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Communications of the ACM


Who Needs a Tablet?

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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?"



Kurt Partridge

I think the iPad has been so successful (in units sold) not because it is a more portable laptop, or a phone with better I/O, but because it is a more portable and interactive television replacement. And I don't mean television in the strict channel-based video delivery sense, but rather in the entertain-me-now sense. From this perspective, the iPad's user interface, portability, and control are superior to the device it's replacing.

Viewed as a TV competitor, the iPad has a good chance to become the new mainstream. I think it's been successful at edging out netbooks because netbooks fell short in ways that really mattered. They weren't rock-solid reliable and dead-simple to use. An iPad is (well, it's closer to it). Because of this, it reaches a broader market, like the elderly, whose vision precludes smartphone usage, and young children, who don't know how to administer a machine. Despite two decades of the web, TVs have remained, until now, the entertainment device of choice for these demographics.

The iPad is inferior to a TV only in that a TV experience can be shared with 10s, whereas an iPad is easily shareable only with a few. But it's still more shareable than a netbook or laptop, whose weight and bulk, especially of the keyboard, get in the way. And, unlike a TV, an iPad's lightness and size make it really easy to flip between a shared experience and a private one.

(Disclaimer: I'm not an iPad owner. Just speculating.)


One person ditched the laptop for travel, here: I decided last year that I'd have a good desktop machine with a large screen, multibutton mouse, etc, and a tablet when away from my desk. The laptop is an awkward compromise; its days may be numbered.


I recently switched to Vzn 4G network. With data speeds as fast as wi-fi and 1GHz processor I am noticing that I am using my HTC smart phone to do tasks I usually do on my Mac. So in a sense my smart phone is becoming a "window" into my desktop productivity environment. If tablets try to become just another window into my PC/Desktop they are sure to be doomed. But if they can carve out a different computing "experience" like iPad is trying to establish they will flourish. Apple gets it but don't think all the clones out there get it. It's a joy to play with your photo albums on an iPad but you can't say the same on any other device.

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