Let's call 2011 the year of the tablet. In the last several months, virtually every major electronics manufacturer has introduced a hopeful competitor to Apple's iPad, and the aisles at January's International Consumer Electronics Show were crammed with dozens of variations on the rounded rectangle.
But the idea of a portable touchscreen computing device is nothing new. You know that thing you sign when you get a package from UPS? The touchscreen tablet with a card reader that speeds you through checkout at the supermarket? Those are tablets, too. The Kindle and the Nook? Tablets, albeit very specialized ones. (Read Linda Tischler's post on the All New Nook here.)
The tablet is one of the only CE devices with no analog precedent.
So why are they popping into the foreground now? For one thing, technology. Improved flash memory, cheaper high-quality displays, more accurate touchscreens, and faster processors are converging to give us unprecedented computing function with few moving parts. Low power requirements are making technology more portable. Furthermore, the ability to stream movies and other content without actually using any memory makes the tablet the ideal mobile media-consumption platform. You don't have to be an early adopter to see its appeal.
But the most interesting thing about the current fervor is that the tablet is one of the only consumer electronic devices with no analog predecessor. Unlike smartphones and laptops, which replaced analog phones, typewriters, and filing cabinets, the tablet is pure digital abstraction — the love-child of two digital devices. The clay tablets of biblical times were primarily designed to create content, not consume it, but the digital tablet's onscreen keyboard barely functions. It's no replacement for a paper notebook and sketchbook, but it's a trade-off we accept. So why do we need a new product in our digital lives that only consumes?
The answer is that our current digital ecosystem of smartphone + laptop doesn't really fill our needs. Our phones aren't good at making phone calls, and our laptops don't share well. Both cost a lot but use only a fraction of their features. So much has changed since these platforms were originally defined that it's time for a major re-adjustment, and the tablet is the first step. It's the tip of the iceberg.
The tablet's greatest impact on the technology ecosystem was in pointing out this weakness. Far beyond its technological innovations, it's this insight that put Apple on the map as the tablet company. They saw the hole before we did, they told us about it, and they filled it. Remember when the iPad was just a big iPhone? Those days didn't last long. This reset of our digital landscape holds endless opportunities for CE companies. Tasks that had been split between two devices can be distributed among three. So how do we map out the experiences, products, and interfaces for this new three-device ecosystem?
The tablet is a first step. It's the tip of the iceberg.
Start with the smartphone. Currently, its biggest problem is that it's a terrible phone. The critical function of making and receiving calls is lost in an array of competing tasks — camcorder, calendar, photo gallery, media viewer. This is no accident, and no mistake, but the options don't reflect what we really want from a phone. When was the last time you had a successful conference call on your Droid?
At the same time, the laptop computer is suffering from its own identity crisis. Hardware manufacturers still speak of processor speed and memory, but most laptop users really need just two things: Internet and email. There are plenty of other things it can do, and we occasionally do them, but without email and the web, the laptop's value proposition is negligible.
So what happens next? As a result of the tablet, your smartphone is going to get a bit dumber. It won't lose all of its functions, but most ancillary features will drop deeper back in the user interface, bringing the two killer apps of phone and camera to the surface. It will always be nice to use your phone to check an address on Google Maps in a pinch, but isn't it more important to hear the person on the other end of the line? It's convenient to watch movies and TV on something that fits in your pocket, but the experience is far better on a tablet. This change opens up opportunities for UI and hardware designers to elevate the function of the phone's key features, which are currently tangled in a morass of other options.
The laptop is not going away, but it's getting more focused as well. It will continue to be indispensable for working, traveling professionals (which will soon be most of us) who need real computer power. It's going be a long time before tablets are the right platform for serious graphics, coding, or CAD. You need the precision of a mouse and a level of computing speed and memory that's out of range for a tablet, at least for now.
So what happens to your phone and laptop, as a result of the tablet?
As the most-used functions of the laptop make their way over to our tablets, the need for a shared platform at home becomes more urgent. This is the computer that sits in the living room, used by the entire family to store and manage content, run the household, and allow everybody to see what's happening on YouTube. Tablets, though well suited to sharing content, are primarily personal devices. They've inherited that characteristic from their smartphone parents, and this creates opportunities for shared digital access in the home.
The point here is that the tablet adds value to our lives when it functions within a complete ecosystem. It's neither a smartphone nor a laptop — and wasn't designed to be. Its power comes from the ways in which all three of those key parts of the system work together: the laptop generates, the tablet consumes, the smartphone communicates. No one device can do everything we need. If we "need" all three, as Apple says, then proper integration is critically important.
As I walked the halls at CES, time and again, I saw people gathered around the tablets. But every pitch I heard was about technology: processor speed, memory, size, weight. What I didn't hear was why anybody would need or want this device, and it's not a trivial question. Without a clearly demonstrated ability to plug effortlessly into the rest of our digital lives, the tablet is seriously limited. Without the right context, it's just another neat way to watch movies.
[Top image: Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai by Gustave Doré]