Floating on a Sea of Tablet Paradoxes

New 3 tablet MosesWhy is everyone all of a sudden (within the last 9 months or so) excited about Tablets? Why is CES 2010 filled with Tablets everywhere? Those questions puzzle me, especially in light of the fact that every mention of Tablets is followed by a pretty powerful question: what’s the market for these things?  That question has dogged Tablets from the beginning and still does, even with all the excitement that is evident today. It’s almost like setting sail on a big sea not knowing where the winds will eventually carry you. But there are other issues that make this long time Tablet PC user ponder the Tablet mania today and perhaps cloud the horizon.

First up is the technology behind the interaction with the device. Translate that to mean two things, the screen and voice. Early Tablet PCs relied on active or passive digitizers, mostly from Wacom, for their interaction with a pen. Resistive technology became popular with the move to touch, and that was followed by capacitive screens that allowed for more active interaction with the display. All of that technology on large screens has drawbacks, some of which led to devices with multiple digitizers for both pen and touch interaction. Again, a workable but ultimately flawed solution in a world that wants smaller, thinner, lighter. N-Trig’s capacitive digitizer issues have become legendary, and Wacom is still strangely silent. We’re seeing the others begin to step up, but the technologies are still unproven, especially on larger screens.

Voice or speech interaction seems a natural way of communicating with these devices, but just as touch or pen interaction has its issues so does talking to your computer. It hasn’t been solved yet, although advances continue to bring us closer to a day when we can all pretend we’re on the Starship Enterprise and just talk to our devices and make them do what we want them to, without correction.

Again, we’re getting closer, but we’re certainly not there yet.

Then there’s the question of what do we do with these things now that we seem to be on the threshold of seeing them everywhere? That boils down to content and in most cases that means consuming it, not creating it. The big hold to a smooth departure from that harbor is the content owners who are struggling with business models and control over revenue streams. eBook Readers (or Tablets, heck any device can or soon will be able to read Amazon Kindle books with Amazon’s software) have shown a breakthrough with the publishing industry, although there is push back from that industry on price and timing of releases, now that they see how much of a change this means to yesterday’s business model. We’ve seen DRM begin to relax with music, but there are still more restrictions than there is freedom when it comes down to it. And video, which seems to have everybody excited, has its own issues with TV and Film magnates worrying about how to make a buck in a world that wants it free.

Of course the other issue is connectivity. Tablet PCs ushered in the era of mobility as well as the natural human interface, and to take advantage of that mobility you need to be connected. The once upon a time theory of WiFi everywhere quickly became a myth, and over the air connectivity, whether it be 3G, 4G, or some other G, became the way to go. But, lo and behold, the folks who control those pipes seem more and more like bridge tenders who can’t handle the river traffic on a busy day, even though they stand to collect a lot of fees from letting the traffic flow.  Again, business model struggles and technology are hindrances to smooth sailing here. Amazon’s Kindle with Whispersync had this right from the get go and still do. Others, at least at the moment, seem to think that consumers will want to remain content with one mobile device and are willing to tie themselves to a carrier for that one device. Quite honestly, I think that ship has sailed, and not just for early adopters. Go read this post from Fake Steve Jobs. It says it all, granted about AT&T but other carriers are poised to experience the same issues and be just as feckless about how to deal with it.

So, in my view, in 2010, this supposed year of the Tablet, we’ve got unresolved technology issues on both the hardware side and the connectivity side, running parallel with unresolved issues relating to various business models of the industries involved.

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ballmertabletAnd yet, there’s such a rush to get a Tablet out there from just about anybody who makes anything in the tech industry, that at the moment it seems, well, frankly, like being pounded in heavy surf. Face it, Steve Ballmer’s much hyped showing of an HP Tablet in the CES Keynote last night really yielded nothing new. He could have shown off much of the little he showed off on a Netbook, much less an existing Tablet. In many ways it was a feckless attempt to keep up with the Jones’ that failed miserably. Which is a shame, given Microsoft’s early investment in Tablet that they seemed to far too quickly retreat from. Ballmer’s not alone here, there are plenty of others hyping Tablets that probably have no business doing so.

