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J de Juegos > English Articles Analysis / Hardware x Webmaster
[ 08/September/2010 ]
Portable Devices | Rise and Fall of the Tablet

Without Mutation the theory of Evolution loses one of its best tools for adaptability and change, the problem with it is that although it can end with things that become an advantage and later on a trait, there are times in which the result is anything but useful or positive --looking back this always gets subjective as years go by. In the realm of biology such mutations usually don't stand a chance to propagate and/or get replicated, with inevitable exceptions. But in other realms, the one of technology in particular, the story is different albeit the consequences very alike and most times quite costly.

One of the most successful technological mutations, or product mixes, of recent years has been the Smartphone. Born as an attempt to combine handheld PCs (Pocket PCs) with the advantages of a Cell phone, a mutation that felt strange and even wrong at the time but that proved very successful as consumers adopted it and then started to ask for more features and options thus allowing it to evolve.

The design of the Smartphone obeys a natural need of the market as consumers realize how useful it would be to have a device that holds the power and capabilities of a Pocket PC and also enables them to receive and make phone calls (this at the time many of them moved around carrying both a cell phone and a PDA or handheld PC). After the initial release there is a sort of natural, consumer driven, evolution of its technology and feature set. Something I dare say can't be said of the Netbook and certainly not of the so-called Digital Tablet or Tablet PC or just Tablet.

I mean, what need can the Tablet cover that existent devices can't and in most cases do it better? What market hole, that consumers wish they could find something for, does it fill (in commercial terms: what need)? Let's not forget that it is a device marketed as a replacement of other products, and it isn't even offered as a better-at-it, just that it does what the other does. In it's case <other> is a long list of products as we see bellow.

Tablets, in short, are an attempt at getting into the e-reader market, while at the same time being attractive to the followers of the now dying Netbook, while becoming and alternative to those in need of a portable laptop that at the same time has some Smartphone features. From any point of view I would say that this approach has too much artificiality in it, it's not a natural thing, it's has no true evolutionary flow. It's like trying to cram the advantages of a plane, a car, a motorbike and a bicycle into a single vehicle; ideal, but unrealistic and --to most consumer needs-- useless.

As a technology item there is something cool and nice and sophisticated about the Tablet, it feels like a thing from a sci-fi movie or novel which you can actually hold, and buy. Once the novelty goes, though, it's hard not to go back to the natural product from which it tries to derive its feature set. Laptops and TV for movies (even still-around Netbooks and multimedia Smartphones), laptops and computers for internet browsing, laptops for on-the-go working, MP3 players/Smartphones for music listening, e-book readers for, well, reading, and so on.

One interesting thing about the launch, so far, of Tablets, the iPad in particular, is how maleable its marketing and promotion scheme have been. The press and public see it as a laptop/netbook alternative and that is what gets highlighted, suddently the view changes and it's the use it has as an e-book reader "replacement" and it starts to be shown as a good device for reading; but hey, you can also watch movies there, so the promotional approach changes yet again and the focus becomes accessing and presenting movies. But you can also have it work as a Smartphone for SNS (Social Networking Sites) tasks and light browsing, well then nothing beats its features as a portable Wi-Fi capable touch screen.

There has always been a problem with focus when dealing with a jack-of-all-trades type of device, with the obvious exception of the Swiss Army knife. What do you highlight, which feature to you promote, what makes the product unique? Well in the case of the Tablets they can't be unique because they cram into one item too much, and although we are now the so called multitasking-generation getting things truly done still requires focus. I have always thought that changing an application's focus doesn't truly qualify as a user "multitasking"; going from Excel to Word doesn't have the user working IN Excel AND Word concurrently.

Right now Tablets are a sort of panacea to a grownup's childish sci-fi dreams that feels like having the wrong technology and feature set. And as a new generation of Smartphones starts to come out they almost feel like a in-between product that lacks a proper consumer target group from design up. But even so, everyone seems to be eager to jump onto the bandwagon even if they see that it is going toward a canyon with a broken bridge. Why? I can't phantom.

The iPad is less than six months old (at the time of this writing) and the rumours that it is "outdated" and a new one is on the works to hit the market "as soon as possible" are already starting (14/09/2010).

From the next wave of Tablets, which would still belong somewhat to a first generation following the launch of the iPad, the biggest distinction that I can see between them and the latest Smartphones is a larger screen and in some the lack of 3G/4G capabilities. Under the hood they very much feature the same hardware as far as CPU, memory, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, drive(s) and peripherals go. Prices, though, might vary quite a lot.

Even Intel wants to get into the game, with their just announced Tablet "Project X" which uses the 32nm Cedar Trail-M Platform, although I believe their strategy goes beyond putting a trendy device on the market. Apparently, it might be the right way to introduce new technologies, a new platform and new or improved processor families.

