I think today's tablet is unjustifiably unsustainable

UPDATE: Changed topic to reflect and emphasize that I'm not passing any of what I've stated below as fact. It is simply why I do not own a tablet and why I don't understand why so many people buy them. I'm not saying they are useless, obviously if it were, so many people wouldn't be buying them. I'm saying that I think the function they provide is so marginal, the sheer number of tablets sold so far baffle me.

I've owned a Nexus 7 2013 and the first generation iPad Mini.

This is my personal opinion and I understand that I am not the majority; many people love and swear by their tablets regardless of the ecosystem they belong to. I personally think it's a cleverly designed and marketed shroud to convince people they need something they really just want. In this I shall share my own anecdotal experiences and observations; I shall also discuss trends I seem to see forming and so on. My motivation for this was mostly due to the replies I got on Silelak's forum post "here". I was typing a long winded reply but decided a forum post would be much better. That's about it for the background, so let's begin.


As far as an informal thesis statement goes, this is it: The tablet in its current iteration (pioneered by Apple), is a device that came about when a product is first made and then applied to a solution of a problem. In engineering, I know this as the inverse approach. A classic example would be Airy's stress function where the partial differential equation is so complex that a stress function that satisfies the equation is first formed and then the problem that the function is applicable to is then found [1]. The iPad and every other tablet that implements a derivative of the iPad's paradigm, is therefore a fundamentally flawed and unsustainable design. I'm not saying the iPad or any tablet is a bad product, I'm saying that it is suboptimal and eventually will have to evolve to something else.


I'm not an expert in sustainable design and I shall not pretend to be one. I'm simply a graduate student in manufacturing engineering who is taking a single course in sustainable design this semester. What I have learnt however, is that for sustainable design to take place, one has to first identify an area where waste is generated; an area where the current process, baseline, or status quo is fundamentally unsustainable. After this area has been identified, one must then begin to research potential improvements to this space by identifying a persona within the space that value can be created for, and the method of creating this value fundamentally changes the space it is introduced into. This creates a new baseline that is more sustainable than the previous one [2]. To illustrate this point, I shall discuss my favorite sustainable design yet. Readers of this site should be very familiar to it as The Verge has done extensive coverage of the product and company. The device is Nest's thermostat.


To show why I believe the Nest is true sustainable design, I will highlight the parts of the Nest that feature in the definition above.

1. The persona: This is the person for whom value is created as a result of sustainable design. In this case it is anyone that purchases and uses the product.

2. The sustainability issue: Wasted energy as a result of a home's heating system keeping the house warm even when there is no one around to keep warm.

3. The value created: The Nest is smart enough to turn of the home's HVAC system when no one is around, thereby saving energy. For the persona, the value created is the money saved due to a reduced energy bill which can be rather significant.

I think the Nest does is one product that benefits energy sustainability with great aplomb. The tablets of today however...


"All of us use laptops and smartphones now. Is there room for a third device in the middle, between a laptop and a smartphone?" -Steve Jobs at the iPad Special Event, January 2010 [3]

My first question/criticism is thus: Who posed this question? Subsequent questions include: What market research demonstrated this? What about the current model was unsustainable and how does the iPad address it? Do the ends justify the means? Now that the iPad is over 3 years old, is there really an improvement to the baseline (A world sans iPad)? The iPad has spurned many other similar tablets, is any one of them sustainable?

These questions are not rhetorical; however I am not in the position to demand answers as I have not carried out research to try to answer them. I will however state without evidence, that the answer to these questions will all have negative connotations. What I will instead do, is provide my personal anecdotal evidence to try to demonstrate the triviality of the current tablet.


I'll start with this claim: There is NO function that the tablet carries out, that cannot be completed to the same degree, accuracy or professionalism that the smartphone, laptop (traditional PC), or a combination of both cannot. A seemingly wild claim, but one I personally find to be true.


I find that that in the period I've owned any tablet, I consciously have to make the decision "Which device should I use for what?" prior to the tablet, this was never an issue. The domain of the smartphone and PC rarely mixed. Each task I had to complete was either for the PC or the smartphone, or some other device; the introduction of the tablet has confounded this space. If I wanted to watch a movie in bed, my MacBook air was a lovely companion to browse and eventually consume. If I wanted to check my email while looking for the departure gate of my next flight, I'd use my phone. However, recently I found myself at the airport waiting to board and decided to check my email. Through prior conditioning, I first reached for my phone, however to justify my purchase I brought out my shiny new tablet and proceeded to check my email. Notice the tablet is being used in lieu of my smartphone, not because of the inability of my smartphone to carry out the task. This mental decision process is not one I should need to make if the tablet was truly fulfilling a need I had, it should've been a no brainer.

