Since the launch of the iPad in April 2010, tablet computers appear to have finally fulfilled their potential and have flown off store shelves in ever increasing numbers. Numerous competitors to the iPad have arisen and have proved just as marketable and successful as the Apple product.
The tablet computer has sought to fill the gap for mobile computing needs between the modern smartphone and the standard desktop/laptop computer. However, despite the brilliant sales figures the jury is still out about whether tablet computers are just a passing fad or whether they can establish themselves in the long-term.
Tablet computing in itself is nothing new. There was a well-defined tablet computer concept as far back as 1968 (the Dynabook) by Alan Kay. The GRiDPad introduced the concept of touchscreen operated tablet computing in 1989. The European Union commissioned the development of the NewsPad for the delivery of electronic news and newspapers in 1997. Microsoft entered the market in 2002 with their tablet PC and it remained perhaps the most significant (though unsuccessful) entrant until Apple’s release of the iPad.
So the concept itself isn’t new but all of the above products barring the iPad failed because they simply did not succeed in gaining traction as consumer devices. This was an element of both affordability and usability. Apple’s iPad became an almost instant hit primarily for two reasons. It featured a mobile operating system (iOS) that users were already familiar with and was optimized for mobile touchscreen computing. iOS also already hosted a large number of consumer applications and ongoing independent app development which meant an active developer ecosystem was already prepared. Other manufacturers have followed in Apple’s steps by creating tablets based on the Android OS, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and other operating systems such as the doomed BlackBerry Playbook.
Modern smartphones such as the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S series are powerful devices and indeed are used to fulfill most casual mobile computing needs. On the other side of the spectrum are modern laptops/notebooks and netbooks. Modern laptops have become thin and light enough (see the Macbook Air) to be carried around without much trouble and they have the benefit of a full traditional computer OS running on them, meaning almost all PC functions or activities are accessible.
The tablet computer thus faces a great challenge in attempting to find a sustainable place amongst traditional desktop computers, laptop computers and modern smartphones. Tablet PC makers are banking on the gradual disappearance and irrelevance of desktop computers, a fact supported by recent declines in PC Sales. Many industry analysts (and most especially Apple Inc.) now speak of a ‘Post-PC era’. However, tablet computers must still compete against laptops, which remain popular and are only getting lighter and more efficient.
Today, most people who’ll purchase computing devices will typically own a laptop and a smartphone. They’ll own a laptop for more serious computing needs, and a mobile phone for mobile computing and simpler tasks. Where does an iPad or Galaxy Tab fit in this use scenario? What extra value does a tablet PC offer over the two current staples of a smartphone and laptop?
Let’s take a look at some of the most common uses of computing devices to see how tablet PCs stack up against the alternatives:
1. Internet Access & Use
Perhaps the most common use of computing devices, internet access is pretty much a requirement of most modern computing devices. Most tablet computers take advantage of either mobile 3G networks or WiFi networks to provide internet access to users. However, here again it is difficult to see any superior value provided by tablet PCs.
Laptops can provide internet access and full browsing through a network cable, Wi-Fi access, or even access to mobile 3G networks via portable modems. Modern smartphones as well, are capable of handling internet browsing needs and with many websites offering specific and easily legible mobile sites there’s little drawback there. Most popular web applications such as Facebook or Google are also rendered very well by smartphones so there’s very little advantage a tablet PC may offer there.
2. E-Mail Access
E-Mail has become a staple of modern business and personal communication. However it’s an area that smartphones appear to have well in hand. RIM’s Blackberry enjoyed market dominance amongst workers for years due in a large part to the strength of its e-mail handling. Modern smartphones have done even better in handling e-mails. This is another area where it is extremely difficult to find any superior advantage tablet computers offer.
3. Word Processing
Word Processing is a staple use of computing and here laptops have perhaps their clearest advantage. The availability of a natural, physical keyboard is seen as best for word processing needs. Smartphones are not optimal for typing anything longer than short notes and unfortunately the same applies for the current generation of tablet PCs. Despite the larger screen, onscreen keyboards are still quite difficult to type long works on. This is quite a serious deficiency for tablet computers as it limits the amount of typical work that someone would be able to do using one of them.
To be fair, tablet pc makers appear to have identified these weaknesses in their products and are moving to provide excellent solutions to them. The Microsoft Surface is perhaps the most promising of the next-generation of tablet PCs to be released. With a cleverly attached soft keyboard that doubles as a cover and running a mobile version of Windows 8 that promises compatibility with traditional desktop applications. It appears Microsoft may have figured out how to truly replicate the usability of a fully-fledged PC or laptop in a tablet computer.
Apple appears to be following suit (at least as far as the physical keyboard attachment is concerned) and has filed patents which indicate the next-generation of iPads will have physical keyboards attached. Android manufacturers are already known to be preparing similar offerings.
Tablet Computers haven’t fulfilled their potential yet and in their current iteration it’s difficult to see what extra value they truly bring to an already well-served market. The good news is that there’s change on the horizon. The release of the Microsoft Surface in October and the next generation of iPads next year may well spell a great future for tablet PCs.
If the MS Surface and its like are received well and deliver on their promise of far more relevant computing it will be a sign that there is a profitable future for tablet computers. The survival of the laptop will be what is in question then. I’ve not heard of anyone yet tossing away their laptop in favor of their iPad or Galaxy Tab. The next generation of tablets may well cause that choice to become a far more common one.