In 2010 I was quite enamored in the idea of “netbook” computers – low-powered laptops that not only had low price tags and long battery life, but also performed most tasks quite well, especially if the user was taking advantage of open source software ranging from Unix as the operating system, to Openoffice.org as the office suite. To prove the point, I wrote an entire book (When the Best is Free) on a netbook without any problems at all. It was so clear to me that this was the next big device that I predicted that every student would soon have a netbook, especially since they were cheaper than textbooks. In fact, since the introduction of this device, the cost of an average collection of textbooks was far greater than the cost of a netbook computer. The future of this new device was clear (at least to me.)
I was wrong – very wrong. The revolution did not unfold as I foresaw it. Netbooks became (and remain) a niche market and I think this is because of the emergence of a truly disruptive technology – the tablet. Led by the and famously successful release of the Apple iPad, and followed by Android-based devices from many other vendors (e.g., Samsung, Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony, Asus, Acer and others) tablets have caused netbooks to fade from view.
This phenomenon is quite interesting. First, as with most disruptive technologies, the tablet was not as powerful as the netbook. Furthermore, it generally cost more to buy, had less storage, and operated on a completely different premise. While the netbook had a clear evolutionary path from traditional laptops, the tablet did not. Devoid of traditional keyboards, the tablet operated with “soft keys” displayed on a multi-touch display. Gestures (pinches, swipes, etc.) previously seen in science fiction (e.g., Minority Report, Star Trek, Next Generation) became commonplace. These new ways of interacting with computer displays were readily adapted and traditional mouse movements were no longer needed.
So where did tablet computers come from? The origins of tablets had more to do with the evolution of advanced MP3 players (the Apple iTouch as an example) than with the evolution of computers. At the time of its introduction, the tablet had the potential to be a high-tech fad – like the Apple Newton from 1993. Instead, even with its limitations, the tablet became an overnight success. One could argue that this was a logical outgrowth of the popularity of smartphones (such as those based on the Android and iOS operating systems) but I think the tablet is generally seen in a different light. With screens ranging from 7” to 10”, tablets provide enough real estate to support web browsing and some limited text editing. While many people may find the light weight and long battery life of tablets to be compelling, and web-based tools (plus a few downloaded apps) to meet their day-to-day needs, most will find that they will still need a powerful laptop for the creation of documents, and rely on tablets for casual work on the road. The long battery life is one clear advantage, but another advantage of tablets is rarely mentioned. Because traditional clamshell laptops use a separate keyboard, users have to be sitting down, typically at a desk or table, in order to use the device. Tablets, on the other hand, can be used while standing. By holding the tablet in one hand, the other can provide the gestures needed to navigate applications. This plus reduced weight are quite compelling for some. Personally, if I had all my presentations running from my tablet, I would leave my laptop at home when I travel for speaking engagements. My tablet computer fits in the seat back of an airplane, and allows me to watch several movies with enough power left over to run a 60-minute presentation without recharging.
Tablets also seem to meet the needs of a large number of people who never need the power of a real laptop For them the tablet makes a great deal of sense, even though many high-end tablets cost as much as fully featured laptops. Of course, as tablets evolve, the prices will drop and the capabilities will increase, further cementing their role in creating a true disruption in personal computing.
All of which raises the question of what happens next. As tablets continue their evolutionary path, there will someday be another technology introduced that will have the same impact on tablets as tablets had on netbooks. Such is the nature of technological development.