The Experiment

I have been at Guandong Baiyun University for four days, giving talks and doing some set-up work for the Guandong Baiyun University Center on American Culture and Race -- which, with the support of the US Embassy in Beijing, Johnson C. Smith University is establishing here with our partner. My set-up included preparing three iMacs, ten iPad minis, and ten iPod Touches for use by those visiting the Center so that they can listen to the podcasts and view the vidcasts and other material we will be uploading to promote mutual understanding between the US and China.

During the time I have been here, I have been using an iPad Pro. That is why I am writing this blog.

Traveling here with the iPad Pro is part of a larger experiment. In brief, we wish to determine if it can replace a faculty member's desktop computer for a month (Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 -- a time frame that includes travel, a break, an advising period, and, of course, teaching) and to document the successes and the pain points associated with such an experiment.

Yes: desktop.

Quite frankly, much of what is written about whether or not an iPad is capable of replacing a laptop is reductive. The iPad has been able to replace a laptop for several iterations. Indeed, I ceased to use a laptop computer soon after the first iPad was released. Much like Serenity Caldwell did recently during her iPad Pro Experiment, I closed my laptop for a week and tried to see if I could successfully complete what I needed to do with just the iPad. I have written and edited full length articles on iPads for years (You have actually been able to write articles on an iPhone using only the Notes app for a long time. The screen size just makes it inconvenient. Inconvenient is not the same as impossible. After all, the screens on the typewriters that came out at the same time as the early PCs didn't have a screen that could show nearly as much as today's phone screens.)

There was, of course, a learning curve. I discovered, however, that the overwhelming majority of my tasks could be completed on an iPad and that half of those I could not complete on the iPad wear do to artificial constraints imposed elsewhere (IT staffs have since come around to supporting mobile-centric computing. Indeed, many have embraced it with a fervor that equals or exceeds my own.).

I also learned that many of the perceived constraints of the first generation iPad had less to do with the device and more to do with me. Typing on a glass screen was initially alien. After a week, however, it was normal and physical keyboards felt strange. Yes, the virtual and physical keyboards were different but my initial hesitations had to do with adjusting to what was new rather than what was better or normal.

Disclaimer: While I am not a slow typist, I do not move at the speeds of many professional writers. I never took a typing class so never learned to touch-type. For some, the changeover to a glass screen from a good keyboard involves a noticeable degradation in typing speed. For those whose livelihood depends on the number of words on the page/screen, it wouldn't be a good idea to threaten one's livelihood with retraining. For future generations, however, it is worth remembering the angst that accompanied the shift from Typing 101 to Keyboarding 101 in the 80s and the questions about speed and appropriateness of changing what is taught to students. Because, after all, there were going to be typewriters in offices for a long time and not everyone would have access to computers.

Whether an iPad can replace a laptop is a question based on a series of false assumptions and comparison, as was humorously demonstrated by Fraser Speirs' review, asking if the MacBook Pro can replace your iPad. Most comparisons are not as fair as this one, as they tend to compare a single product with three primary expressions (the iPad mini, iPad Air, and iPad Pro) to a class of products (the MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, to use Apple's line of laptops as a point of comparison). There is a huge range of capabilities between these three laptops and, for some users, the iPad mini, the MacBook, or a Chromebook are equally unusable because they need the features available at the Pro level.

With iOS 9, the iPad Pro can, in most cases, easily replace a laptop -- as Speirs has outlined on his blog. The obvious next question is if the iPad can replace a Desktop. Of course, given that laptops can replace desktops, Speirs' experiment could be said to have already been completed. But technology usage, like all politics, is local. Can his experiment be completed here?

And, as with most things, the only way to discover is to do.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at