Take the Tablets …

January 31, 2010

If you have not spent the last couple of weeks at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft, or in a submerged nuclear submarine, you have undoubtedly heard about Apple’s introduction of its new iPad tablet computer.  Visually, the device looks like a really big iPhone; it uses the same multi-touch interface technology.  Opinions on the device have been divided.  Many people think that the iPad will be a “game changing” product; they point to the success of the iPod and the iPhone as examples.  Others, myself included, are somewhat more skeptical.

Tablet computers with a touch-screen interface are not a new idea.  Apple itself introduced a small one, called the Newton, back in the early 1990s; it was not a commercial success.  Microsoft has also tried to promote tablet devices.  They have achieved some success in niche markets, but have never been much of a money-spinner.  I think it is worth thinking about why.

To me, the tablet computer has always seemed like a solution in search of a problem, at least as far as the mass market (the market in which people buy ordinary PCs and laptops) is concerned.  One might conceive of tablets as replacements for laptop computers, or portable media devices (like an iPod, but for all types of media), or perhaps something else.  However, I think there are two key issues that have prevented tablets from gaining much ground in the market.

If a tablet is considered as a replacement for a laptop computer, it has one outstanding handicap: the lack of a keyboard.  Now keyboards can be annoying, and we all know the story about how the QWERTY layout is sub-optimal, but there is really no good alternative for getting a bunch of text or data input into the device quickly.  (Long before the era of PCs, I was delighted to get a portable typewriter when I was in high school, since I could, and still can, type much faster than I can write in longhand.)   Yes, touch screen devices can draw a keyboard on the screen; but, for a touch typist, using one is painful.  Handwriting recognition takes a slow process, writing in longhand, and makes it even slower with extra errors as a bonus.

The success of tablets in some niche markets, like construction and health care, actually emphasizes this point.  In both cases, the device can be used to store and retrieve important documents (engineering drawings, or patients’ records), and either a touch-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition can be used to capture notes, amendments, and so on.  In these applications, portability is a real plus, and the amount of data that has to be input by the human user is relatively small.

The other issue, which affects laptop computers as well as portables, is battery life.  The very limited time that they can be used away from an AC power source really limits their attractiveness as multi-media devices.  Getting longer battery life is a key reason that E-book readers, like the Amazon Kindle®, use a different display technology, so-called “electronic ink”.  In its current incarnations, this display method is much less power-hungry than the backlit LCD displays used in laptops and tablets, but it only works in grayscale, and has a slow refresh rate that makes it unsuitable for any sort of video.

The Apple iPad doesn’t really address the keyboard problem at all, although apparently an auxiliary keyboard will be available.  It claims to have battery life of 10 hours, which is very good by comparison with many current laptops, but the manufacturers’ battery life ratings for so many devices are so ridiculously optimistic that I think the jury is still out on that point.

If I think about the average business person who travels today with a cell phone and a laptop, it is not clear to me that the iPad buys that user much.  It can’t replace the cell phone (it doesn’t have a phone), and it’s unlikely to be a satisfactory replacement for the laptop.  Even if it could replace the laptop, the user is still saddled with two devices, and their attendant chargers, cords, and other impedimenta.

Apple certainly has a knack, which should not be discounted, for introducing new gadgets that people really want; and perhaps they’ve done it again.  But to me, this seems a bit more like the original introduction of the iPod, which I think really took off when its ecosystem with the iTunes store was completed.  It does seem likely that Apple’s move will refocus people’s attention on the tablet category, and perhaps Apple, or someone else, will come up with a really innovative ecosystem for that.


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