Why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet

It's as facile to say iPads can replace PCs as it is to say they can't -- the story of mobile apps isn't black-and-white

If mobile computing is displacing traditional PC computing, where are all the business apps that do on an iPad or Galaxy Note what you can do on a Windows PC or Mac? It's a question my boss asked me six months ago, and thus, I went searching for a gallery of business-savvy mobile apps. I found the usual small set: Apple's iWork suite (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) and Google's Quickoffice Pro for office productivity, and client apps for cloud storage (Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and so on), social networking (HootSuite and so on), CRM (Salesforce.com, SAP, and so on), Evernote, and FileMaker Pro.

However, there were no killer apps that show mobile pushing into bold new directions. I haven't found many examples of homegrown apps, either, for use by enterprises. What gives?

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There's more than one answer to that question, and as a group they paint a fascinating picture of the evolution of apps as the definition of personal computing expands way beyond the PC we've known and loved since the early 1980s.

There's no reason mobile apps can't be powerful
A common knock on mobile apps is that they can't do what a PC app can do, that they're basically limited to information access, what pundits call "consumption." That's pure BS.

I find, for example, Apple's Keynote for iOS a much better tool for creating high-impact slideshows than Microsoft PowerPoint or even Keynote's Mac version. It's amazingly powerful and well-suited to an iPad's touch environment. Omni Group's OmniFocus task manager and OmniGraffle diagramming tool are of a similar caliber. Apple's iMovie is widely used by video journalists on their iPads because it works very well for editing videos. The music industry is replete with iPad tools for music editing and sound engineering, such as Apple's GarageBand and Korg's iElectribe -- so much so that iPads are becoming the preferred devices for many musicians. There are also amazing photo editors on the iPad, including Apple's iPhoto, Google's Snapseed, and Omer Shoor's Photogene.

At the next level down are decent editing and creation tools, such as Apple's Numbers and Pages for iOS, Google's Quickoffice Pro for iOS (its Android version is less capable), Good.iWare's GoodReader document manager and PDF markup tool, and Headlight Software's FTP on the Go Pro HTML editor and FTP client.

But the list thins out from there, especially with business apps. Yes, there are lots of narrow apps such as note-takers, PDF readers, and remote desktops, as well as narrow utilities from translators to business-card scanners. But where's QuickBooks, Dreamweaver, or InDesign for iPad, for example? (I focus on iPad apps here because the Android app environment is still significantly inferior and is unlikely to be the arrival point for prominent first-mover mobile apps.)

It turns out we don't use that many PC apps
In looking for those up-and-coming killer mobile business apps, I realized how few killer business apps are available for Windows and OS X. The truth is that most people use just three apps on their PCs for business purposes: the Office suite, Outlook or Apple Mail, and one or more Web browsers.

Small businesses likely run QuickBooks Pro, Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro, along with Microsoft Publisher or Adobe Creative Suite on at least some PCs. Larger businesses will have Access, Visio, and/or Creative Suite on a minority of PCs. Of course, there are highly specialized business tools in use on some PCs, such as those from SAP, Oracle, Infor, SAS Institute, and the like. But those are a small minority of the business population.

So why should we expect mobile users to have more apps in use than desktop users? We shouldn't. Still, in those specialty areas, it's true that mobile users are at a disadvantage due to the paucity of equivalent apps for their iPads and Android tablets.

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