Is there any "wow" left in the Tablet PC?

Rob Bushway at GottaBeMobile.com wrote a thoughtful piece the other day pondering where the "wow" has gone in the Tablet PC segment. It's a well-balanced look at what he sees as a mature product segment lacking in significant new innovations that are likely to drive large numbers of new adopters to the platform. I've been using Tablet PCs for about as long as Rob – I first got my hands on the original Toshiba entry into the space (the Portege 3500) back in 2003 and I remember the "wow" experience it delivered.

Rob Bushway at GottaBeMobile.com wrote a thoughtful piece the other day pondering where the "wow" has gone in the Tablet PC segment. It's a well-balanced look at what he sees as a mature product segment lacking in significant new innovations that are likely to drive large numbers of new adopters to the platform. I've been using Tablet PCs for about as long as Rob – I first got my hands on the original Toshiba entry into the space (the Portege 3500) back in 2003 and I remember the "wow" experience it delivered.

James Kendrick of jkOnTheRun and my occasional podcast partner wrote an equally thoughtful rebuttal piece yesterday invoking the apparently imminent entry from Dell into the space as a sign of health and continuing validation for the Tablet PC. And, in classic blogosphere fashion, Rob has responded with a second post that moves the conversation forward, saying (in part):

I believe James overestimates the impact of Dell coming out with a Tablet PC. Sure, it will impact the enterprise in a positive way and make inroads to markets where IT shops are purely Dell. It will bring awareness to a platform we all feel is superior. This will happen in the same way that Lenovo positively impacted the market. However, when Lenovo entered the Tablet PC area, it wasn't earth shattering with every Tom, Dick, and Harry coming in to Starbucks sporting a Tablet PC. What I did see was more drug reps carrying an X41 and that is a good thing for sure. If the Dell Tablet PC rumors come true and they come out with a unit that closely models the D420, my point has been validated about a lack of innovation and design. I welcome Dell to the table with open arms, but can they please come to the table with something yummy to eat rather than a repeat of last night's hamburger?

I totally agree with James that Tablet PCs today are just as powerful as their counterparts, and that is a good thing. They should be. At this point in the game, we shouldn't expect less. But that is not the innovation I'm talking about. Those are things that put the tablet on par with other notebooks. Where are the features that help set it apart? Are they pushing the envelope design wise? Are they designing for the pen user or just sticking a Wacom digitizer on a screen, making it a single spindle machine and calling it a tablet? Where are the mobility enhancements we've come to expect in Vista? Where are the software design innovations from ISVs?

All good questions and, to me, signs of a maturity plateau. To me, the recent emphasis on expanding the market space by including both Tablet and touchscreen technologies into a single area of focus at Microsoft is a good sign of refactoring the development and marketing mindset to move onwards and upwards from the current plateau. The Asus R2H UMPC that I've been evaluating (well, attempting to evaluate anyway) has a lot of promise. It combines a touch screen implementation of the Tablet PC with a camera, GPS, and connectivity options in what could be a very useful alternative to carrying a full(er) sized Tablet PC around. But the Vista issues are profound, the device gets really hot, and the battery life is hardly sufficient to make this a long meeting device much less an all-day-on-the-go choice.

I've been very outspoken here on the blog and in public conversations at the many events I've been traveling to recently that increasingly powerful mobile devices are one of the trends that are contributing to a "perfect storm of change" headed toward the world of work. Tablet PC occupies the large end of that product continuum. UMPCs are in the middle – smaller and more easily toted around but currently compromised by usability, power, bulk, and heat issues. The smaller, lighter Nokia N800 I've been using is a unique form factor in the handheld mobile device segment with its Linux underpinnings, internet and media focus, and its design disposition towards accessing, rather than carrying data. And then there are the increasingly capable mobile handsets coming from the telephony side of the space from manufacturers like Palm, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, and HDC (among others).

There is innovation taking place in terms of the variety of devices mobile knowledge workers can choose from to remain engaged and productive in a variety of non-office settings. But the innovations are, as Rob argues in his posts, mostly adding features and frills to established product designs, not "wow" factor ideas. Incremental improvements, in other words, rather than groundbreaking innovations.

This, to me, feels like a temporary lull in the storm. Where the next "wow" will come from is unclear. It might be the impact the iPhone has on the market – not so much in terms of actual units shipped but in the larger design trends sense. The first generation device, as it's been reported, is far too closed for my liking and I don't really need a third phone and telco contract in my life. I simply will not put up with a phone that won't even allow me to change batteries, much less add software. And I've bought way too many first-generation devices from Apple to make that mistake on something with a two-year commitment to a carrier I'm not currently engaged with (I use both Sprint and T-Mobile personally and Verizon through my company).

Maybe Apple will get a sub-notebook or iTablet built using some of the good stuff they're doing with the iPhone and that will be the next "wow". Maybe it will come completely out of left field. Looking at the recent slate of mobile offerings from Sony, OQO, and Vulcan as well as the current options in the UMPC space, I see a lot of fiddling with form factor but not so much "wow". The same thing goes for the Tablet PC space itself. I continue to be impressed by the Lenovo X60t I'm evaluating but it is more the case that this is the best example of a convertible Tablet PC I've had the good fortune to use than that it provides anything dramatically different from the previous units I've used.

Well, with one exception. I'm currently using the X60t model featuring the dual-mode display that provides both the standard Tablet PC active digitizer experience as well as touchscreen functionality. And it's very nicely implemented. When I feel like poking at the screen with my fingers, the device works great for tasks like reading ebooks and digital magazines, watching video. and listening to music and podcasts. When I'm ready to mind map, review and respond to e-mail, edit a document, or other fine-grained control activities, I use the stylus. The Lenovo senses the tip of th stylus and suspends the touch screen to avoid any issues with multiple points of input, palm recognition as I'm leaning my hand on the screen to write, or other anomalies that can crop up in a purely passive, touchscreen device. It's excellent execution and a pleasure to use.

But that's not what Rob and James are debating. They're talking about "wow". And right now, I'm more inclined to agree with Rob that we're in a bit of a lull. 

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