I've had access to tablets since 1991. Back in the early 1990s, Microsoft was pushing Windows for Pen Computing after companies like Grid and AT&T beat the convicted monopolist to the punch with operating systems that accepted input from pens tapping and dragging on touch screens. Until the iPad, these flat computers failed, of course, because they were a category for which there was no popular demand. There was no popular demand, because the hardware and software were wrong.
The earliest tablet computers, like the Grid, adapted a version of DOS or created a new OS. They required the use of pens. They were heavy. I did find it fascinating, however, how quickly my young kids adapted to them. I recognized that children liked the immediacy of the medium: direct input to the screen. And so I held out hope, even after the pen computing craze of the early 1990s crashed and the slates retreated to the second last refuge of a failed enterprise, the vertical. (Then the Palm Pilot showed how to do teh category correctly, but that's a different story.)
Microsoft periodically made attempts to resurrect the category, not because tablets had become any more useful to consumers, but because they were seen as a way to jack up the prices of PC, which were falling precipitously. So the company several times grafted a dreadful software experience onto ridiculously-expensive hardware. You'd pay $1,700, double the "normal" price. This alone ensured that consumers would avoid each offering in droves.
Those pen computers that I reviewed in 1991 were just loaners from hardware companies, like NEC and Fujitsu. In the early 2000s, I did own one, an HP convertible. This was a tablet grafted onto a swiveling keyboard:
- Great concept: I could use it as a tablet or as a notebook computer, due to the swivel that held the screen to the keyboard. Great for watching movies on planes.
- Terrible concept: it was too heavy to hold as a tablet, and the resistive screen meant I found myself repeatedly stabbing the screen to get the software to respond. (Software like MoI was written specifically to take advantage of computers like this one.)
Even though this was one of the first notebooks with a dual-core CPU, it ran like molasses, because the Microsoft operating system was not ready for splitting tasks between cores. Ultimately, the entire TX series failed because HP and Nvidia didn't care that the GPU was incorrectly glued down, causing many (most? some?) to fail six months after the 1-year warranty ended.
As was proven by iOS and then by Android, the problem always was a poorly conceived operating system tied to a poorly designed form factor. Apple accomplished what Microsoft after 20 years had failed. Steve Jobs introduced the iPad as something positioned between the smartphone and the notebook computer.
Today, BlackBerry ceo Thorsten Heins announced the death of the tablet: "In five years I don't think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore. Tablets themselves are not a good business model."
(I agree with him, and I'll tell you why in a few moments.)
Now, he may have been speaking of Blackberry having no reason to produce tablets. Or he may have seen the plunging prices of Android tablets, and realized his Canadian company could not make a profit when most of the ones made in China using Chinese technology are under $100. When Microsoft tried last fall jacking the pricing of tablets closer to $1,000, it could not overcome the consumer expectation successfully set by Apple that prices should be $499 or less.
In the last couple of years...
I bought a super cheap Android tablet from China, and it was dreadful. It now sits on my shelf as a museum piece.
- Then I was given an iPad, but didn't like holding its heavy weight and having its sharp edges dig into my hands. (In any case, after being spoiled by Android, it's hard to go back to the walled city of Apple; to me, it feels like going from modern democracy back to a medivel monarchy.) My wife uses it as her kitchen radio and to play Sudoku.
- Then I bought a better Android from China, and my daughter uses it for watching movies.
- Finally, I bought an ASUS Transformer TF101 tablet, and it has become one of my favorite toys of all time.
The Transformer tablet is a delight because it isn't a tablet, specifically. The "transformer" name refers to it transforming between tablet mode and netbook mode through the detachable keyboard -- all the time running the touch-enabled Android operating system and its hundreds of thousands of free apps.
Here's the nub: I don't detach the keyboard, evah. The keyboard has three crucial benefits:
- It holds up the screen so that I don't have to.
- It hold a second battery, doubling the battery life to 12-16 hours, so I don't worry about running out of power. Indeed, on long trips I use the tablet to recharge my phone!
- It holds additional ports, like two full-size USB ports and a second SD card slot, so I don't need adapters. (It also has a miniSD and mini HDMI ports in the tablet part.)
The TF101 is now old, but it has the distinction of being the first tablet with a dual-core CPU, running an OS that splits tasks among cores. For $400, ASUS did was HP was unable to do with its $1,700 TX series.
Here's the strangest part: I rarely use the keyboard, and I never use the built-in trackpad. Still, ASUS used all the knowledge it gained from being the first and longest producer of netbooks to bat home its winning line of tablets with keyboards that weigh about as much as an iPad.
Microsoft kind of got it right with its Surface tablets shipping with keyboards. Indeed, I suspect Microsoft saw what ASUS had begotten and got scared -- but then flubbed the marketing and then the pricing.
And so this is why I think the Blackberry ceo is right: tablets on their own make little sense, and the category will die out as consumers tire of the fad of impractical simplicity, and properly replace it with practical utility.
(PS: I don't get why Google is producing ChromeBooks, when Android-Books already exist and are already successful.)