Tablets Are Computers

Anyone who has ever used a social networking site, or nearly any corner of the Internet where people exchange ideas, has no doubt heard the impassioned pleas from a caring citizen about a minority group who is being oppressed or denied privileges.  You may have even made such statements yourself.  Well, during this election year, I’d like to turn the public’s attention to such a group.

I’m talking about tablet computers.  70 million of them were born in 2011.  These immigrants are being treated as second class citizens.  Quite a few people refuse to even call them computers.  What possible rationale exists behind this injustice?

Merriam-Webster defines a computer as “a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data”.  While that’s an academically correct definition, it’s pretty broad.  Your microwave and GPS fit that definition.  Instead, think back to the first computer course you ever took.  It likely used a definition of a computer along the lines of “contains a central processing unit, has data storage devices, input/output devices, and is programmable”.

Tablets clearly meet that definition.  My tablet is more powerful than most of the PCs I’ve owned in my career.  Its 1Ghz 32-bit processor and 256MB of RAM beats anything I owned prior to 2005.  Its 1024×768 display and 16GB of permanent storage are quite usable for most computing tasks.  Surprisingly, I don’t do anything with my home computers that I didn’t do in 2005, so I welcome the increased portability and battery life.

Some purists might call into question the “programmable” portion of the definition.  You can certainly load new programs onto a tablet.  Those programs cover a huge range of domains, so it is most certainly a general purpose device.  Development kits are publically available, so writing these applications is not exclusively the domain of the tablet or OS maker.  One could argue that real computers are self-programmable and since these apps must be cross-compiled from another system it fails that test.  Perhaps, but I have personally installed BASIC, Python, and Javascript interpreters onto my tablet and enjoyed a rudimentary amount of self-programmability – on par with what we with our first microcomputers in the 1980s.

Application and website designers are responsible for instituting much of this segregation.  Gmail, for example, shoves iPad users into a “mobile version” which is missing many of the more advanced features such as editing filters.  Sorry guys, just because I’m running iOS doesn’t mean I’m cramped for screen real estate.  Fortunately, Google provides a way to revert back to the desktop interface if you know exactly where to look.

Netflix has a similar, though less intentional limitation.  Whenever I view the website it immediately attempts to launch the Netflix iPad app.  This is OK, except for the fact that I cannot modify the instant queue from here.   Just because I’m accessing Netflix from a tablet doesn’t mean I really want to watch the movie here.  I’d prefer to use the nice interface to find it and then view it on my 60” TV.  If I click quickly enough I am able to stay on the web page and do what I’d like.  As a side note, browsing this site is insanely slow.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Hulu Plus.  Despite being a paid service, there are quite a few shows that aren’t available to be watched on an internet TV.  I can somewhat see the logic in that.  But, when I look these shows up on the tablet and attempt to view them, I am greeted with the most humorous message:

“You must use your computer to view this show, not an iPad”

Newsflash Hulugans – the iPad is a computer!  Aside from the obvious mistake here, I have to question the reasoning of the geniuses in Hollywood..  It’s OK for me to show this movie on my desktop computer with a 30 inch monitor and surround sound, but not a 10 inch screen with tinny speakers?  For that matter, I could take my laptop into the living room and hook it up to my 60” TV, which is otherwise forbidden from receiving the program directly.

What I find the most surprising is that the makers of tablets also practice this segregation.  I have been unable to find any quotes where Apple or Jobs refer to the iPad as a computer.  Likewise, if you visit the Microsoft Surface site, the word “computer” doesn’t appear on the page.  Is this part of an evil plot to make sure people still buy notebooks?  Perhaps, but a more likely explanation comes from Jobs’ use of the term “post-PC era”.  These devices are being marketed as “better than computers”, so their makers are reluctant to use the word “computer” to describe them.  Yes, they think we are that dumb!

But this mindset is having an unintended inverse effect.  By telling people this isn’t a computer, the computer manufacturers and enabling bad behaviors by the application vendors.

Regardless of what you call it, application writers and hardware vendors need to get with the program.  Tablets are here to stay.  I use mine for about 80% of my home computing tasks.  Given my druthers I would use it for even more, but I have to keep trudging back to the desk for software and tasks that have been excluded from the tablet computer experience.

Perhaps the winner of this year’s election can enact some sort of ERA for computers or “neutrality” law to guarantee that all computing devices have an equal opportunity to please their users *wink*.

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