An iPad with a keyboard is not a PC! Technology transitions and PCs in the Clipper ship era.

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In September Apple announced the iPad Pro, which supports a keyboard cover and stylus. Then in October Microsoft announced their latest Surface Pro 4 and new Surface Book. Inevitably they were compared, with many claiming Apple copied Microsoft. Business Insider “Apple just admitted Microsoft is right”. And the Verge “Everyone is copying Microsoft’s Surface“. From that piece: “Apple missed that consumers were attaching keyboards to its iPad tablet, but Microsoft took advantage and saw an opportunity.  Now everyone else is following in its footsteps, but Microsoft is already way ahead.”

If you compare side by side, it’s clear Apple copied, or at least borrowed heavily from, Microsoft’s keyboard cover. True. But this misses the larger point. An iPad Pro with a keyboard is not a PC. Different primary input method. Different ecosystem. To put the iPad Pro and Surface Pro properly in context, we should use a different, but well established pattern in technology: technical perfection arrives just before doom.

My favorite example is the Clipper sailing ship. The chart below shows the tonnage of sailing ships versus steamships in New Zealand.

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Carrack sailing ships, such as the Santa Maria sailed by Christopher Columbus, dominated their era. They were boring workhorses. Think mid-1980s Desktop PCs. Later, Clipper ships were created for the China tea trade. And as steamships threatened, Clipper ships were the ones that held on the longest, on specialist long haul routes where steamships struggled most. Clipper ships were sailing perfection. Some of the most beautiful ships ever made.

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From wikipedia:

The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over 16 knots (30 km/h). The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made.

From a recent Benedict Evans presentation, compare how steam overtook sail to how smartphones overtook PCs.

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Hence my analogy at the top of this post: Desktop PC is to Surface Pro as a Carrack Ship is to Clipper ship. Or as Benedict Evans concisely made the point on twitter:

That’s a picture of the Republic XF-12 Rainbow. Quote:

It is still the fastest piston-engined airplane of this size, exceeding by some 50 mph the Boeing XB-39 of 1944.  Although highly innovative, the postwar XF-12 Rainbow had to compete against more modern jet engine technology, and did not enter production.

While people who follow technology transitions understand all this, a point that often gets lost is the ecosystem shift from PCs to smartphones was driven by a radical shift in input method and interface. One moving from mouse/keyboard to touch. A transition which Microsoft greatly misjudged. As I wrote about Windows 8 back in 2012 when it first came out: “Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8 show they believe at some level that touchscreen interfaces are a bolt on, not a new new thing.” And “it doesn’t bode well for Microsoft that they’ll ship a compromised hybrid UI. It will confuse everyone, even if they are doing it against their better judgement.”

Of course Apple has always understood this. Here’s Apple’s Phil Schiller as quoted in a good Steven Levy piece:

iOS from its start has been designed as a multi-touch experience—you don’t have the things you have in a mouse-driven interface, like a cursor to move around, or teeny little ‘close’ boxes that you can’t hit with your finger. The Mac OS has been designed from day one for an indirect pointing mechanism. These two worlds are different on purpose, and that’s a good thing—we can optimize around the best experience for each and not try to mesh them together into a least-common-denominator experience.

Later they talk about Apple’s Magic Trackpads, which enable a touch interface to control a Mac. But note these trackpads work “when your hands are down,” staying true to the indirect nature of the Mac desktop interface. This makes clear why adding a keyboard or a stylus to an iOS device doesn’t transform it into a PC. You add a peripheral for doing a particular job, such as running a productivity or business application. So yes, you can do jobs formerly done on a laptop on an iPad. But this doesn’t make an iPad part of the PC ecosystem, or transform its basic nature. A similar point applies to the stylus. It’s an optional accessory, not the primary input method as it was for the Palm Pilot. Though this fact doesn’t prevent people from continuing to quote Steve Jobs “If you need a stylus, you’ve already failed!” out of context.

What an interface/input focus also makes clear is something commonly missed: Macs are also Clipper ships. Their beauty and perfection are not just a sign of great design, but a sign of eclipse. Though as mentioned, Clipper ships held on to long haul routes for quite a few decades in a specialist role. Jean-Louis Gassée has a good comparison of Macs to DSLR cameras, which retain their use as specialist power tools even as point-and-shoot cameras get replaced by smartphones.

What does this mean for Microsoft? First, it’s great Satya Nadella shifted the company towards cloud (Azure services, Office on all platforms). And it’s also clear to everyone that Microsoft buying Nokia and getting into the hardware business was a terrible idea. But perhaps times have changed. With PCs in strategic decline, people no longer want Carrack ships. Carrack ship/commodity computing is transitioning to smartphone ecosystems. What people who still use PCs need (or at least want) are premium machines: tools for CAD, massive Excel spreadsheets, premium business laptops. High end specialist tools. Ones good enough to compete with Macs in the late game, Clipper ship era. Microsoft mistakenly entered the hardware business to prevent the strategic decline of PCs. But now that this decline is a hard fact, it may ironically make sense for Microsoft to embrace that decline by continuing to make their own premium PCs.

Finally, a word about cars. As self-driving electric cars are on the rise, what should we expect? We should expect Clipper ships. The most beautiful gas-powered automobiles ever made. The longest ranges. The best manual driving and handling. Perfection. Perfection before doom. It’s not clear which companies will make Clipper ship versions of gas cars. But I suspect Porsche has a better chance than GM.


Appendix – some related reading

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

1 comment

  1. Analogy fails for me. iPad is the kind of steamship that only sails in a very specific ocean, while PCs are a kind of clipper that sails everywhere. Besides unlike clippers, the desktop form-factor with unlimited power supply will always give more power for a narrow set of applications. The clippers on the other hand are all in museums. Also on-site VR will always need a desktop. Until cloud arrives – but that’s a next step distinct from current mobile.

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