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.

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.