iPad vs. PC debate shows the perils of tribal thinking

A comparison of platforms for encouraging innovation devolves into the tribalism that kills innovation, collaboration, and progress

My comparison of iPads and PCs as platforms for user innovation last week generated the level of controversy usually reserved for Coke-versus-Pepsi arguments or, if you're a beer drinker, less-filling/tastes-great brawls.

Usually, I leave comments to the commenters, figuring I already got the big space in larger type that preceded them. This time, though, I can't resist. Here, then, are the major themes:

[ Get Bob Lewis's advice on being a modern IT pro each week delivered to your inbox, with InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. | Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. ]

Claim No. 1: The next version will fix all of the iPad's flaws

I've been involved in product evaluations for more than two decades, and if there's one constant in the process, it's that vendors aren't allowed to say they provide a feature or capability because it will be in the next release.

Yes, the next iPad might work out of the box without first having to be connected to an iTunes-equipped PC or Mac. If so (as promised for iOS 5), that will be terrific. But you can't buy it now, and a promise isn't a feature you can rely on. Besides, this was a trivial aside, not a major argument against using the iPad.

To the individual who accused me of lying because you can, he asserts, use an iPad straight out of the box, two points. First: You can't. Check out Apple's online manual, where the first words in Chapter 2 (which covers setup) are "Connect iPad to your computer and use iTunes to set up, register, and sync content."

Second, and the more important point: When your friends (assuming you have any) make statements you believe are inaccurate, do you accuse them of lying, or is this something you do only when online? There are other possibilities, you know, like their being misinformed or being informed by different sources that disagree with the ones you consult.

Then there's the stylus question, which came up in the comments, and the commenters' answer, which was that Apple will at some point produce a high-quality precision stylus and all will be good. Even if Apple had promised this, it's not real until it's real, as I said before.

But my best guess is that Apple will develop a great iPad stylus when bacon becomes kosher. Steve Jobs has been highly vocal that using a stylus on an iPad is almost as heretical as using Flash. Sure, he might recant or rely on our collective amnesia as he pretends he never said any such thing. I'm not holding my breath.

Claim No. 2: Nobody ever said tablets will replace laptops

This was a popular criticism, along with its close relative, that nobody in their right mind thinks so, because Apple never said it.

I'm not even going to bother providing a link. Google it. Or just walk around without squeezing your eyes tightly shut. One of the most highly documented dimensions of the iPad's success is that it is replacing laptops for a lot of people. ("Supplanting" would be a better choice of words.)

If you disagree with the concept, join the club. I'm a founding member -- that was, in fact, my argument. To everyone who made the point that they're different devices serving different but overlapping purposes, I couldn't agree more. But if you think nobody ever made the statement because you disagree with it -- I can't say anything polite about that.

Claim No. 3: PCs aren't inspiring, but iPads are

Here's another statement I agree with completely. As mentioned, iPads are shiny. They're different. That can help people open their minds to new possibilities, as PCs did when they were first introduced.

Claim No. 4: iPads don't get viruses, but PCs do

I'm sure this is relevant to some conversation. But I'm even more sure it isn't relevant to the question of whether IT should encourage innovation on PCs, iPads, or both. If any laptop provisioned under IT's stewardship is unprotected, you have a lot more to worry about than which platform to choose for encouraging user innovation -- for example, your completely and utterly incompetent IT organization.

Claim No. 5a: Companies will write great apps for the iPad real soon now
Claim No. 5b: You don't need them because everything we need is in the cloud

The answer to retort No. 5a is the same as to retort No. 1. As for retort No. 5b, OK, my line about laissez-faire communism must have gone over a few too many heads. Let's try it straight up: The iPad's popularity is strong evidence that users don't consider the cloud to be all that desirable. Part of what makes the iPad attractive is that you can buy inexpensive apps, install them on the device, and run them locally, with or without a network connection.

People like being independent more than they like being tethered. This was true with the original PC, it was true for the original PDAs, and it continues to be true with tablets.

It's traditional IT where the mainframe mentality of central control and execution holds sway -- which brings us to this next point.

Claim No. 6: An IT person promoting user innovation is a hypocrite because a lot of IT departments discourage user innovation
Does this argument even need deconstruction? If it does, it's this simple: You can't tarnish everyone in IT with the same brush just because there are, in fact, backward IT people and organizations in existence.

Claim No. 7: Wake up and smell the coffee -- iPads serve an important purpose, and I'm a backward-facing change resister for saying anything negative about them
This is a fanboy's argument. iPads can and do serve an important purpose, but they would function better without the design flaws and limitations I mentioned, along with a few I didn't.

And to the commenter who argued that the iPad does have a file system (HFS.5), let me rephrase my criticism: The iPad has a file system Apple has hidden away to make sure it's of no advanage to anyone trying to use the device for actual productive work. It's there -- pointless, but there.

The perils of nuance-free, tribal thinking
Along with the previous week's piece on making the most of an iPad pilot project, last week's column was a look at what it takes to create an environment that encourages user innovation and provides tools to support it.

Doing so requires an ability to handle nuances -- to be mentally flexible. That's clearly easier said than done, as the comments last week show. Many might as well have been written in Tarzan-speak: "iPad good. PC bad. You not smart because me not like your answer."

Folks, I didn't call one of your children ugly, nor even your dog. I was comparing the suitability of two devices for a business purpose. This requires a more sophisticated analytical approach than tribalistic good/bad choosing of sides. Tribalism begins with the underlying assumption that we all have to choose sides and, having made the selection, can only say good things about our side and bad things about the other. I don't recommend it. Tribalism has several unfortunate side effects.

First, it's an inoculation that prevents comprehension. If I'm obligated to conclude that my side is always good and the other sides are always bad, there's no way I'll ever understand how things actually work.

Second, it prevents collaboration -- and business success depends on collaboration. When my side is good and the others are bad, why would I ever stoop to compromising with members of the other sides?

Third, and certainly worst, tribalism results in foregone conclusions and predictability, which in turn, makes them boring.

It's hard to imagine a worse outcome.

This story, "iPad vs. PC debate shows the perils of tribal thinking," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line and follow the latest developments in IT careers at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies