Tablet Tabula Rasa

This is one speculative guess on what the iSlate Tablet might look like.

Despite having used and abandoned multiple tablets over the years, I’m still looking forward to Apple’s much anticipated iSlate, iPad or iMustHaveIt Tablet (or whatever it will be called). Of course those old tablets were used primarily for work, and the new Apple tablet is primarily a consumer device that might augment my professional life with no intention of being a replacement for my work laptop. 

Simply put: tablets are great for content consumption, but lousy at content creation. And most consumers are content consumers (hence the name) not content creators. Professionally, if your job entails looking at websites or watching YouTube videos then a tablet is perfect for this purpose, but if your job actually requires you to write and edit documents longer than a few paragraphs, work in spreadsheets crunching numbers or creating and giving presentations then laptops are still a better bet – especially if they are coupled with an external monitor.    

The primary reason is information density – a place where tablets  historically have fallen short for several reasons. The small screens dictated by the form-factor limits constrain both the size and weight of the screen limiting the amount of information accessible without scrolling or clicking through multiple pages. This is further exacerbated by the now dominant 16:9 screen form factor  – the adoption of which were driven by consumer demands for watching HD content on their laptops. Although to be fair the 16:9 screen is great for reading documents if you orient them vertically. 

Consumers haven’t flocked to adopt tablets – primarily due to the high cost of the devices coupled with their less than stellar capabilities.  Tablets have had success though primarily in niche workplaces like medicine and mobile field workforces which utilize software-driven forms.  I’ve used tablets from Fujitsu, Motion, HP and Lenovo, and each time I always ended up giving them to coworkers because they hampered my productivity. What normally took micro-seconds requiring little thought invariably turned into a task requiring multiple seconds and attempts to accomplish. Repeat that frustrating scenario a few hundreds of times a day and no amount of coolness (and they are cool) could make up for the productivity hit using a tablet entailed. 

Eye charts use letter size and number to measure visual acuity.

Information density, or lack thereof, is one thing, but for me the biggest weakness of tablets is the lack of a physical keyboard. Neither handwriting recognition nor onscreen keyboards are truly an effective replacement for a physical keyboard for inputing anything more than short screeds or missives. The Qwerty keyboard may not be perfect, as the many fans of alternative keyboards will attest to, but the speed of character entry for even marginally proficient typists quickly exceeds 35-40 words a minute and can exceed 90-100 words a minute with training – personally I type around 50-60 words a minute on a good day.  And if you need to utilize spreadsheets for data manipulation – the onscreen keyboard and character recognition are truly dismal. 

Of course writing 90 words in one shot is an alien concept for most of the texting generation given that most text messages average around 25-30 words. While many people are quickly able to input 140-character messages in SMS using the rudimentary  T-9 text input, most of those messages don’t include complex thoughts or nuanced answers beyond “C U L8tR”.  Of course some people will claim that software like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking is the solution – and it definitely has its fans who think its the perfect solution. I’d recommend testing it out on a laptop first before relying on it with a tablet – after all your mileage may vary. 

Maybe Apple will solve all of these issues, but I will say that as an iPod Touch user I don’t think the onscreen keyboard is ready for prime time. Maybe it’s the size, maybe it’s my clumsy fingers but as much as I love my iPod Touch, and I do, trying to write a few sentences is torture as I’m reduced to the two-finger hunt-and-peck. Maybe the larger iSlate will solve this problem by using a larger keyboard – or maybe it’ll add the capability to use a stylus like the Wacom Tablet in addition to multi-touch. We’ll know soon enough. 

And as negative as I am on previous tablet models and their suitability for replacing laptops, I’m just as positive, or more, on the Apple Tablet because I see it as a consumer device. I think the functionality that the iSlate will bring – larger screen size, bigger on-screen keyboard, better speakers, built-in webcam, WiFi, HDMI, and Bluetooth connectivity, and most likely flash compatibility – will make it indispensable. It might even have a TV tuner. Whatever bells and whistles it ultimately has, the screen will be so beautiful that it will instantly make all of those Kindle owners jealous. Because not only will the iSlate handle reading ebooks, it will be a far superior device for reading other content besides books – plus you can watch a movie on it. 

Already the iPod Touch and iPhone’s web capability is used to settle bets and answer questions on the go – like “who’s that actress and what else has she been in” – voila, 5 seconds later IMDB has the answer. Uses like this will only increase with the iSlate. The thing I’m most curious about is will the iSlate be a replacement for laptops for taking notes in schools and on college campuses? I’m on the fence with this one – if Apple’s solution for text and data input is good enough, the iSlate might become the instant must-have college tool for the cost of only three or four text books.

My predictions as to how the marketplace will receive the iSlate are simple and fairly obvious. The iSlate will be beautiful – no surprise there it’s an Apple product. It will sell out very quickly – again not exactly a risky bet given the pent-up demand and expected media frenzy. It won’t be perfect – Apple’s first new products rarely are –  but within 3 months of its release their will be a software update that will solve the biggest issues – they always do. Within 12 months iSlate 2.0 will be released – most likely in time for the 2010 holiday season. It will demolish the tablet competition and unseat the Amazon Kindle as the #1 device for reading e-books – this is the stretch goal by the way. 

Do you agree with my iSlate predictions? Are you a tablet user right now? Will you be jumping on board the iSlate fanwagon? Either way, let me know. -t

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