As a matter of fact, this phenomenon repeated itself consistently throughout my ownership period of the tablet; starting a task on the tablet only to resume it at a later point on my smartphone out of convenience became the rule rather than the exception. My biggest peeve about the tablet overall was that it was Wi-Fi only. I could of course have gotten one with mobile data, but I felt that I was beginning to make concessions just to make the device fit me. It would cost me way more money than the larger screen was worth. Owning a tablet was becoming cumbersome instead of a joy; a nuanced first world problem.


Note taking:

I go to one best public schools in the United States, it is arguably the second best school in industrial/manufacturing engineering in the entire country as well. A recurring theme I see though, is the amount of people using tablets WITHOUT the use or native support of an active digitizer to take notes. To use a phrase I picked up reading The Verge, the amount of "Hand yoga" done to zoom in on a page to annotate after a professor has made a point so it does not obstruct the rest of the document is truly a sight to behold. It's funnier still when the hand yogi or yogini after pinching in to the pertinent part of the screen to put the figurative pen to paper contorts their finger to serve as the pen! He/She has gone through the necessary ritual to write on a tablet, only for the ritual to be rendered unworthy by the gods of logic as his/her finger remains in the way perfectly obfuscating their writing.

Creative tools:

"Apps like garageband in the iPad are irreplaceable!" - Anonymous

When comparing tablets to tablets, of course. Definitely, no brainer. Garageband is available on the Mac though, and arguably is more functional. In the case of drawing, even 53's paper which has been much lauded in the technology world has realized the triviality of being really creative on an iPad without a stylus. For the spontaneous doodle, it suffices, but to create something that does not stem from pure leisure is a challenge.


I hope I can be pardoned here, but I am not a gamer. I consider the only game to be worth my time on any platform and on any console to be EA Sports' FIFA. I love that game and the banter that's to be had, the friendships to be formed and subsequently lost, the idiotic bets taken on amongst other things all amount to a spectacle that I miss when not around like minded football fans. I however cannot discount the need for games to pass the time and ease stress when waiting outside the doctor's office to confirm if your last one night stand was worthwhile. I personal go to app and consequently the only game I have on my phone is the card game "Whot". After I dish out a couple of Pick 3's and general market cards, my day always brightens considerably. Favorites of the world include Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga and many more.

The only games out of these that justify a larger screen and therefore a tablet are arguably better suited for a traditional games console or gaming PC with a mouse and keyboard. Why get a $230+ device for such a niche source of entertainment that your smartphone already provides?

Movies (especially in bed):

I own a MacBook air and the color gamut it displays is less than stellar. Regardless, watching a movie is a way better experience on it than on any tablet for me because of its ability to support itself. Tablets require me to use my hand to prop it up in a way that makes in annoying to snack, drink and watch at the same time. Letting the tablet lay flat makes for poor viewing angles and propping the tablet on a wall restricts viewing angles as well. A recurring theme remains that the tablet is suboptimal.


The only possible category that I will admit after a thorough haggling, is that a tablet is better than a smartphone, laptop or combination of both. The question to be asked here is, if you're buying the tablet to read, why not just get a cheaper ereader?


My point at the end of the day is this, I personally think a tablet without an active digitizer like the Surface Pro (The Galaxy Note is a terrible product and does not even feature) is the height of consumerism; a jack of all trades and a master of none. The narrative that has been used to condemn the Surface Pro is applicable to the popular paradigm of the tablet. The difference is one company is better at convincing people they need a tablet they do not. I still think the Surface Pro is chuck full of compromises, I just think the iPad is full of more. It has its advantages, but said advantages are so marginal that unless you really had the flexible income, I think anyone buying one is being conned. This is of course personal opinion, and given the Nexus 7's price, it's not a terrible con job. The iPad mini or Air however is inexcusable to me. I tend to leer at people who use the larger iPad to take notes in class and struggle to zoom in and out just to annotate. My professor for sustainable design uses a Surface Pro and while I see its usefulness for him as all papers submitted to him are graded with comments using the Surface, his use case is so niche, that I struggle see how it would gain popularity with the average person.

I think tablets are everything sustainable design isn't. It does nothing to improve the baseline, it contributes to the tragedy of the commons by providing more material to throw into the ever increasing landfills of the world, and it really is a niche product successfully marketed to the mainstream. The world does not need the tablet and the world is arguably better off with it as niche product to satisfy specific needs, rather than the bestselling must have product it is today.


[1] E. K. A. Jr., "ME 586: Residual Stresses," 2013.

[2] S. S, "Needs Finding and Informed Design," 2013.

[3] C. Starrett, "iLounge.com," 27 January 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/news/comments/18413/. [Accessed 22 11 2013].