And then there’s that “what’s the market” question. To date there really isn’t one, even though we’re seeing a flood of promised devices supposedly ready to fill it. Many, myself included, think Apple will somehow create one with its mythical Tablet, but no one knows how that will work in the end.

This Tablet lover is awed by the potential but cowed by the paradoxes that still exist when it comes to looking ahead at what this supposed year of the Tablet holds for us. There are advances on many fronts that need to occur, some of which require paradigm shifts in thinking, before we see a Tablet in every hand. But in the meantime, we’re going to swimming in a sea of Tablets, Tablets, everywhere. I think that metaphor continues with but not a drop to drink. Let’s hope the rush to swim in that sea doesn’t just foul the water with lots of flotsam and jetsam.

  

Comments

  1. aamp says

    Hope you’re having fun at CES Warner (seems like it by the number of posts!)

    I can understand why you’re suddenly thinking ‘why’ but in my mind it comes down to 3 basic points – price, battery life and Touch UI.

    Although there have been large, powerful tablets, they’ve not been the norm (I love my M400, but don’t get to use it as a tablet much because it’s too heavy and bulky). Tablets by definition should come WITHOUT a proper keyboard and have to be thin and light, with all day useage. That, until last year, was a very expensive proposition! Slates have been extremely expensive for the ‘basic’ usage that’s expected of them so they’ve only really been affordable for those people who make extensive use of their features. Medical and field workers as well as niche users like yourself.

    Over the last few years there have been advances in technology that have finally bought us the tablet revolution:

    1. Touchable interfaces: Most people don’t want to write with a pen, we want touchable interfaces, so the combination of capacitive screens (that allow flick gestures without extra effort) and touchable interfaces (iPhone OS, Android, Maemo, Moblin etc) has allowed hardware manufacturers to produce worthy devices – they could’ve made them 5 years ago using resistive touch and Windows CE, but without a useful interface.

    2. Cheap chips: Atom for Windows and ARM for Linux, Android, iPhone OS etc. Without these cheaper and more power efficient chips, an affordable, all day slate would still be a dream.

    Atom CPUs would be useful in the Origami/Courier vision. So people who want to write with a pen can do so using the best OS for that scenario: Windows (and Windows 7 does a lot better than previous efforts, although it would’ve been nice if they’d included Tablet functions in the Starter Edition…).

    ARM based processors are going to take the slate form factor to the masses. Not as Tablet PCs but as web browsing, eBook reading, ‘always connected media consumption devices’.

    I’m no fanboy but you have to admit, the iPhone (and the Kindle to some extent) have started this whole revolution…and let’s not forget Evernote!

  2. Warner Crocker says

    @aamp: I’m actually covering from afar and not in Vegas this year. You make excellent points and I agree wholeheartedly about the iPhone and the Kindle.

  3. Mobilegadgetgeek says

    I agree with both of you. I think it has more to do with the Iphone effect, as most consumers don’t really understand a tablet as we know it. To me you shouldn’t even call it a tablet unless I can ACTUALLY ink on it. Which means a capacitive screen. Most consumers will be happy with the multi-touch although that still needs to be tweaked to work properly on most systems I have seen.

    On a side note I was just on the EnTourage eDGe website and looking at their specs page I see they have listed that their e-ink page is Wacom Penabled. It shocked me since with most tablets nowadays we don’t know who makes the digitizer.

  4. Mickey Segal says

    The reason that everyone is focused on slate computers now is that the biggest computer success story of the past several years has been a slate computer. The only reason this is not totally obvious is that Apple called it an iPhone. I made this point in more detail at http://www.hcplive.com/neurology/mdng-Neurology/NE_Love_for_Tablet_PCs

    I mostly disagree with the statement that “Tablet PCs ushered in the era of mobility”. In fact, 10 inch tablets were not much more mobile than a regular laptop. Netbooks and rare visionary tablets such as the Motion LS800 ushered in the era of mobility, and the iPhone did so in a big way. What people are doing now is fleshing out the son-of-LS800 space that Motion should have dominated: computers small enough for a jacket pocket, but not so tiny that they are hard to use.

