Apple, of course, kicked it off with the iPad. Well, if you ignore the tablet devices that were used on Star Trek, which I understand inspired the Kindle family that are now adding to the tablet expansion. And definitely if you ignore the 1981 radio/book/TV and eventually cinematic phenomenon, the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. I think Douglas Adams should really get some credit for inventing the genre, but hey, that's life, I guess.
So have we finished with the old forms of computing? Well I suspect the bottom has fallen out of the desktop market to a significant degree. Of course there's a lot of roles for computing that don't require portable devices and some would suggest that office equipment have their advantages for not being portable. Plus, I think it's fair to say that although tablet screens can be fast, sharp and very intuitive with their capacitive stretch and slide they're also too small for some applications.
Now I'm a moderate computer user - in my day job I use Word, Excel, Outlook plus some proprietary programs. As a preference I extend my desktop screen from my laptop computer to increase the real estate I can use as I often have multiple Word, Excel and Outlook windows open. I could double the size on both screens and still want more. Tablet screens are great if you're able to do just one task on a screen at a time, but true multi-tasking is currently a challenge for the genre.
I think that tablets will increase in functionality over the next year and we may start to see iPad+ sized screens arriving - the Microsoft Surface pushes the size boundaries slightly but loses something with its unusual screen format. However, who knows what Surface 2 will look like? There will inevitably be a bleed across the technologies, and again the Surface has nodded towards this. I don't think Microsoft have got it right, but I'm sure we're going to see a lot of innovation in the near future.
What would work for me would be a tablet computer I can take out to business meetings, capable of running MS Office applications, connectable to a projector and able to run proprietary software. Back at the office it would be able to hook up to a full keyboard and mouse plus a full size screen that is also a capacitative screen. As a minimum it would be possible to use the extended screen setup in the same way I use my current setup, but able to drag windows across to other parts of the screen, stretch images to get a better detailed view and generally have an enhanced experience that brings the benefits of both paradigms.
Can Apple or Google deliver this level of functionality coupled with the security required of a business level computing system? Of course, all it takes is cash and time. Can they beat Microsoft to the table? Unless they are working towards this standard already, and are quite a long way down the development route, probably not. Will Microsoft regain its market position if it is the only company pursuing this route? Probably not fully and I expect that one or both of Apple and Google will be barking at Microsoft's shirt tails pretty soon anyway.
So tablets aren't the end-game, in my opinion, although I fully believe they are pointing towards the future. We're in for an exciting time ahead in the next two years and I think that all tablet makers should prepare their customers for the ride. Taking a leaf out of Douglas Adams I would support all tablets sold from now on having the words 'Don't Panic' emblazoned across the front screen. It might just help.
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