Tablets PCs Have Never Mattered--and Never Will

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For all the hype about the rumored Apple Tablet, the 'will they or won't they' about Microsoft's Courier tablet, and a host of actual tablet announcements such as Lenovo's IdeaPad U1 and the Dell's still unnamed slate, everyone seems to have forgotten one tiny, little fact: tablets have been around forever and have never, ever lived up to their buzz.

Back in 1987, Go Corp. was the first company to really try to get tablet-based computing off the ground. It quickly crashed. Then, in 1993, Apple tried to make a go of pen/tablet-based computing with the Newton. It flopped. In 2000, Microsoft started toying with the idea of a dedicated tablet. Guess what happened to all its plans? They too all pretty much came to nothing.

The first company to get anywhere with a tablet was Palm with its PDAs (personal digital assistances) in 1996. While they were wildly popular in their day -- I still have my own Palm III hiding in my office somewhere -- Palm wasn't able to maintain its momentum, and Palm today is just one of many smartphone vendors.

It hasn't all been bad news for tablets, though. There's long been a nice little niche in vertical markets like healthcare for tablet-based computers. Fujitsu, running tablet-enabled Windows, has historically done well here.

And we can't forget that with the perfecting of touch-based computing and multi-touch interfaces, Apple's iPhone and iTouch have revolutionized both the smartphone and the mobile entertainment device market. Even in the current frigid weather -- 7 degrees this morning outside Asheville, NC -- I'm more likely to forget my gloves before I forget my iTouch when going out.

Last but far from least, Google's Linux-based Android operating system has made it both cheap and easy for vendors to make tablets. The vast majority of tablets you'll see in 2010 will have Linux running in their hearts.

But when all is said and done, there's still no compelling business reason for most people to buy a tablet. There never has been a real reason for people to trade in their laptops for a tablet, and there still isn't today.

The bottom line is that if you want to get information into a computer, be it an e-mail or filling out an expense spreadsheet, you really need a keyboard. A tablet, no matter how responsive it is, just doesn't cut it.

That isn't to say that Apple's greatly anticipated tablet won't be a huge success. I'm sure it will be.

It will win out, if all goes as Apple plans, because it will be a handy entertainment device. I see it as being, when you get right down to it, just a large iPod Touch. As such, I think it's going to kill off dedicated e-readers -- bye-bye, Kindle; nice to have met you, Nook -- and GPS devices. And, of course, it will be better then ever for watching videos on, listening to music with, and doing anything else where there's "An app for that."

But, it and similar Android Linux powered devices aren't going to replace netbooks or laptops. They can't. The 21st-century tablets will be handy and fun devices, but they are no more suited to replace keyboard-based systems than Go's 1980s design. Until voice recognition takes one giant leap forward, we're still going to need our desktops, laptops and netbooks, no matter how much fun tablets become.

This story, "Tablets PCs Have Never Mattered--and Never Will" was originally published by Computerworld.

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