What is it about tablets?
Ok, I’m stumped. I’ve tried to understand this manufacturing trend, but I simply can’t. We have to be heading towards the fourth or maybe fifth generation of tablet PCs, yet each time they bring tablets back to the the market, this technology fails miserably. Perhaps it’s the timing, but I don’t think so. I think the market has spoken time and time again. So, what is it about this technology that make manufacturers try and try again to foist these lead balloons onto us about every 6 years?
It was in the early 90’s that Grid Computers arguably released the first tablet (or at least, one of the very first tablets). Granted, it used a monochrome plasma screen and I believe that it ran DOS and Windows 3.1 (that I recall), but these things flopped badly for many different reasons. Ultimately, the market spoke and no one wanted them. It’s no wonder why, too. The lack of keyboard combined with the size and weight of the unit, the need for a pen and the lack of a truly viable input method doomed this device to the halls of flopdom. Into obscurity this device went along with Grid Computers (the company).
In the early 2000s, Microsoft+Manufacturers tried again to resurrect this computer format with XP Tablet edition. This time they tried making the devices more like notebooks where the screen could detach from a keyboard and become a tablet. So, when it was attached, it looked and felt like a notebook. When detached, it was a tablet. Again, there was no viable input method without keyboard even though they were touch screen. The handwriting recognition was poor at best and if it had voice input, it failed to work. XP Tablet edition was not enough to make the tablet succeed. Yet again, the tablet rolled into obscurity… mostly. You can still buy tablets, but they aren’t that easy to find and few manufacturers make them. They also ship with hefty price tags.
Then, later in the mid 2000’s came Microsoft with Origami. At this time, Origami was supposed to be a compact OS, like Windows CE (although CE would have worked just fine for this, don’t know why Origami really came about). A few tablets came out using Origami, but most computers that loaded this version of Windows used it in the microPC format. Since the Origami version of Windows was a full version (unlike CE), it was a lot more powerful than computers of that size really needed and the price tag showed that. Sony and a few other manufacturers made these microPCs, but they sold at expensive prices (like $1999 or more) for a computer the size of a PDA. Again, no viable input method could suffice on the microPC tablets and so these died yet another death… although, the microPC hung around a bit longer than the tablet. You might even still be able to buy one in 2010, if you look hard enough.
Then came the Netbook. The $199-299 priced scaled down notebook using the Atom processor. This format took off dramatically and has been a resounding success. The reason, price. Who wouldn’t want a full fledged portable computer for $199-299? You can barely buy an iPod or even a cell phone… let alone a desktop PC for that price. The Netbook price point is the perfect price point for a low end notebook computer. But, what does a Netbook have to do with a tablet? It doesn’t, but it is here to illustrate why tablets will continue to fail.
Once again, we are in the middle of yet another possible tablet resurrection attempt. Rumor has it that Apple will release a tablet. HP is now also pushing yet another tablet loaded with Windows. Yet, from past failures, we already know this format is dead on arrival. What can Apple possibly bring to the tablet format that Microsoft and PCs haven’t? Nothing. That’s the problem. The only possible selling point for a tablet has to be in price alone. Tablets have to get down to the $199-299 price tag to have any hope of gaining any popularity. Yet, Apple is not known to make budget computers, so we know that that price point is out. Assuming Apple does release a tablet, it will likely price it somewhere between $899 and $1599. Likely, they will offer 3 different versions with the lowest version starting at $899. Worse, at the lowest price point it will be hobbled lacking most bells and whistles.
Even if Apple loads up the tablet with all of the bells and whistles (i.e., Bluetooth, 3G, GSM, OLED Display, iTunes app capable, handwriting recognition, voice recognition, WiFi, wireless USB, a sleek case design, etc etc) the only thing those bells and whistles will do is raise the cost to produce the unit. The basic problems with a tablet are portability (too big), lack of a viable input device, weight and fragility (not to mention, battery life). Adding on a hefty price tag ensures that people won’t buy it. Of course, the Apple fan boys will buy anything branded with a half bitten Apple logo. But, for the general masses, no. This device cannot hope to succeed on Apple fan boy income alone.
Apple has to provide some kind of paradigm shifting technology that makes such a failure of a device like the tablet become successful (or whatever Apple cleverly names its tablet device). If the tablet is over 7 inches in size, it will be too large to be portable. Utilizing OLED technology ensures the cost is extremely high. Putting a thin case on it like the MacBook Air ensures that it’s overly fragile. We’ve yet to find out the battery life expectancy. So far, this is not yet a winning combination.
So, what kind of technology would make such a paradigm shift? The only such technology I can think of would have to be a new input device technology. A way to get commands into the notebook and a way to drive the interface easily. Clearly, a multi-touch screen will help. The iPod is good in that regard (except that you can’t use it with gloves). But, if you want to write email, how do you do that on a tablet? Do you hand peck the letters on that silly on-screen thing that Apple calls a keyboard? No. That’s not enough. Apple needs a fully phonetic speech input technology that’s 100% flawless without any training. That means, you speak the email in and it converts it perfectly to text. Also, you speak in any conversational command and the computer figures out what you mean flawlessly. This is the only technology that makes any sense on a tablet. Of course, it will need to support multiple languages (a tall order) and it needs to be flawless and perfect (an extremely tall order). It will also need to work in a noisy room (not likely).
Can Apple make such a shift? I don’t know. The hardware technology is there to support such a system. The issue, is the software ready? Well, let’s hope Apple thinks so. Otherwise, if Apple does release its rumored tablet without such a paradigm shift, it could be the worst stumble that Apple has made since the Lisa.