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9/26/2012
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Tablets And PCs Square Off

Tablets do work better than laptops for some people and tasks. Tailor the device to the workload.

PC Strengths

1. Versatility: PCs remain vastly superior to tablets in terms of adaptability. Not only is the desktop/mouse/ menu bar UI intimately familiar to every office worker, but the hardware is also versatile and powerful, and the OS is multimodal, multitasking, scriptable, and customizable.

As Steve Jobs observed, versatility is the PC's hallmark, the pickup truck to the tablet's sports car. PCs can handle virtually any application and are good, if not great, at most of them if you adapt to and live within their boundaries. Not only are PCs available in a virtually unlimited array of form factors and configurations, but they also set the standard for computational power in small packages. There's no comparison between a quad-core laptop with 8 GB of RAM and a 1-TB disk and a tablet with a power-optimized CPU and 32 GB of flash.

2. Enterprise application support: PCs--and here we mean Windows systems, not Macs--are the target client for every enterprise application. Sure, browser interfaces have dramatically improved the prospects for device heterogeneity, but for many legacy applications, it's still a Windows world. Add in the fact that Microsoft Office not only defines the standard enterprise file formats but also the application platform. Sure, it's easy to read and even edit Office documents on an iPad, but good luck using a collaborative document or form.

Software-as-a-service apps, such as CloudOn, that bridge the Office-tablet gap by adding a software layer make Office more usable on tablets, says Spain, and he expects more activity in this area. Of course, running native Windows apps on a tablet, even Microsoft's ARM-based Surface RT, is impossible. The workaround entails using some form of remote display software, either a full VDI client, such as Citrix Receiver and VMware View, or a remote desktop client supporting RDS or VNC.

chart: What types of devices do support or plan to support?

Many commercial ISVs have ported their applications to the iPad, including Salesforce.com, various SAP products, and Oracle's EnterpriseOne, but the PC is still the main target for business software. Custom enterprise tablet app development hasn't taken off.

3. Familiarity: Using an iPad is child's play, but there's still a learning curve. Ironically, the curve is probably steeper for the most experienced PC users. Those used to navigating directories and mounting network shares will be in for a shock.

The concept of a local, user-accessible file system is foreign to the iPad, where there's an inextricable link between an app and its data container. Even on Android, application files are well hidden; you'll need a third-party file manager to find them. While such app-data amalgamation is convenient--you never need to worry about saving a file on your iPad--it's frustrating when trying to share information across multiple devices and with other users.

Although some third-party file handlers support standard NAS protocols such as CIFS, NFS, and WebDAV, getting at actual data "files" on an iPad is difficult to impossible. It's usually easier to share data to a cloud service such as Dropbox, iCloud, or SkyDrive. In fact, this is a big reason for Dropbox's success, as it acts as the de facto iPad file system, accessible across platforms.

4. Data entry and manipulation: Although tablets can't match PCs when it comes to number-crunching tasks such as video editing and spreadsheet modeling, the popular meme that tablets are useless for writing anything longer than an email or Facebook post is bunk. Sure, touch screens are poor keyboards, but connect a wireless keyboard and you can type just as fast on a tablet as on a PC.

That said, the PC is still better for most forms of data entry and manipulation. First, because they're touch screen devices, tablets (at least until Windows 8 comes along) have no system-wide cursor, meaning there's no mouse or touchpad to allow any form of relative position change. So every UI interaction entails a trip to the screen, which becomes especially frustrating when coupled with the next tablet reality: the lack of multiple windows.

Tablet apps are inherently single window. Yes, tablets can run multiple apps at a time, but it's like running every one in full-screen mode. You can quickly switch between apps without relaunching, but you can't simultaneously view them. This is a chief source of the tablet's simplicity. However, when you're accustomed to a mouse cursor and button clicks, not a touch screen and finger swipes, text editing is a frustrating experience. Simple things like cutting and pasting information from one app to another take multiple finger taps, hold-and-drags, and swipes.

5. Peripheral support and I/O: A final domain of PC superiority is I/O interfaces and peripheral support, as anyone who has ever tried to print from a tablet can attest. Don't have a new AirPrint-compatible printer? Good luck getting hard copy from an iPad. Need to copy files from a USB stick? Sorry, Apple's Camera Connection Kit only lets you pull images into iPhoto. Again, the situation is better on Android, but you'll still need an assortment of dongles and adapters to support the various USB and memory card formats, and neither platform comes close to the PC's "connect and access anything" convenience.

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