd sooner invest in a thinner, lighter laptop than a tablet that would add weight to my bag, but give me little added functionality.
Recently, I got an Atom-based Windows tablet. It gives me iPad-like battery life, is binary-compatible with Windows apps, and charges off a phone charger. It cost less than even a barebones iPad mini. It's not perfect, but it's a lot more versatile than the Android tab I have, or the iPads that my family use. Contrast that with iOS. As robust as its app ecosystem is, it simply doesn't have the functionality of a desktop OS, and I believe that there are architectural limitations that prevent it from ever doing so. So iOS and Android tablets are nearly always "second computers", whereas a Windows tablet can be a primary computing device (content creation) as well as a secondary device (content consumption).
I fully anticipate my next tablet will be my only computing device - in fact if I were willing to part with about triple what I paid, I could have an all-in-one Windows tablet as long as I were willing to compromise on some of the power in my current laptop. Apple does not offer an all in one device at any price point. Their users, no matter how loyal, I have to choose between a tablet and a general purpose computer.
Apple's immediate problem is that every consumer will need to refresh their general purpose computer at some point, and many will arrive at a similar conclusion: "If I still need a general purpose computer, why not get one that can be my tablet as well?" IT shops that haven't gone down the BYOD route yet will start thinking about the versatility of the devices they supply, along with whether they can use their existing toolsets for management. In either case, it's not a good thing for Apple. This is completely aside from the odd fact that Apple still doesn't have a touch-enabled MacBook. I was in a store a few weeks ago and watched a woman interacting with one of Apple's beautiful displays, and she instinctively touched an icon to open it. That's a huge red flag for usability, in my opinion.
So Apple will have to re-think Jobs' stance that iOS and MacOS are two different products for two different problems. Possible solutions include:
- Make the architectural changes to iOS necessary to make it into a general purpose OS, possibly forking the code so that there's a pro and consumer editions. I find this an unlikely solution, as the app ecosystem for content creation is heavily influenced by Microsoft.
- Touch-enable MacOS, and start developing convertible MacBook Airs. This is Apple's second-mover advantage - they'll surely learn from Microsoft's branding mistakes with the Surface RT, which poisoned Atom and iCore-based Windows tablet sales. But no matter they bring it to market, it's going cause some confusion and unhappiness among customers - particularly the loyal ones who want a MacBook tablet that will run the apps they bought for their iPhone and iPad.
- Do the same as above, but provide a virtualized iOS environment on the convertible MacBook Airs. I'm not entirely sure of the feasibility of this approach, but it's the one I would go with. In any case, I certainly wouldn't call it an iPad.
Whatever they choose, Apple's going to have to make a decision soon. The popularity of tablets have delayed the refresh cycle of consumer laptops - they certainly haven't made those laptops unnecessary. Eventually people will want to refresh their laptops, and Apple shouldn't want consumers finding out they can replace both their tabs and their computers with one device with Microsoft, but not Apple.