At this point it seems that manufacturers have noticed that there are enough consumers out there that will pay the extra premium for a bigger screen while features and hardware be dammed; and they obviously want a slice of the cake. It amazes me how the Dell 5" Streak, which was introduced as a gaming-focused Smartphone, and which I belive was born as an Android based portable gaming platform with phone capabilities, is now being marketed as a Dell Tablet. Truth be told, for a moment I thought it was another product that evolved from the Dell 5" Streak, not a new ad campaign.

This move by Dell has given many other companies hope as they design, prototype and manufacture a proper Tablet; they can launch slightly larger versions of their current Smartphone designs and present them as Tablets (some take the phone side out to take a little more off of the resemblance and reduce the price a notch too). At least we can be happy that they are using proved and tried hardware so problems should be at a minimum, right?

One thing is certain, the lack of truly useful marketable features will mean that the best, if not the only, way to promote such Tablets, and Tablets in general, is through (better)hardware and (better)price. So we should be getting ready for the fastest and toughest price war ever, the problem is that it will be incredible hard, nearly impossible, to know when is the right time to buy since I imagine we will get overflowed by model after model with better hardware and/or bigger/brighter/thinner/nicer screen.

This might actually backfire as the consumer is afraid to buy anything since there is bound to be something better, at the same price or cheaper, just around the corner --and I mean this literally. And, as different companies fight to present the latest and best --at nothing-- Tablet product in their lineup Smartphones will get better and faster which ought to be the only positive corollary brought by the advent of this unnatural product.

I mean, the biggest attraction is a large screen, right? How about adding video-out capabilities to the Smartphones and offer instead a decent array of slim, ergonomic, battery friendly, touch or non-touch screens? Five, seven and eleven inches sound like a good size before entering the realm of what is most definitively covered by a laptop. I know it will mean carrying one more thing, but I bet most Tablet users are already carrying a Smartphone anyway, probably even a laptop, so why not a slick cool and futuristic looking screen that links to that expensive fancy Smartphone? It ought to weight less than a Tablet of the same size, and cost much, much less. An added bonus would be that one could even exchange the screen for a bigger, or smaller, model if the one they got doesn't fit the bill.

A very recent and coincidental announcement by Intel of its Intel Wireless Display technology, or WiDi, comes to add even more weight to my previous point; what is even better is that it does so with a nicer touch of sci-fi associated technology. Now we can replace those annoying cables with a WiDi compatible chip. Cool.

I don't have anything against Tablet themselves, I am the first to admit they look cool, it is when I stop looking and start thinking about usability, hardware and features that I stop finding them so appealing. The current price tags are also a good reason to look away, more so with such great and most times less expensive alternatives in the laptop and Smartphone realms --which happen to be functionally equivalent 90% or higher in almost all situations I can think of.

Since I am talking about functional equivalence it is a good time to check the issue of the Operating System that runs a Tablet. Right now we have the iOS, Google Android, Windows Mobile and Windows 7 (in portable mode). Anybody attempting to launch one with a completely new OS better have some great product, an astounding marketing team or some other ace up the sleeve.

The true reason behind the apparently "great" sales is something that eludes me. I imagine that it has something to do with the recent lost of interest of the industry in Netbooks and the need for hardware manufacturers to find a device to which to target its new and more advanced mobile and ultra-portable CPUs and related products; one more reason why Tablets feel so artificial, comercially speaking.

Whatever true evolution --as a product-- holds for Tablets its immediate future looks bright and very promising. Alas, it will also be a very confusing and head-hitting time for consumers as more and newer models start to hit the market between the last quarter of this year and the first of 2011. From there anything can happen, really; being something so artificial and an extremely "manufactured" device --in a commercial and usability sense-- users and the market can move either way and from one moment to the next we either have an incredible boom, or it fades into oblivion next to the Netbooks.

I suspect we will see them around, through the inertia of consecutive launches that companies have planned, for the next six or so months. There will be a very strange form of competition and price war as well as many believing that the other is in some sort of attempt to gain market share (which would be a phantom idea actually) and thus create a cycle of design-manufacture-launch/to/market until someone stops the cycle by realizing there is no market. But who knows, maybe the whole "illusion of one" plus the inertia might end up creating it; but this is too abstract to even ponder about it.

What will be interesting to watch evolve in a parallel manner is the market of the Smartphones as well as their hardware and software development. The apparently latest "advanced" generation we will see this year is looking really promising and recent announces like the one from Intel about WiDi make the future of this device very, very, interesting to say the least. But this is a matter for another article.

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