Matt Gemmell

A Big Phone

tech & ipad-only 7 min read

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.


Like most people, my main computer is a phone.

That’s a big realisation. The device that’s always at hand, and is the first port of call for communication and entertainment and convenience, is your main computer. With the apps available now, there’s no meaningful distinction in utility between a phone and any other kind of device. Some tasks are easier and some are harder due to the form factor, but most tasks are possible — and having it permanently within reach is the mother of all advantages.

I could pair a keyboard with my phone, and put it in a stand, and do my work on it; the apps are certainly there to allow it. It’d feel a bit awkward for some things, but I’ve drafted an article, and edited a chapter, and replied to email, and done grocery shopping, and updated the SSL certificates on a web server, and filed my taxes, and lots of other things all from my phone.

Was it the most comfortable or efficient experience? No. But was it more efficient than having to go and find a traditional computer first? Absolutely — otherwise, that’s what I’d have done. So let’s talk about computers.

I don’t have separate work and home machines. I work from home, so that’d be silly, but I don’t want that sort of divided setup anyway. It’s more to manage and maintain, and the line between work and home is already blurry for most of us, I think.

Since November 2016, my computer has been an iPad Pro. For the first few weeks, I’d need to grab my MacBook every few days, for half an hour or so — to get a file, or perform some task I hadn’t yet discovered an iPad-based workflow for — but those occasions became less and less frequent. I started it up a couple of weeks ago to finally let it update to the latest version of macOS, and I think it had been lying dormant (and with a dead battery) for eight months by that point.

I don’t need it anymore, and I don’t want to use it.

It’s often said, disparagingly, that the iPad is a big phone, but I don’t really know what that means anymore. For one thing, “phone” now means a multi-touch smart device, with apps and sensors and a thousand features — so, sure, that’s the iPad too. It’s a larger version of everyone’s main computer, which addresses the one major limitation of that device: the display is cramped.

What people usually mean, though, is that the iPad is in some sense a cut-down or junior computer, by implying that a smart phone is a really cut-down computer. But when was the last time that was true?

There’s a tiny minority of the population who are very technologically savvy. I don’t just mean software developers; I also include anyone who has serious requirements, for both hardware and software, and can barely imagine being able to do real work on a touch-OS device. You could decide which professions fall into that category for yourself (Pro video? Audio? Indentured Creative Suite users? Architects? I dunno!), but you don’t have to: they’ll tell you themselves.

Whenever I talk about the iPad as a work machine, I get some pushback that essentially says it’s not viable because it doesn’t do such-and-such. That’s fine — as long as you frame it accurately. Is it about a deficiency of modern computing, or is it just that you need something that isn’t actually tied to traditional computing, which may temporarily be unavailable for newer stuff?

I used to be an iOS and macOS developer, though it’s more and more difficult to believe it was really me. Xcode is the integrated dev environment on macOS, to build software for all the Apple platforms, and everyone’s always saying that it’s the reason the Mac is still around (and the reason that all these programmers who invariably love iPads can’t actually switch to using one full-time).

But you don’t need a Mac. You need Xcode on the iPad. That’s all. We’ve gone through dozens of iterations of this same subtly-misdirected argument.

Typing on glass is imprecise, or weird, or slow, or something! You’re right. But you don’t need a Mac; you need a physical keyboard. We’ve got that.

Finger-painting is nowhere near precise enough for serious artwork! That’s true. You don’t need a Mac; you need a more accurate input device. That’s the Apple Pencil1.

You can’t do your job on one little screen! Fine. You don’t need a Mac; you need iOS to support external displays. There’s AirPlay right now, and I think more support will come.

The list goes on. You don’t need a Mac; you need: a multi-user setup (like Classroom, which I don’t think is an isolated exploration of technology), or a new piece of software, or maybe you need to consider that usability and information density might not necessarily be the same thing. Since the iPad was released, each year has seen an erosion of the remaining areas of old-computer exclusivity. It keeps happening, and it’s going to continue2.

There’s no particular reason you can’t write and debug code on an iPad, and it’s going to happen. Same for Logic, and Final Cut, and Photoshop, and so on. Oh sure, maybe it won’t be those specific apps (though in a lot of cases, it will be), but tasks themselves are always more interface-agnostic than you think. Developers whose iOS offerings are cut-down or companion versions of Mac apps are hedging in a dangerously wrong direction, or they’re guilty of a lack of imagination. Apple doesn’t make products that way. Nor do Omni, or Panic. The goal should be to make first-class apps for each platform, or get out of the way.

