is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Last week I was on the road for five days straight. I brought along my MacBook Pro because, knowing that I would be away from my desk for so long, I anticipated needing to do some actual design work at some point. Unfortunately, you still can’t do “real” design work on an iPad, which is my preferred travel device, so there was little choice but to bring along the laptop. What surprised me was that, after having traveled exclusively with my iPad Air 2 and a Belkin Qode Bluetooth keyboard for months, toting along my MacBook was really uncomfortable and even unwelcome.
I’ve been using laptops for decades. The first one I ever owned was a PowerBook 3400c, and I’ve never not owned one since then. But now, in contrast to my iPad, my laptop seems altogether much more cumbersome than I prefer to deal with. It’s much, much heavier and bulkier than my iPad, especially when you factor in its power supply and a carrying case.
It’s much more fragile, too—I regularly toss my iPad around in ways that I would never do with my MacBook—and as a result, it’s much less versatile, at least for me. This is partly because the MacBook also restricts my movement; I have to be sitting or standing in a way that accommodates typing, whereas I have so much flexibility with my tablet that I’ve become accustomed to using it while positioned in just about any variant of laying down, sitting, standing or even walking.
What I’m starting to believe is that desktop operating systems like OS X might not be all that well suited for these away-from-your-desk use cases, that in spite of the overwhelming success of laptops as a form factor, they’re really not what we should be using on the go. Granted, it’s true that iOS has a ways to go before it can replace OS X for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that OS X is the really the right long-term solution for mobile productivity.
When I think about where I’m most productive with OS X, it’s always at my desk, where I have a huge monitor (on my iMac, at home) or even two Cinema Displays (at work). It’s so much more comfortable to be able to manipulate the operating system’s myriad windows when I have copious amounts of screen real estate, just as it’s so much more pleasant to have a full keyboard (with a number pad!) and the physical desk space for all of the many peripherals—printer, scanner, USB hub, etc.—that really complement the desktop OS experience.
I know this runs counter to the past decade-plus of computing trends, during which time desktops have become more and more antiquated and laptops have become more and more powerful. It’s not that I believe that transition was a mistake; rather I suspect that laptops may be just a transitional form factor, one that helped us envision computing in a less tethered form, but that won’t sustain us over the long term. I also believe that the tablet is a better mobile device than the laptop; even if most people don’t see that today, it will become obvious soon.
To be clear, I don’t argue the fact that OS X is still the best platform for heavy duty work, and that it is likely to continue to be that for years if not decades. But it seems apparent to me that it’s at its most potent in its original form: on the desktop, where immensely powerful chips do best and battery life is not an issue. When I think about what I want to be using in the near term, I would much rather own a fast and fully stationary iMac and an iPad running a much more productivity-capable version of iOS, than just a MacBook. Having two professional devices is a luxury, I know, but in this same scenario, I would contend that most people would do fine with just the iPad.+