Will There Ever Be A Time For Tablets?


The tablet PC has been heralded as the “next big thing” more than once, but there are still few signs of tablets and slates being embraced by the mainstream, says Jim Rapoza

Ah, a new year. Isn’t it great? All things are possible and everything starts out with a clean slate.

Did someone say slate? You bet. In fact, at the recent CES show, pretty much every major company was talking about or demoing a slate or tablet computer. (And, of course, hanging over all of this talk are the rumors that Apple is set to unveil its own tablet.)

If a new year is all about new beginnings, it sure looks as if computer vendors are once again hoping to refresh the long-tried and often-failed tablet model.

If you’ve been in the technology world for a while, you’ve seen this story before. Every few years, hardware vendors trot out a new set of tablet computers that are supposed to finally gain broad acceptance from technology users. And time and again, users end up unimpressed with these options. At best, the tablets end up in niche and special-purpose markets.

There are usually plenty of reasons for these tablet failures. The operating system isn’t well-designed for tablet computing. The interface doesn’t do a good job with text entry. The touch screen is too sensitive or relies on easily lost styluses.

If you listened to the hardware vendors at CES, and the pundits who are excited by the new slate machines, you heard that all of these problems have now been addressed. Certainly, operating systems such as Android, Windows 7 and Apple mobile OS options do a much better job at handling touch and gesture interactions. And the touch screens today are much improved over older options.

But there is still that nagging problem of text entry. Even the best on-screen touch keyboards are a poor substitute for a real keyboard. For most of these new slates, any task requiring real text entry will entail lots of frustration or require an external keyboard.

That’s why I think many of these new-generation tablet devices are destined to follow their forbears into tech oblivion. But I do think some of them stand a chance of success.

The ones I’m most excited about are the smallest devices, with 5- to 7-inch screens. These devices are a bit larger than a smartphone but much smaller than a netbook. If they retain the ability to be used as a phone, they could be very attractive as rich media devices that effectively enable gaming, watching videos, listening to music and surfing the web.

To me, this is the problem with some tablets that have been shown recently. They are too large to replace a smartphone, and they aren’t good enough at data entry to replace a laptop or netbook for business workers. This means that if you bought one of these as a “rich media entertainment device,” you would also be schlepping around a phone and a laptop/netbook.

To succeed, these devices need to let me carry less stuff, not more. Right now, I guess any new tablet cuts out the need to carry an MP3 player and an e-book reader, but lots of smartphones already do that.

We’ll see if 2010 ends up being the year of the tablet (or the slate or whatever). While it’s likely that some tablets and slates will catch the public’s fancy, I don’t see myself ditching my netbook for them anytime soon.