The Death of the Desktop [#52weeks]

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that my dearly beloved (we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of…) Rexie, the Macbook Pro that has been my constant companion since 2008, passed away during an ill-advised attempt to upgrade her OS. To say that I feel as if I’ve been in hell until today feels like hyberbole and massive understatement at the same time.

For the better part of the past year and a half, I’ve read endless advocacy of mobile computing. Tablets and phones are the future, says Our Lady of Silicon Valley (h/t to Dan Meyer for that jab), and desktop computing is SO over. As almost everything I do behind a machine is web-based, cloud-based, or has its own app, I thought perhaps that I’d be able to transition into a tablet-only existence sans issue. I could do almost everything that I needed to do from my iPad, right?

WRONG. Here are a few of the limitations I discovered while trying to live a tablet/mobile existence over the past couple of weeks:

  • Most of the web isn’t optimized for mobile devices. This means that many, many sites render incorrectly or are inaccessible due to relying on technology that isn’t supported on tablet devices. A great example of this: restaurant websites, which very frequently run on Adobe Flash. It’s unbelievably frustrating to find what appears to be a great restaurant on Yelp while out and about during the weekend, only to find that its site inaccessible by phone or tablet because neither support Adobe Flash. Alternately, much of the web looks hideous when viewed through the Retina display of my iPad.
  • Not all mobile-optimization is created equal. While many sites can auto-detect the browser you’re using to access them and direct you to a mobile-optimized version of a site, bugs are prolific. Buttons that don’t work, text boxes render incorrectly, and some of the best features of a tool or product are omitted entirely from the mobile browsing experience. When doing my taxes just the other day, I tried accessing an important student loan document via iPad, only to find that the PDF generated by the site couldn’t display the information I needed in Safari or Chrome. (Naturally, it opened like a charm on a non-mobile browser.)
  • There aren’t enough truly great apps– and the constant push for apps adoption of web-based services sucks for everyone. Though I’ve changed the settings in both Safari and Chrome to block pop-up notifications, there’s no way to block the “Download our app!” banners and boxes that pop up every. single. time. I visit certain sites. Sometimes, though, I just want to access a site during a casual perusing of the internet, or better yet, I want to visit on my own terms so that I can drop it into iMessage, email it, bookmark it, save it to Pocket, send it to Instapaper, share it on Twitter or god knows what else. Sure, there are more APIs (application programming interfaces) than ever connecting apps and tools to one another, but some platforms are getting more defensive of their APIs and the tools I love the most usually don’t talk to one another in this way. What is the point of downloading yet-another-app that may not have the same functionality as the full-web version or limited-mobile version of a product?
  • Don’t even get me started on whether mobile devices encourage content consumption over content creation. Wondering why I haven’t been very productive as of late? It has been im-freaking-possible for me to respond to a long email on an iPad or an iPhone, much less write a blog during the mobile experiment. Sure, I could access social media– but contributing to a chat? holding a conversation? Forget it. While I did adopt a new little video app recently released by Twitter, and Instagram /all/ the things as usual— I’m not convinced that smaller screens and touchscreen keyboards are powerful or useful enough to contribute to the writing part of contributing to the read-write web.

As I’m never one to back away from a challenge, I thought that I’d take the passing of my Macbook as an opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade and experience something new. What did I discover? That tablets and mobile devices really aren’t good for anything but light tasks, and that it’s next to impossible to get anything worthwhile done on a tablet. But what do I know?

Desktop computing is dead, long live desktop computing.

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