The iPad came out a few weeks ago, and everyone went oooh and ahhhh. This is to be expected for a new platform from Apple, a company for which hype is a form of currency. But the iPad did something else that might be a lot more important. It legitimized the tablet format-something that Hewlett-Packard and others have been struggling to do for years.
The thing is, Apple can deliver two things that HP never could-a new much-hyped product from Apple and a user interface that Apple fans would love to hype as being the best thing since night baseball. In fairness to Apple, the interface on the iPad is pretty nice, but given its roots as an iPod Touch it was aimed at being a consumer product. While it can be used for some business purposes, that was never its core function.
But the iPad did raise the awareness of the tablet format, and it helped spur sales of tablets beyond just the iPad. For example, Barnes and Noble with its Nook and Amazon with its Kindle are suddenly fighting for market share and having a price war in the process. Now, Toshiba has announced a new Libretto, which it refers to as a concept but which looks a lot like a finished, albeit unusual, product. Meanwhile, Microsoft is quietly showing a Windows 7-based tablet, and HP has updated its tablet line to be more powerful and more sleek, but still very specifically a business machine.
And, of course, there's the long-rumored tablet that might be coming this fall after HP has had a chance to digest Palm and turn the Palm WebOS into something that'll run a tablet. I could go on about the Android tablets that are starting to show up, but you get my point. One way or the other, tablets are now a legitimate form factor, even if it's not totally clear what niche they fill.
And that's the problem with tablet computers. Beside entertainment, which is the spot that the iPad, Kindle, Nook and other similar devices fill, what are they good for? The HP tablet computers are really notebook computers with a detachable touch screen, and they work very well for some verticals. But do they have a role for some general purpose computing need?
The problem with tablets is that there are a number of things that they're not very good at. For example, while you can type an e-mail or a letter on a device with a touch screen, it's not nearly as easy as it is with a real keyboard. You can solve this with a separate keyboard, but then you effectively have turned your tablet computer into a laptop. I suppose you could even write a novel on one, but I can't imagine doing so since tablets so far don't really do handwriting recognition, and they don't handle typing well.
So where is this new world of tablets going to take us? Surprisingly, not very far in the near term. For the next couple of years, what you see in the tablet format is pretty much what you're going to have next year and maybe the year after. Tablets will be great for browsing the Web, for watching television is some form, and for readers. They won't be very useful for productivity in all but a few cases.
But that doesn't mean that tablets are a dead end. What it means is that the current level of technology isn't quite where it needs to be for these devices to be as useful as they will be some day. The iPad and the readers need the ability to become the equivalent of the yellow legal pad, with the ability to accurately and reliability read what's written and to create images out of drawings. The tablets such as those by HP need to be a little more portable and more generally useful.
And that's just the start. Tablets need to find some means of efficient data entry, which means something besides typing on a touch screen. Perhaps it'll come when HP and Palm's WebOS take advantage of Palm's long experience in handwriting recognition, although I doubt it. Perhaps it'll be voice recognition. Perhaps it'll be something we don't know about now.
But until tablets take that next step, they'll remain on the sidelines of productivity, in spite of the hype and price wars. But perhaps that productivity will be the next differentiating factor for one of the tablet makers. Then perhaps we can start thinking about tablets really being as cool as night baseball. Well, OK. Nearly as cool.