The “Productivity” Tablet: Is That Such a Bad Thing?


Mark Coppock Win 8.1 Start Screen

There seems to be a divergence occurring in the market, or at least in the tech media’s coverage of the market, creating a distinction between “productivity” tablets (i.e., Windows 8.1 tablets) and “consumption” tablets (i.e., iOS and Android tablets). The implication so far appears to be that consumption tablets are in demand, while nobody wants to buy productivity tablets (whether this is correlation or causation remains to be seen).

What Does “Productivity” Mean?
I find this distinction very strange, for a few reasons. First, I think that any tablet can be used for both productivity, which usually means working with Office documents, and consumption, which usually means everything else. Office-compatible apps exist for both iOS and Android that allow for creating and editing moderately complex Office documents, meaning that one can do real, productive work on either platform (up to a point).

Now, it’s true that Windows 8.1 tablets offer a level of productivity, or at least of complexity, that neither iOS nor Android can offer. This is true in part because Windows 8.1 tablets can run full versions of Microsoft Office and other applications, and can therefore create and edit the most complex documents and work with the most complex data. As a marketing professional who’s created some fairly sophisticated brochures, market analysis spreadsheets, and sales presentations using Office and other software, I can appreciate this advantage.

But it’s likely also true that many people don’t create such complex documents even in their professional lives, and so any tablet platform is capable of meeting their productivity needs as far as Office documents go. Thus, there must be some other measure of “productivity” that defines the distinction being drawn between Windows 8.1 tablets and the others.

Perhaps it’s the fact that any Windows application can be installed on Windows 8.1 tablets, including full-blown versions of the Adobe suite of products, full versions of applications like Evernote, etc. However, it’s difficult to find fault with this capability—why would the ability to run the most powerful applications be considered as a bad thing?

Rather, it’s possible that the distinction arises from Windows 8.1’s status as a “real” operating system, with complete (and more complex) access to networking, devices (printers, scanners, etc.), file systems, and everything else that mobile operating systems don’t offer to the same extent or at all. In this sense, truly, Windows 8.1 tablets are actual “productivity” devices and distinctly different from iOS and Android tablets.

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Yes, Device Manager: But, Look at All Those Devices!

Are Productivity and Consumption Mutually Exclusive?
This distinction is also fascinating because, in truth, Windows 8.1 tablets aren’t just for productivity. They also make for decent enough consumption devices. While Windows 8.1 doesn’t offer as many modern UI apps as iOS and Android, including for media properties like HBO Go, DirecTV, and others, they’re still fully capable of accessing all of the same content as consumption tablets. After all, Windows 8.1 tablets run full browsers that can access any content on the planet—in a sense, making them better “consumption” tablets than the consumption tablets themselves.

The problem doesn’t seem to be that Windows 8.1 tablets are actually different kinds of devices in terms of the things that they can do. Rather, they seem to be perceived as different kinds of devices because of how they do them. That is, Windows 8.1 on tablets isn’t only touch-centric with a simplistic user interface, it’s also a full-blown “desktop” operating system with all the complexity that such an OS implies. In fact, the distinction might hinge on the fact that these are “Windows” tablets, and Windows is perceived by many as harder to use and, maybe, overkill for their needs. Overcoming this perception is probably Microsoft’s greatest challenge, and their approach seems to be to minimize the emphasis on Windows itself.

What’s strange about this particular viewpoint, however, is that the computer industry did just fine before Apple introduced the iPad. Windows machines sold in the hundreds of millions every year (and actually continue to do so), and OS X machines in the tens of millions (ditto), and people made good use of them (and of course, still do). I submit, even the least technically inclined used PCs or Macs to whatever level they needed for decades before the iPad, which for most people was likely personal finance, record keeping, then eventually email, Web browsing, and other simple tasks that both platforms made relatively easy.

