The death of the laptop? Why tablets are becoming more like computers

Are we witnessing another evolution in technology?

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the iPad. Thanks to Apple’s vision of touchscreen computing, it established the tablet as a revolutionary mass-market gadget. Say goodbye to the keyboard, mouse and stylus – simply use your fingers instead. “This is a new category of device,” read one decade-old review. “It also will replace laptops for many people.” 

As it turned out, tablets did not kill off laptops. While they were perfect for many tasks – gaming, watching shows, low-level admin – they lacked the laptop’s power and precision, and on-screen typing always felt awkward.

But that is all changing. The new iPad Pro, released March 23, comes with an optional accessory, named, with typical Apple hubris, the “Magic Keyboard”. It is a combined trackpad, keyboard and stand, which makes the iPad Pro indistinguishable from a laptop. It becomes a two-in-one device, following in the steps of Microsoft’s hugely successful Surface series. So is it still a tablet? Apple’s tagline for the machine is somewhat ambiguous: “Your next computer is not a computer.”

YouTube star and technology pundit Marques Brownlee disagreed: “The Magic Keyboard makes the iPad ... a computer,” he said in a recent video review.  

It may sound like a weird semantic distinction. After all, phones and tablets are already computers, with processors and memory. But when we think of “a computer”, what comes to mind is a flexible machine, a multipurpose workhorse that a touchscreen gadget cannot quite live up to. But we might need to rethink.

Microsoft is ahead of Apple on this. The tech company has long believed you need a mouse for precision, a keyboard for typing and a stylus for drawing. Its Surface Pro tablet was the perfect embodiment of this, with a range of add-on accessories to suit your working style – and, crucially, the ability to morph into a laptop-like form.

For the best part of a decade, Apple stubbornly resisted this convergence. In 2012, chief executive Tim Cook scorned it. “You can converge a toaster and refrigerator, but these things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user,” he said.

A year later, he mocked Microsoft for not buying into the Apple vision. “Now they are trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they will do next?”

But that is precisely what Apple ended up doing. First, in 2015, came the Apple Pencil to assist digital artists, followed by the Smart Keyboard for the iPad in 2018. The new Magic Keyboard, complete with trackpad, has ushered in a more radical change in the way the iPad works: you can move a cursor around the screen. That cursor changes shape depending on what you hover over, exactly like a computer. Finally, Apple has recognised that despite the iPad’s success, fingers are just not suited to some on-screen tasks – including, arguably, typing.

<span>The evolution of new forms almost always follows the surprising pattern of adding back all those things from the old form factor.</span>

Not only is the form of the tablet changing, but it is also becoming more efficient. The ARM chips, which power many smartphones and tablets, are now being used in laptops, removing another distinguishing feature. So does this mark the death of the laptop? Former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky reminds us that these debates have been had many times before. And did the laptop kill the desktop? No.

“The evolution of new forms almost always follows the surprising pattern of adding back all those things from the old form factor,” he wrote on Twitter. 

But while tablets might start looking more like laptops, this is no backward step. The Surface Pro and the iPad Pro simply give us the best of both worlds. More powerful, more flexible, more like a computer.

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