iPad or iFad? Why Tablets Will Remain a Niche Product
History provides many examples of this middle category being the answer to a question nobody asked.
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.
Evan Koblentz is a computer historian in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tablet Computers We Have Known -- A Gallery
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