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iPad or iFad? Why Tablets Will Remain a Niche Product

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History provides many examples of this middle category being the answer to a question nobody asked.

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Apple recently stated that it sold 15 million iPad (AAPL) tablet computers in 2010. With competition rising from the Google (GOOG) Android ecosystem, the upcoming BlackBerry Playbook (RIMM), and surely from Microsoft (MSFT) too, it's easy to believe tablets are the future dominant form of mobile computing. But you'd be wrong.

Tablets as we know them will remain hot for a couple of years, and then will fade away, forever marginalized into niche status. Price, size, and historic trends are the reasons why.

High-end tablets are relatively expensive, even more so than some entry-level laptops. That's because tablets and laptops share most of the same parts list, so there is limited room for cost reduction, and customers won't buy cellular data plans expensive enough to subsidize the device purchase.

Size-wise, even small tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab are still too big to fit in most pockets. This is less problematic for women who carry purses and anyone who already carries a backpack, briefcase, or laptop bag. But for many consumers, or just when you walk around your workplace all day, tablets are as inconvenient as laptops.

History provides many examples of this middle category being a short-lived answer to a question nobody asked. Examples of failed tablet-like computers include the Convergent WorkSlate (1983), Linus WriteTop (1987), and Grid Systems GridPad (1989). (See below for a gallery of tablet computers from the past 20 years.) Customers instead bought laptops from Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba, paired with electronic organizers from Casio and Sharp. Tablet supporters decided that broader software and attached keyboards would be their products' savior. Examples were the Momenta Tablet (1991), Compaq Concerto (1992), and Dauphin DTR-1 (1993). Customers ignored these entirely, instead buying laptops from IBM and then jumping on the PDA bandwagon.

Tablets continued their on-again, off-again existence from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, never being taken seriously in the marketplace. Every time Microsoft or a start-up preached tablets, the justification was, "This time they'll succeed because of the software." Yet real-world tablet software was always a level behind laptops and less handy than handhelds, while hardware retained the worst of both sides in its price-versus-size quandary.

There are two ways tablet vendors can break their historic cycle of failure and keep the tablet experience alive. First, tablets' best features such as multitouch screens could be incorporated into laptops with either fold-under or slider-style keyboards, resulting in a converged portable computer that some buyers may find more useful. (Hewlett-Packard recently announced its plan to put the
smartphone-derived WebOS into all of its PCs starting in 2012.) Second, smartphones could be designed to unfold into tablets -- the new dual-screen Kyocera Echo does just this-- thereby retaining pocket size, smartphone price, and a more enjoyable viewing experience.
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  • The Kyocera Echo.
But with the status quo, tablets by Apple and any other company are already doomed to fad status. The rise of Web apps and the downplaying of PC operating systems will make them more popular than previous tablets, but that won't be enough. Three decades ago, tablet equivalents of modern PCs such as the Epson HX-20 (1982) and Tandy Model 100 (1983) were all the rage. They ran all day on AA batteries and were advertised as ideal middle devices between your Osborne and your desktop computer. A few years later they succumbed to clamshell laptops. History is a cyclical and powerful force.

Evan Koblentz is a computer historian in New Jersey. He can be reached at evan@snarc.net.

Tablet Computers We Have Known -- A Gallery

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  • Epson HX-20, 1982.


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  • Tandy Model 100, 1983.


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  • Convergent WorkSlate, 1983.


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  • Linus WriteTop, 1987.


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  • Grid Systems GridPad, 1989.


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  • Compaq Concerto, 1992.


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  • Dauphin DTR-1, 1993.


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  • Apple iPad, 2010.



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Click here to return to "The Mythology of Apple" and our complete list of Apple stories.

Why is Apple so important to us? What's next for the iconic brand? Click here to continue reading from our series on the mythology of Apple. You'll also find a link to our video, "Is Apple a Religion?"

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