It's always exciting to hear about new technology like the tablet, and the idea of a new Apple tablet is one that sets us all aglow. But while we wait seemingly endlessly for Apple to come through (or not) with its long-rumored product, other manufacturers are flirting with the same idea, and it has me wondering why we need a new device category like tablets at all--beyond short-term technology titillation. Not only that, we've seen a similar device in the past and it turned out, nobody wanted it.
Is There a Compelling Need?
We aren't really looking for another form factor are we? We have smart phones in our pockets and if we want a keyboard and reasonable screen size we have Netbooks, which are ultra-portable and incredibly cheap. With the combination of these two items, do we really, really need a third category to step into the fray? I'm not so sure.
What Will We Do With Them?
Presumably the new tablets will be aimed at non-business users and be used for eBook reading, watching TV and movies and of course playing games. Now, you certainly could argue that a Netbook is a lousy eBook reader, but with a little design imagination to make the screen more ebook-friendly, netbooks could easily provide the same functionality people would likely get from a tablet or eBook reader in a device that has a keyboard and is much cheaper. In fact, the One Laptop Per Child PC was designed to be this type of device, as was Lenova's new netbook-tablet hybrid.
Games People Play
That still leaves games, which is a huge market and can't be easily dismissed. A big part of Apple's success in the App Store is the proliferation of games for the iPhone. A bigger surface would provide a larger palette for the game developers and likely more gaming revenue for Apple. I imagine other manufacturers are thinking about honing in on this gaming action as well.
Sounds like the UMPC To Me
Yet for all the hype, we've seen a device with similar functionality before, one that didn't go over terribly well. Consider this: In July 2006, more than three years ago, I wrote a review of a device for InformationWeek that sounds surprisingly similar to what we can expect from tablet PCs. The product was the Samsung Q1, a precursor to the Netbook market, known as a UMPC or Ultra Mobile PC. Here's how I described it:
Picture a device the size of a large paper back book that replaces your PDA, MP3 player, media player, portable game device, notebook computer and even your phone...
The problem was that the device had trouble finding a market and never really took off. UMPCs eventually evolved into Netbooks, which proved much more popular. Might the tablet, a device which offers a similar set of functions face the same issues and the same fate? Granted the Tablet will have the advantage of touch screen technology that wasn't widely available at that point, but is that enough to push people to buy them?
One Device too Many?
How many devices exactly are we willing to own to cover our every computing whim? Maybe tablets are something we'll look back on and wonder why there was so much fuss about something it turns out that nobody really wanted. I'm not convinced there is a market, but whatever happens, let's get this started and find out because until we see them distributed in a widespread market, we can only guess.