We all see the writing on the wall.

Steve Jobs said that traditional computers would eventually be like trucks, and what he meant was that trucks once comprised the majority of vehicles, but are now a tiny and specialised minority due to their unique capabilities when compared with cars. iPads and iPhones are the cars in this analogy: the ubiquitous usurpers; the new default.

But there’s more to it than that, because in real life, anyone who can drive a car can also drive a truck with minimal additional training. I’m not sure what the right analogy actually is, but it’d be a vehicle with substantially more complexity of interaction (and shift in mental model) than a car. Some big piece of construction or agricultural equipment like a crane, maybe, or perhaps even an aircraft.

The accessibility gap between touch devices and traditional computers is wider than most of us can really see. People born from about 2010 onwards are showing us that. We’re feeling it ourselves. Can you honestly say you’ve never, even just for a fraction of a second, tried to pinch-zoom a printed page?

Modern computers are less technologically encumbered, because more advanced tech lets us get closer to intuitiveness, both physically and conceptually. That’s the trajectory. Old computers are a section of that timeline, and one that’s almost over.

Modern computers have two properties, at a minimum: they use direct interaction physically, and their software — from OS to apps — is designed for that interaction model. Without any one of those, you don’t have a modern device. At most, you’ve got a Tablet PC (and probably a stylus).

You don’t have to use modern devices if you don’t want to. And if you don’t want to, then it’s because you’re used to traditional devices, and perhaps you don’t feel you can make the transition. That’s fine. You can own a truck — or a crane. But sooner or later, we’re going to build a crane that does everything that yours does, but is radically different to use. Primarily, it’ll be more accessible, and the barrier to entry will drop, and then they’re going to stop making the other kind. There’s no other way that this goes.

If you can’t use a modern device because of features or software not currently available, then you’re in a wholly, but only temporarily, rational position. On the other hand, if you think that modern devices can’t be made to do whatever it is that you do, then your argument is virtually guaranteed to be fallacious.

The thing that bugs me about statements like “iPads are toys”, or “iPads are for consumption, not creation”, or “iPads aren’t real computers” is that they implicitly do what’s proven to be the stupidest thing you can be guilty of in the tech industry: betting against innovation.

We will figure out how to create a touch-based interface for that complex app you use. We have audio and video editors, vector drawing apps, CAD tools, photo editors, and all kinds of other stuff right now. We have Office and iWork, and Affinity Photo, and Autodesk Graphic, and Procreate, and countless more. Is your hold-out app really that special? Is that even possible?

Never bet that we, as a species, won’t figure it out. I put it to you that there is no task heretofore done on traditional computers that intrinsically cannot be done on modern ones. Maybe it’ll require new OS features, or another little white adapter, or an innovation in multi-touch interface design — that’s fine. All of that stuff is routine. It happens multiple times per year, every year. You can’t stop it.

The thing is, we’ve already decided.

Modern computers are everybody’s main devices. It happened quickly, because they’re more convenient, and more portable, and more intuitive — and all of that stuff means that they’re better. They’re closer to what we want to build, rather than the best we used to be capable of. You’ve got one in your pocket right now, and so do I.

It’s a computer that’s usable and human-focused, and lets me get all my work done because they’ve already figured out how to let people do it using an interaction paradigm advanced enough to approach naturalness. I can use it whether I’m lying in bed, or standing on top of a mountain. It’s my phone.

And the iPad is a big one.


Feedback? Tell me on Twitter.

  1. When he was selling the first iPhone, Steve Jobs said (of previous direct-interaction devices) that “if you see a stylus, they blew it”— and that’s true. The Pencil isn’t one: a stylus is a primary input method, like a mouse or trackpad. Instead, the Pencil is a contextual tool. People who have one don’t use it to drive their iPad, because when you design software for touch, a stylus is unnatural. It’d be like using a knitting needle to play the piano. Equally, if you want to write or draw, it would also be unnatural to use your fat, imprecise finger. Pressing buttons and pointing and dragging are activities meant for fingers. Drawing and writing are activities meant for pens and pencils and brushes. Design for the right tools, not for arbitrary distinctions. 

  2. Here’s a Twitter thread from yesterday about which size of iPad Pro people chose. In the replies, there are lots of examples of the things people are using these devices for.