When Ken Dulaney and three other tech visionaries set out to build a tablet computer nearly a quarter century ago, the idea seemed like a no-brainer. Tablets were, after all, a key piece of equipment in the 1960s television series Star Trek, which would ultimately have a decent track record of predicting future technologies such as wireless communication, biometric identification and non-invasive medical procedures, if not interstellar space travel. More importantly, tablets promised to literally put the power of a personal computer in people’s hands.
But the GridPad, a clunky 4.5-lb. machine with a green-hued electroluminescent screen and stylus, failed to take off, save for in a few niche sectors in government and health care. Several other efforts suffered the same fate. “We had a number of customers who did their work while standing or walking,” says Dulaney, who worked alongside Palm founder Jeff Hawkins on the project.
Now an analyst at Gartner Research, Dulaney is one of the mulitude watching as interest heats up again. From hardware and software makers like Apple and Microsoft to booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, many companies now appear to be betting the next must-have accessory will be a tablet—a hybrid of a laptop and a smart phone that can be used to view media and connect to the Internet, among other things.
The stakes are potentially huge. There are about 1.4 billion personal computers on the planet and double that number of cellphones. A single device that combines the functionality of both would seem to be the holy grail. Not surprisingly, there are also plenty of skeptics who argue there’s good reason tablets have failed to catch on. But the believers—and there are many—counter that today’s tablets will be built using much more sophisticated technology than their primitive predecessors, and that they will revolutionize the concept of the portable computer.
As with any sea change in technology these days, all eyes are on Apple, the company that changed the way people collect and listen to music with the iPod, and upended the wireless industry with the iPhone. Headed by CEO Steve Jobs, a technology tastemaker, Apple is widely rumoured to be working on a tablet computer expected to land early next year. The fact that Apple hasn’t actually acknowledged any of that has not stopped bloggers and journalists from extrapolating from bits of information leaked by equipment suppliers and other unnamed sources.
But it’s not just Apple at the centre of the tablet talk. Microsoft, whose founder Bill Gates incorrectly predicted eight years ago that tablets would be the most popular form of PC in the U.S. within five years, is also believed to be working on a tablet-like device, either on its own or with the help of various computer makers. That could include Dell, which is rumoured to be working on a “mobile Internet device” that’s bigger than a cellphone. Meanwhile, Archos, a French company, has begun selling what it describes as an Internet media tablet. And TechCrunch, an industry blog, has commissioned the development of its own “Crunchpad”—a prototype named one of the 10 most brilliant products of 2009 by Popular Mechanics magazine.
Why, exactly, has the well-worn idea of tablets suddenly been resurrected? The most oft-cited reason is the phenomenal success enjoyed by the iPhone, which is essentially a mini-computer, and the belief that there’s an underserved market of consumers who would like a similar portable device that allows them to, say, read an e-book or a newspaper, play video games, and watch a movie without ruining their eyesight. Most believe Apple’s tablet will have a screen size of about 10 inches, measured diagonally, and be equiped with touchscreen technology similar to the iPhone’s, allowing it to run the 85,000 iPhone applications that are available for users to download through Apple’s App Store. An equally compelling explanation, however, is that computer companies are becoming increasingly desperate to boost flagging desktop and notebook sales and the current price gap between smart phones and laptops represents fertile ground. Industry data shows that netbooks, which are priced anywhere from $300 to $500 and allow users to browse the Web and perform basic computer functions, continue to gain traction and now account for about one-fifth of all consumer PC sales. “Companies are looking for the next new source of growth,” says Kevin Restivo, an analyst at IDC Canada.
But just because traditional computer sales are hurting doesn’t mean consumers will necessarily pay the price to add to their growing arsenal of home electronics. Apple’s tablet, for instance, would likely cost more than a $599 iPhone (without a carrier’s wireless plan) and less than the company’s cheapest Macbook, about $1,099. Unless, that is, the next generation of tablets offers users a profoundly different experience. “If it’s going to take off in any way shape or form, it’s got to replace something,” said Restivo, noting that the iPhone is primarily a communications device while laptops tend to be more work-oriented. “But I have a hard time understanding what sort of functionality it will have.”
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