Let’s Talk About Tablets

by Don Willmott

The arrival of Apple’s
iPad not only inspired imaginative prognostications about the future of
computing, but also generated a lot of talk about the present state of a somewhat
neglected stepchild of the extended computing family: tablet PCs.

Let's Talk About TabletsI fondly recall the Spring Comdex
trade show of 1992, the year which Microsoft
declared to be “the year of pen computing.” New versions of Windows
were “pen-enabled” to inspire all sorts of pen-oriented hardware and
software implementations that would yield the next great computing paradigm.

Or not. Eighteen years later, we’re in about year six of the
nascent tablet PC market, but so far tablets haven’t become commonplace. Back
in 2001, Microsoft did make a second push with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, but we all yawned. Now, most of that
functionality is blended into “regular” Windows versions.

I do have one early adopter-type friend who’s been lugging
around the same heavy Fujitsu tablet since 2005. In today’s iPad world, it’s as
if he’s driving a ’78 Buick Le Sabre on a highway full of hybrids. Still, he
soldiers on. Other than him, I’ve rarely seen first-generation tablets out in
the real world being used for anything resembling a mainstream app. (Do you
have any in your organization?)

More recently, laptop vendors have tried to split the
difference with some success, and every major PC vendor has some kind of table
or convertible model on the market. Another colleague recently bought a Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart
tm2t series
convertible, the type of laptop with a swivel screen that can
snap down over the keyboard to turn into a tablet. At a little under five
pounds, that makes for one heavy tablet, especially when compared to the
1.5-pound iPad, but that comparison’s a bit unfair. The iPad is really an
info-consumption device, not an everyday workhorse.

Will the iPad and its ilk force PC manufacturers to head
down the tablet path in a hurry? Chip maker Intel certainly thinks so. It held its annual investor meeting on
May 11 (see videos and
presentation slides here
), and among the many facts and figures that CEO Paul Otellini shared
was this interesting stat: He expects to see a 73 to 88 percent compound annual
growth rate in total tablet market size from 2010 to 2014. That’s a lot, and it
outstrips his growth predictions for both laptops and netbooks. (The desktop
market is flat.)

When it comes to real-world deployment of tablets in the
enterprise, I fear I have more questions than answers. Where are the tablets in
your business today? Are you planning to buy more? (It seems clear someone
certainly is.) What would you use them for? What business applications could be
enhanced with a touch-screen tablet interface? I don’t want to be skeptical,
and I don’t want to be a Luddite, but if pen-based or touch-screen computing
for mainstream apps hasn’t grabbed a toehold in the past 18 years, what’s
changing – other than the ubiquitous availability of WiFi Web surfing – to make
it appealing now?

One answer may be our utter dependency on presentations and
our increasing fascination with video. Tablets can make compelling content
viewers across a desk or in a conference room. Perhaps we’ll learn from
vertical markets in hospitals, in high schools, on sales calls, and on factory
floors, all places tablets have found happy homes. Even the FedEx guy seems pretty satisfied with
his little pen-enabled touch-screen gadget.

Yes, this is a time of imaginative prognostications.
Tablet PCs are good enough and versatile enough to demand our attention. Now we
just have to figure out what we need them for.