The press is reporting today on a patent filed in January by Apple for what amounts to a "convertible" iMac - Apple's line of large screen all-in-one desktop computers - that also functions as a giant desktop iPad. This sort of device is certainly inevitable, in one form or another. The evolution introduced to everyday computing by the iPhone and now being accelerated by Android devices, the iPad, and other tablet solutions would certainly evolve into our desktop computing experiences. It was simply a question of when - and how. With this patent application we're seeing one potential approach to implementing these next-generation solutions.
Reviewing the proposed design there are two immediate issues that jump right to the surface:
1. Ergonomics. This is the big one. I've experienced injuries to my arms because of the standard, poor ergonomics around personal computing. As part of my physical therapy it was stressed that the monitor you are looking at should be at eye-level, and the keyboard should not be far above the natural bend of your arms. These are the sort of guidelines you get from your parents and ignore, regretting it later in life when the advice proves sage.
The "desktop iPad" breaks at least the first, and potentially both, of these axioms. Once the screen "slides down" to go into iPad mode the user will be forced to look decidedly downward, declining their head and bending their neck to a greater degree than if they were using a laptop (which is bad enough). The keyboard issue is a "pick your poison": if the keyboard is on the monitor screen it will result in terrible ergonomics when typing, as your arms will be grossly extended and with poor leverage. On the other hand, if an external keyboard is maintained, the screen will need to be far enough away from your body to accommodate a keyboard, which would in turn result in reaching your arm out oddly and unnaturally to perform the gestural interfaces that help define the iPad. It is a lose-lose.
2. Shift from production to consumption. Perhaps more than anything else, the iPad is a machine best-suited for consumption, and poorly suited for creation. Sure, you can draw in ways you can't in a more traditional computer setting. But certainly Wacom has had a lovely little solution for that for many, many years now. Disenfranchising the keyboard, at least until there are excellent voice-to-computer or mind-to-computer interfaces, necessarily neuters the potential for creation on the computing device.
Increasingly, desktop computer use is characterized as being work-related. Most mobile computing is for family and fun - pictures, games, sharing, connecting - whereas when we sit in a chair at a desk or table what we are doing is often either explicitly for work, or for some degree of productive tasks that benefit from the traditional interface devices. Another common use case for desktop computing is online gaming, which currently is heavily reliant on the keyboard and/or mouse and/or similar USB peripheral.
Thus there is an inherent incompatibility in the current computing paradigm between the contexts of use which make the iPad so, errr, magical and what and why people would be seated in a desk-and-chair to do computing.
Once furniture design is working in lockstep with the hardware manufacturers there will certainly be creative solutions to these challenges, at least some of which we've seen verbatim in science fiction movies of the past. Without question, we are heading toward a world without keyboards and mice. The real question is, will that be 5 years away or 20? I don't claim to have an answer to that, but what I do know is that early instantiations of the "desktop iPad", while perhaps cool and hip, will most likely struggle with issues of ergonomics and usability that keep people anchored to their traditional computing environments a while longer.