Why PCs trump iPads for innovation

Most of the reasons that favor the iPad as a platform for fueling end-user innovation favor the PC even more

The strongest argument in favor of the personal computer is the iPad.

Supposedly, the iPad spells the death of the laptop. Supposedly, we're going to do all of our computing in the cloud. Some folks believe both of these statements, which is a bit like believing in laissez-faire communism.

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Start with what makes the iPad so compelling, particularly as a platform for end-user-driven innovation.

Six factors fueling the iPad's success

The iPad has been spectacularly successful for just a few reasons:

Instant on: The iPad is ready to use the moment you want to use it -- no long boot cycle, except when you do have to reboot it because it's become unstable. That's in contrast to your laptop, which is only instantly available if you've used sleep mode instead of powering it off, except when you have to reboot it because it's become unstable.

Travels well: The iPad is compact and works for a full day on a single battery charge. Notebook computers with equivalent characteristics are expensive, and when you want to use them, you open them up -- at which point they aren't so compact anymore. On the other hand, when you want to type on a notebook computer, you don't lose screen real estate.

It's shiny: Lots of us like new, flashy gadgets, while familiarity breeds contempt. We're familiar with laptops to the point that even the slickest of them just aren't all that interesting anymore. Tablets are new and sparkling.

File system: PCs have them; iPads don't. Apple considers this to be a huge iPad advantage; this way, if you're working on a project, you won't waste precious time arranging all your documents, spreadsheets, presentations, project plans, and other accumulated detritus into well-organized folders because you can't! And here's something truly bizarre: There are apps for that, except they only let you organize documents you import from someplace else; they can't see anything you created on your iPad.

Cheap apps: This is the biggie. The iPad's most innovative feature is pinch and zoom, and it wasn't new with the iPad. The App Store? It's the $10 price point for typical applications that makes the iPad so desirable, because at 10 bucks or less, iPad owners can buy a useful-looking app without it being a difficult decision. Even when PC software was cheap, it wasn't that cheap -- except for all of the open source software PC owners can download and install without paying a cent.

Native apps: The thing about iPad apps is that they're iPad apps. You install them on the iPad, and they run locally on the iPad. Some integrate information they get from the Internet (which I suppose means they're cloud-enabled apps, given that "the cloud" has become synonymous with "everything"). But that doesn't change the essential fact.

The iPad as centerpiece for user innovation

When the subject is PCs, the answer is to lock 'em down and run everything in the data center. When the subject is iPads, the answer is that there's an app for that.

If, instead of computing, we were talking about transportation, iPads would be Vespas, PCs would be cars, mainframe computers would be trucks, and IT's "best practice" for managing PCs would be to park them permanently on the trucks that car manufacturers use to haul their product to their dealerships. In open-minded companies, the "drivers" would get to vote on their destination.

One more thing: You wouldn't be able to drive your Vespa until after you'd towed it, very briefly, behind your car. In case it's escaped your attention, you can't use an iPad until after you've plugged it into a PC or Mac with iTunes installed on it. Brilliant!

Last week's column suggested using iPads as the centerpiece of your end-user innovation program. There are some good reasons why this might make sense. First, their shininess (aka their newness) is more likely to trigger imaginative thinking than the familiarity of the personal computer. Second, both iPads and their typical apps cost less than anything you're likely to want to buy in the PC realm.

And third, with iPads you have no lock-it-down "best practice" thinking to overcome -- at least, not yet. You can be sure this is just a matter of time.

The power of the PC

Before you decide the iPad is your platform, though, consider the factors that favor the PC.

First, it's a sunk cost. Whether you encourage end-users to innovate with it or not, you've bought their PC. You already have a support system in place. In many respects, this makes PCs cheaper than iPads.

Second, it's more capable. How long a list do you want?

And third, your end-users are already familiar with it. Yes, they'll have to learn whatever innovation toolkit you decide to provide, but it will be layered on top of an existing base of knowledge. They won't be starting from scratch.

Every so often, someone writes another instance of the tired old article about how PCs are so hard to use, and isn't it wonderful how much easier Steve Jobs has made it all with the iPad?

The problem with this frequently published article is that it isn't -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- true. For the most part, if you want to do something on an iPad, you'll go through a more-or-less equivalent set of steps as you would on a PC.

What makes PCs harder to use is that Microsoft gives end-users much more credit than Apple does. PCs let you do a lot more than iPads, which means there are more capabilities available to you, which means you have to sort through more menus, buttons, and so on to find the one you're looking for. PCs are harder to use because all the features you don't want right now make the feature you do want right now harder to find.

A simple example: In Microsoft Word, you can define the spacing between paragraphs. I generally set three points before and three points after, which translates to a half-line of inter-paragraph separation. In order to do this, I have to know where to find the feature. Pages on the iPad is a lot simpler to use because I can't do this at all; the only way to add space between paragraphs is to hit the Return key twice.

This feature, and its absence on the iPad, isn't very important to most people, nor is the ability to define styles, insert cross-references, or any of hundreds of other things Word does that Pages doesn't do. If you're among those who has to create complex proposals or reports, though, these features are important.

Which brings us to what's particularly sad about the end-user innovation situation: Until the iPad resurrected the subject, most IT organizations have actively discouraged it. It goes beyond locking down the devices so that end-users can't install software they might find helpful in their day-to-day work or might increase efficiency in their departments.

Here's the question: How many IT shops actively encourage end-users to write VBA code? The answer: Very few. Most consider the result to be an undocumented, poorly structured, hard-to-maintain headache.

Here's what they could be thinking: Someone else has already done almost everything for us. Now, instead of a bunch of business analysis and specification writing, all we have to do is take something that already works exactly as it's supposed to and rewrite it so that it's built well, too.

That's what IT would be thinking if it wanted to encourage end-user innovation, with or without any iPads to muddy the waters.

This story, "Why PCs trump iPads for innovation," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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