Crystal Ball: Tablet Computers Are Part Of The Future, Just Not All Of Them

As we hear more and more about Apple selling 2 million iPads during first 60 days more and more companies are placing their bets on tablet computers. So far we’ve heard about HP Slate (canceled though) and a lot of other devices. Most of them should have been running some flavor of Windows. Some are heard to be running Android. With the demise of Palm and HP’s taking over there’s hope that WebOS will pop its head some time later.

Here’s the deal. Tablet computer isn’t a real personal computer – the way we understand the meaning of the word. Even though it may feel like one. We don’t perceive our cars’ computerized inner workings as personal computer – although it sports same kind of CPU-chipset-memory-output paradigm as any other computer does. We don’t think of doing any real work on XBox gaming console, even though it has been demonstrated to be able to do such things with ease on older models and – with some extra effort – on current ones.

In similar fashion the tablet computers are more narrow-tasked devices. They won’t replace your main computer if you are doing any kind of serious work. You can, of course, go to some lengths to push through some productivity, but slate devices aren’t quite fit for it by design. This is similar to how some people write software on their iPhones or Andriod devices (and I knew quite a lot of people who were writing some Java code on their Palm devices 10 -12 years ago). While I respect the effort, I believe there are more comfortable ways to code.

From the way the device is used stems the general idea of what operating system should be running on the device. It may seem to make logical sense to try and stuff fully featured Windows onto a slate to take advantage of already created applications. However, I cannot imagine anyone using Adobe Photoshop or AutoCAD on a tablet. Nor can I imagine someone typing up a huge report in MS Word, using Excel charts or creating PowerPoint presentations. You should be able to view them, no doubt about it, but imagine working with a 500MB Excel file that’s ridden with formulas and macros on a significantly underpowered CPU and screen that is smaller than one you had 10 years ago. It may be possible, of course, but why suffer? I’ve seen people creating a simple PowerPoint presentation on a netbook with a 10″ screen, working with more or less simple Excel tables and there was much pain and suffering. Now remove the physical keyboard…

In addition to that – think about the battery life. All those full-featured application are optimized (if at all) to run as fast as possible, utilizing the most of CPU and memory made available, effectively draining as much power as they want. This isn’t an issue on a power-connected machine, but on a device that is mostly battery-powered it is hardly an advantage. That’s why most of tablets running Windows are only capable of doing 2 – 3 hours on a battery. Compare that with 10 hours of iPad and you will understand the difference.

Since this post is named “Crystal Ball”, I’d go ahead and make a prediction for the next 5 years. Tablet devices running some sort of mobile operating system (Android, WebOS, OSX, maybe even some flavor of stripped-down Windows) will gradually replace any other portable computing devices – e-book readers, netbooks and some of the smaller laptops. The smallest size of the laptop to survive would be something along the lines of MacBook Air. Anything smaller is a torture to use for any serious work, so tablets will be used instead for reading, web/e-mail and some light work – document reviews, notes, memos, as well as entertainment – movies, games, music. They will complement smartphones rather than replacing them. With proliferation of cloud-storage and applications that are capable of taking advantage of that storage, tablet computers will become mainstream, ubiquitous consumer devices – much like walkmans were back in nineties.