This week, Apple will almost certainly unveil a tablet computing device of some kind. The rumors are all over the place, but if this month's Consumer Electronics Show was any guide, the company's competitors have pre-announced devices of their own, many of which could point the way to the form factor and functionality of Apple's own tablet. That is, we're likely looking at an iPod touch-like device with a 10-inch screen, version 4.0 of the iPhone/iPod touch OS, and some kind of 3G wireless antenna for always-on Internet connectivity.
Who cares, right?
The thing is, Apple's sudden foray into a market that Microsoft first plied almost a decade ago is notable for a number of reasons, and things have changed quite a bit over time. (For more on this topic, check out "Waiting for an Apple Tablet?") We now have access to pervasive wireless Internet access, whereas when the Tablet PC platform debuted in 2002, we were lucky to find occasional Wi-Fi hotspots. The underlying processor platforms have improved dramatically, and even today's high-end smartphones, like the HTC HD2, offer performance that actually surpasses what our notebook computers were capable of almost a decade ago.
Battery life, too, has improved dramatically. Whereas the original Tablet PCs were lucky to get 2 to 3 hours of useful battery life, today's netbooks and small notebooks are starting to hit the 10-hour point. That makes a huge difference, not just for world travelers, but for those who are on the go all day and need their machines to just work.
The iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and, to a lesser extent, Windows Mobile platforms have formalized the notion of a modern smartphone—that is, a device that supports a useful and growing collection of native applications. A large portion of the general public has seen the future of these devices and found it enchanting. And for an even larger population in third-world countries and up-and-coming markets, these devices simply are mainstream computing already. They'll never own or need a traditional PC at all.
So the Apple tablet and other devices like it fall neatly between traditional portable PCs and smartphones. Questions arise, such as, do such devices make sense for a sizable enough market? And can they be used as essential business tools?
The jury is out on the first one. Certainly, Apple has enough of a hold on the general public these days that it'll sell a number of them, at least right away. And some of Apple's competitors are fielding uniquely innovative devices (e.g., Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid notebook) that should steal some share away from Apple.
Regarding the use of tablets in business, for me this is déjà vu all over again. When Microsoft first offered up the Tablet PC platform, I thought that the convertible laptops of the day would hit at the high-end of the market and would essentially be up-sell products that would, over time, move down the price chain.
If the netbook phenomenon has taught us anything, however, it's that PCs are commodities and that while high-price machines will always have their niche, mass market is the future. So today's tablet devices will need to play in a decidedly lower-end part of the market than did the slates and convertible laptops of 2002. Where they fall in the scheme of things is still debatable: Are they more powerful/pricier than netbooks, but with higher build quality? Or are they simply alternatives to traditional machines at various price points?
Ultimately, the discussion has to turn to the applicability of the tablet form factor to traditional office roles, and here nothing has changed since 2002. While the ability to control a screen with a stylus or finger is sometimes useful, for most information workers, access to a good keyboard is far more important. Thus I still feel that convertible laptop-type machines make the most sense if you're looking for a tablet computing solution. This way, the machine can be used like a traditional notebook for the majority of usage, but it can be swiveled into a slate form factor when that's needed. It's the best of both worlds.
Compatibility is important, too. While the Apple tablet will no doubt run all of the many iPhone apps now available from the iTunes Store, what it won't run is Microsoft Office or the other tools you need to get your job done. This may change over time, but for now running a smartphone-like OS on a tablet isn't an advantage.
So while Apple's tablet may garner all the headlines, I think the real news here is that not much has changed. Tablets still make plenty of sense, even in business, but only when they're attached to a real keyboard as is the case with convertible laptops. The other stuff—pervasive 3G Internet access, performance, and better battery life—isn't just the icing on the cake, it makes these kinds of form factors even more relevant than they were before. But I'd point out that PC-based designs will be far less expensive, more useful, and more easily integrated into existing environments than Apple's tablet. So if there is a tablet in your future—and there could be—look past the hype.