Certainly, the iPad started the trend of ultra-simplistic and thus easy-to-learn and –use computing devices, and maybe it induced a relative handful of users to pick up technology for the first time and start using it. I’ve never seen firm evidence, however, that a whole host of users gained access to computing for the first time ever because the modern tablet was invented. It seems like a pretty small niche of users for whom the iPad or other modern tablet is the only computer they’ve ever used.

Instead, I believe that there exist two groups of people who are driving the apparent (and perhaps temporary) shift from PCs to tablets. First,  there are those who once bought PCs and used only a fraction of their capabilities, and who thus started buying tablets instead. No need to spend money on something that’s never going to be used, they think, although I believe many such people will find that “consumption” tablets can’t quite do everything they need. I seriously wonder how many of these people will stick with tablets as their only computer. Second, there are those who might have purchased a second PC at home or at work, perhaps a notebook to augment a desktop, but who bought a tablet instead because it offers just the functionality they need from a second machine.

The Best of Both Worlds? Almost, Maybe.
In short, my issue with the distinction between Windows 8.1 tablets as some special class of “productivity” tablets is that while they do offer more capabilities and hence complexity, they don’t have to. And, because their price point is now largely competitive with consumption tablets, there’s no real premium involved. We’re closely approaching the point where a person can buy a Windows 8.1 tablet and treat it as a consumption device by simply never accessing the desktop, and even today they can do so with an ever-decreasing number of compromises.

Yes, Windows 8.1 is still lacking in the modern UI app department, as I wrote about in my post covering my most important tablet apps. But as I’ve discovered in using the Dell Venue 8 Pro (a nice little machine, by the way, for consuming content), there’s really very little that I can do on my iPad or my Nexus 10 that I can’t do on the Dell, and that’s without leaving the modern UI. I might have to use Internet Explorer more than I’d like, but in truth, Windows 8.1 is really just a hair’s breadth away from being just as relevant for modern tablets as iOS and Android.

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HBO Go running in modern UI Internet Explorer

At the same time, though, I can drop into the desktop and run desktop Chrome, Office 2013, Photoshop, the full version of Evernote, and anything else I can do on a Windows machine. I can also access the full capabilities of my network, utilize any Windows-compatible device, and manage my files and other resources with all the gusto afforded by a full-blown OS.

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Chrome and Windows Explorer Side-by-Side

And so a Windows 8.1 tablet is really both a full-blown productivity and a competent consumption device. It can do what a consumption tablet can do, plus many, many things it can’t do. And it does a fairly decent (and constantly improving) job of hiding that extra complexity from the user who only wants to watch movies, read eBooks, browse the Web, and check email.

There’s work to be done, for sure. File management and system settings should be more accessible via the modern UI, and of course the breadth and depth of quality modern UI apps needs to be improved for those folks who dislike the idea of using old-time “Windows.” But I think the basic dichotomy being drawn between Windows 8.1 tablets solely as “productivity” devices (with the implications of complexity and difficulty that this entails) and iOS and Android as magical “consumption” devices is a false one.

Rather, I think that the real distinction, today at least, is that Windows 8.1 tablets have the potential to be more capable devices, period. Whether that potential is realized is entirely up to Microsoft, and I hope they accomplish it. Certainly, melding the full capabilities of Windows with a modern tablet UI is a formidable challenge, and while Windows 8.1 is good step in the right direction, there’s a fair distance left to go.

Today, I’m finding myself picking up my Dell Venue 8 Pro more often, simply because I don’t always want to put down my Nexus 10 and pick up my MacBook Air every time I want to do something a little more complex. The Dell might not be the best example, because desktop mode on that 8” screen really is a bit of a challenge to navigate at times, but there’s an important metaphysical difference between being able to do something just adequately, and not being able to do something at all.

So, let me know in the comments: what’s wrong with a machine that can function as a modern consumption tablet, while also being able to offer industry-leading productivity? Personally, I’m at a loss to say just what that might be.



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