Tablets: Not a waning fad

Summary:Trying to buttonhole the tablet into a defined set of use cases overlooks the things it does best, especially the personal nature of the device.

Tablet sales are slowing down, possibly due to how many prospective customers have already bought one. They are not the solution for everyone, largely due to the lack of any unique function they provide.

Tablets
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

A lot of useful tasks are a good fit for the tablet, consuming content not the least of them. But when you get right down to it, there's not a single function that a tablet offers that can't be done on other types of devices.

Don't get me wrong, I love tablets. Many things I do with mine are more enjoyable given the form factor. But truth be told, I can do those tasks on my smartphone. My laptop sometimes steps in to do them, too.

Tablets allow us to tap into the world's pool of information, from the little window held in our hand.

That makes tablets more of an impulse buy than smartphones and laptops. Few prospective customers window-shop for a tablet because they have to have one; it's more that they want one. The difference between wanting and needing a tablet is significant.

I believe that's a big reason why current tablet owners aren't in a hurry to upgrade to the latest and greatest. They like what they already have, and truth be told there's no reason they need one in the first place.

Why has Apple sold so many iPads if no one needs them? That's because what they do they do so well, and they are enjoyable to use. Buyers of tablets quickly understand this once they have one of their very own in hand. They are windows into the world that make you feel good when you use them.

Unlike the user experience with laptops, users often feel a personal connection with the tablet. The combination of holding it in the hand, which establishes a physical connection with the device, and the short distance between the eyes and the display, make the experience very personal in nature. It's almost as if the tablet becomes an extension of the user.

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Many first got an inkling about the strengths of tablets on early Star Trek episodes. The "padd" was often shown as a window into the USS Enterprise. As the series unfolded the padd took on a greater role and was shown more often, especially on Star Trek: Next Generation. The padd still communicated with the AI that was the ship, but it also tapped into the vast pool of information of that time.

To a lesser (but no less important) degree, today's tablets do the same thing. They allow us to tap into the world's pool of information, from the little window held in our hand. We can literally tap into virtually any piece of information in existence.

This is a very heady experience. Sure, we can do the same thing with other devices, even smartphones. Many do that very thing. But there's something compelling about the size of the tablet screen that brings information to life. We can see detail we can't with the little smartphone, even the large ones.

Consuming content, especially video, is particularly enjoyable on a tablet. The high resolution display that is fast becoming the standard plays video in a highly personal format. Having the tablet close to the eyes draws the viewer into the content in a way big screens cannot do.

Of course the tablet can be used for work, too. I do that all the time. But it’s worth noting that while I like using my tablet for getting work done, I can use a laptop. I don’t need the tablet for this, I simply like it. That may be the case for others, I see iPads used for work all the time .

I don’t lump Windows tablets, especially Microsoft’s Surface, in with other tablets. These are not tablets in the same way, they are PCs in a tablet form. Tablets are compelling mobile devices in large part due to the mobile OS and the apps. They are written from the ground up to facilitate mobile tasks. Windows is not.

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I like Windows but I prefer an iPad or Android tablet over a tablet running Microsoft’s OS for "tablet" functions. Windows tablets have too much going on all the time, and as full PCs they require thought to use as a tablet. Tablets on other platforms just require you to pick them up and start using them. It sounds trivial but it’s actually a big difference in practice. That's just me, no doubt many like using their Windows tablet just as much as those on other platforms.

Tablets are not a fad as some say, nor will they go away. They are a form perfect for what owners use them for, and they are enjoyable as much as or more than any other type of device. People who use them tend to like them a lot, even when using them in the workplace.

Tablets are compelling devices, but the fact remains there is no hard need for them. That's what makes them an impulse buy, and what makes those happy with their current tablet unlikely to upgrade to the latest and greatest model when it appears. This is what probably concerns Apple, Samsung, and other tablet makers. They have an ever shrinking market to appeal to given how many of them are already in use.

The tablet market may be getting saturated, but the personal nature of the devices and how enjoyable most users find them tells us they aren't going away any time soon. Owners won't rush to upgrade every time a better tablet comes along; it's a matter of how much they like what they have. The tablet isn't a fad that will fade away. It will be here for a very long time.

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Topics: Mobility, iPad, Microsoft Surface, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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