The tablet is here to stay

The tablet isn't a laptop, nor is it a true laptop replacement. It's something different, and it isn't going anywhere.

Tablets are hot. At the CTIA tradeshow in Orlando, FL, it seems like everyone and their mother is announcing a tablet. It may be easy to dismiss tablets as a fad, but given the widespread appeal of tablets like the iPad and the Motorola Xoom, I think it's safe to say that the tablet is just getting started.

We've discussed the future of the PC at length here at GeekTech, and we all agreed that the PC isn't going away anytime soon. But just the same, we agreed that tablets have a place in the world.

It's All in How You Use It

In her blog post Why Tablets Are Just a Fad, our Katherine Noyes points out that, "As far as I can tell, tablets do not offer any significant functionality that's not already available on a smartphone or notebook computer, yet they lack critical components like keyboards." She also notes, "Unlike smartphones, the tablet form factor is too large to fit in a pocket or purse, yet it doesn't offer anywhere near the functionality of only slightly larger devices like notebooks and laptop computers."

While both of these are true--nobody to my knowledge has released iPants yet, for instance--tablets in their current form aren't designed to replace the laptop that I'm typing this on. Nor are they intended as a replacement for the smartphone in my pocket.

I'm a writer by trade. I use my laptop as my primary computer, so I need something with a keyboard. But not everyone is me. Not everyone needs the keyboard. And not everyone is going to want to carry around a 4.5-pound notebook like I do. For many people who want something to take with them for reading, browsing the Web, checking e-mail, and watching video, a tablet makes a lot more sense than bringing a laptop or netbook with you. As small as netbooks can be, there really aren't any with 10-inch screens that are less than a half-inch thick and under 1.5 pounds.

And I know it sounds like something Steve Jobs might say, but in my experience it's true: Browsing the Web and reading is simply more enjoyable on a tablet than on a notebook. The inherent design of tablets makes it easier to focus on one thing--a great respite from the ten-things-at-once work I do on my laptop.

Comparing the tablet to the smartphone is a moot comparison. As is that case between the tablet and the laptop, the smartphone and the tablet cater to different tasks. My smartphone is fine for checking e-mail on the run, or quickly looking something up on the Web, but its small screen makes it less than ideal for longer spurts of work.

So it's not a matter of the tablet being useless because the laptop can do a lot of the same stuff. It's a matter of using the right tool for the task at hand.

New Possibilities

Is there overlap between tablets and smartphones and laptops? Sure. But tablets also offer things that neither a smartphone or laptop can. An app like GarageBand for iPad wouldn't even be possible on a smartphone or traditional laptop. A maps app on a tablet is like nothing on a smartphone or PC. And gaming? Games like Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds just feel made with tablets in mind; you can play them on a smartphone or PC, sure, but the experience is nothing like what you'll find on a tablet.

The Tablet Is Everywhere

In her piece, Noyes also compares the tablet to the PDA, suggesting that just as the PDA was the must-have fad gadget in the late 90s, the tablet is the must-have fad gadget of today.

Yes, everybody's rushing to release a tablet, just like how seemingly everyone wanted in on the PDA game 10-12 years ago. But let's take a second to step back and look at the differences between the PDA of 1999 and the tablet of today.

The PDA catered to specific groups: The businessperson. The geek. Perhaps the student. But it never truly went mainstream. but look at where the tablet is, one year after the iPad's introduction. It's in Schools. Businesses. Medicine. Homes. In short, it's used in places where the PDA never caught on, for things the PDA could never do. It's gone mainstream, just as smartphones have gone mainstream in the last 4 years.

The Real Computer for the Rest of Us

After the launch of the Macintosh, Apple ran a series of TV ads touting it as "the computer for the rest of us." Compared to the PCs of the era with text-based user interfaces, the Mac truly was easier to use for mere mortals. Today, as Steve Wozniak put it, "Every PC is a Macintosh." Of course, Woz didn't mean that every computer out there carries and Apple logo, but that every PC sold today carries the vision behind the original Mac: a computer with a relatively easy-to-use operating system.

But even then, there are problems. There's still plenty complexity, as anyone who's had to help a friend or a family member with their computer can attest.

But the tablet is different. The tablet--particularly the iPad--appeals even to people who don't care about computers, or would never touch one otherwise. When you have centurions who have never owned computers purchasing iPads, well, you know you're onto something big.

The tablet will never replace the laptop for those of us who need them. And you know what? That's OK. But to dismiss the tablet as a mere trend is simply short-sighted.

Previously in This Series...

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Nick Mediati

PC World (US online)
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