    Some people will want a stripped-down machine of this sort so its battery lasts long and it costs little money. Those are fine with me, but I’d insist on a computer that I can dock and use as my main computer, and use a keyboard and mouse when I’m not trying to be mobile. I’d rather pay more and carry a spare battery than skimp on what I need.

    So the biggest thing to watch for in the new slates is whether you can carry it in a jacket pocket, and whether you can dock it and use it as a real computer. Whichever manufacturers can deliver that will have carved out an important space in the computer market.

  5. aamp says

    @mobilegadgetgeek Absolutely agree – it’s not a tablet if it doesn’t have a digitizer/pen.

    @Mickey you remind me of the OQO combile computers. Unforetunately they’re no longer in business (I think) but what they made was amazing, though not very affordable. I would have thought it difficult to ink on a device that size though…it was more of a powerful MID than a tablet.

  6. BurningOrange says

    I had both an LS800 and an OQO 02 (still do).

    A tablet is my brain-augmentation device. It augments my memory. It augments my processing. It augments my communication. It augments my access to information, past, present and future.

    But it’s not ideal yet. Just improving year to year.

  7. Mickey Segal says

    @aamp: I actually fiddled with an OQO, showed to me by the CEO’s brother. I thought it was too small and clunky. The Motion LS800 had a good screen size but was somewhat clunky. If someone gets the hardware right we are in good shape. And so are they.

  8. aamp says

    Anyone here ordering the Entourage Edge, like @MobileGadgetGeek? $490 and released next month from what Engadget’s seen:

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/01/07/entourage-edge-gets-super-official-at-ces-set-to-ship-next-mont/

    Proper inking with a Wacom digitizer. They say 6 hrs minimum on the LCD and upto 7 days on the eInk screen.

    Feels like they’ve really put a lot of thought into this product…http://www.entourageedge.com/devices/entourage-edge.html

    Can you get Evernote on Android??

  9. Mobilegadgetgeek says

    @aamp,

    Yes you can get Evernote on Android, it was announced on December 16th. Finally. LOL. I am a heavy user of Evernote and pay for the service so that is one of the great options on the eDGe. I have not pulled the trigger on the pre-order yet but its a compelling device. At 3 pounds its probably too heavy for e-book reading but since I am used to the Android OS it will be good to see what we can do with it. Not having the app store directly on the device will keep some away from it though. Thats what I am not liking about alot of these recently announced Android devices, with them not being Android certified the app store is missing. I think Google is going to have to change their certification process for these new devices so that they can get full integration. That will be a stumbling block until then. But with Android being pushed out on all these devices hopefully that will come sooner rather than later. At $490 pre-order price its above base Netbook and a little less than Unlocked/unsubsidized smartphone prices. And falls in between in functionality. So its a compelling device for me to consider. But others will certainly disagree.

  10. Joel says

    “Why is everyone all of a sudden (within the last 9 months or so) excited about Tablets?”

    Probably because they are actually mobile and won’t be insanely expensive. It is funny when people consider a netbook to be expensive at 600 Dollars and a comparable tablet pc at well over 1000 a bargain.

    Is there actually a market for the Tablet? I think that depends on what the Tablet is suppose to be. In the past it was marketed as a PC. I think that’s simply a dead-end. It feels like using a computer with one hand tied behind your back. I can flip my screen down at any time and I don’t. O.K. occassionally, but only to read or surf the web. On top of that they were barely portable.

    Now if the Tablet is suppose to be compact, cheap, and easy to use then it might be just as successfull as the netbook. Just a guess though.

    I’m probably the only person who got excited about the HP slate. For me it looks the the perfect format-about the size of an e-book reader.

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