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Communications of the ACM


Who Needs a Tablet?

Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden
Now that the netbook hype has fallen, tablets are all the rage.  There are predictions that the tablet will not only kill off the netbook, but also kill off the venerable PC.
My prediction is that tablet sales will stall.  I think tablets will meet the same fate as netbooks. 
Why do I say this?  What makes me make a prediction so counter conventional wisdom?
The problem with tablets is the same as the problem with netbooks.  Both serve an awkward niche between smartphones and traditional PCs.  Neither solves the input/output problem and the portability problem simultaneously, instead giving us a device that too large to be pocketable like a smartphone but also has an insufficient keyboard and screen to do anything other than very light reading, entertainment, and communication. 
Moreover, the tablet does not solve a problem that mainstream users have.  Most iPad sales have been to wealthy, non-price-sensitive, early adopters. Most iPad owners own many devices; many own a PC, iPhone, and iPod in addition to their iPad.  Very few are ditching their PC for an iPad, instead using the tablet as a supplement.  
In fact, since most tablet sales are mostly to wealthy early adopters using the tablet as just one of their many devices, one could argue that iPads are just the latest fashion accessory, something hip and cool, something to be seen with, something fun.  And that not only means a limited audience, but also that imitators such as Android and Windows tablets that do not have the same cachet will not see the same sales.
I am not saying that tablets will not see some sales to some audience.  What I am saying is that, in the next several years, the audience for tablets is limited, tablet sales will soon stall around the same level where netbook sales stalled,  and the PC is under no threat from tablets.
The core problem is that simultaneously solving the input/output and portability problems in a device requires solutions still in the research stage, at least 20 years out.  Current versions of tablets don't solve that mainstream problem (or any major mainstream problem) and so they serve only niche.
For decades, people have been trying to build a tablet computer that gets broad adoption.  The Apple Newton, the Microsoft Tablet PC, many others came and fell before.  The question is whether the current generation of tablets will find mainstream appeal where those did not, or, despite the hype and overwhelming tide of conventional wisdom, suffer the same fate.   
Please see also my previous article, "Who Needs a Netbook?"


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