Tablets: Hitting the wall for innovation

Tablets: Hitting the wall for innovation

Summary: All eyes are on Apple to see what the next iPads will bring to the masses that is new and innovative. That may not happen as tablets have reached a plateau of functionality.

TOPICS: Mobility, iPad, Tablets
iPad, Galaxy Note 8.0, iPad mini, ThinkPad Tablet 2 (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The days leading up to the forthcoming new iPad unveiling by Apple has seen a lot of speculation about the innovation (and possible lack thereof), that the company may spring on consumers. Some pundits believe the new iPads will be a minor evolution of the product line, and others that Apple will wow us with unexpected functionality for the new tablet. The fact is, tablets have already evolved to the point where they can do virtually everything consumers want, and in that regard they may have already hit the wall.

A good article by ZDNet's Larry Dignan compares tablets to the netbook, and suggests maybe the tablet is going away like those cheap notebooks of a while back. He makes some good points but I don't think we'll see tablets going the way of the netbook and the dodo.

Netbooks were Windows laptops (after the first Asus Eee PC) that were smaller and much cheaper than the notebooks of that time. Consumers snapped up netbooks in droves, primarily due to how cheap they were. You could almost buy four netbooks for the price of some laptops of that time.

The cheap price of the netbook contributed to its extinction in the market as the competition drove regular laptop prices down significantly. Once laptop prices plummeted there was no reason to put up with performance compromises of netbooks. The bigger laptops were also easier to use than the smaller netbooks with cramped keyboards. People started buying cheap laptops, even though not quite as cheap as netbooks, to avoid the compromises mentioned. The netbook soon disappeared from store shelves due to lack of sales.

We won't see the same happen with tablets as they stand alone in form and function. They aren't replacing laptops or other PCs, they have a unique use case (e. g. consuming media in the hands) that laptops can't adequately duplicate. They can be used with keyboards to do tasks otherwise done on laptops, but the reverse is not the case. People like using tablets for casual computing and that's not going to change.

While tablets aren't likely going away any time soon like the netbook, they have evolved to the point where there's not a lot more functionality they'll pick up. There are good tablets on all three of the major platforms, iOS, Android, and Windows 8, that do everything a consumer wants to do with the slate. They are all good at consuming content, surfing the web, and working with social networks, and do it most anywhere. They can do that from the comfy sofa in front of the TV especially, and many tablet owners love that.

While there are differences in apps across the platforms, there aren't many things that consumers want to do that can't be done on any of today's tablets. Web browsers are good enough that even if apps don't exist that owners would like, they can often use the web to compensate for that.

Tablets today are full-featured across the board, and there's not much they can't do as far as owners are concerned. They've hit the wall in that regard, and evolution is now on the software side. App development will continue and owners will appreciate that, but it's not going to significantly move forward.

The hardware is really good so even that doesn't leave much room for big leaps forward. There are tablets of all sizes to appeal to most everyone, and they all do pretty much what the other models do. We'll see small hardware improvements going forward but not major changes. Tablets are thin and light, with long battery life, and there's nowhere for them to go forward as far as hardware is concerned.

Some will argue that the many different styles of Windows hybrids, aka 2-in-1's, are pushing the hardware envelope for tablets but that's not exactly true. They are pushing the laptop envelope, but the tablet side of the hardware is pretty much business as usual for the slate.

Apple may surprise us with the new iPads but probably not very much. Whatever they unveil will likely do what all the other tablets out there do. It may look different doing it, and it may do it somewhat better for now, but that will be about it. There's not a lot of room for improvement for small, thin slabs that are touch devices. Consumers will keep buying them because they like what they can do, not because they do new things differently.

Don't mistake this as a complaint, it's rather acknowledging how good tablets have become in a short time. The four tablets owned by the writer, on all three major tablet platforms, are all great pieces of hardware. They are about as good as tablets can be, and that's the point.

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Topics: Mobility, iPad, Tablets

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  • Why would tablets die?

    It's a proven form factor. What will replace them? Smartphones? No. Users flocking back to the desktop in droves? Hell, no. I really didn't understand the point behind that article in the slightest.

    My Surface compliments my work perfectly by allowing me to be mobile without having to suffer the awkwardness of carrying around a laptop when it's not needed, or suffering through working on a tiny smartphone screen.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Your right, smartphones do not replace tablets.

      And major kudos to J. Kendrick for putting to bed one great myth that has seemed to perplex so many around here.

      Of course many of the Windows haters who will ascribe to any theory that hints at PC's vanishing in the next few years may still beg to differ despite the fact that all evidence shows that PC sales have slowed due to simple lack of replacement sales in a mature market.

      When Kendrick talks about tablets, saying "They aren't replacing laptops or other PCs, they have a unique use case" he says what most people have recognized for some time.

      A very large part of computing done on tablets is not replacement computing, that's to say the same old computing most people did before on work and home PC's. The fact is most tablet computing is new computing, meaning computing that simply wouldn't have been done before where and when its now done on a tablet. The tablet allows for an over all increase in peoples computing capacity allowing them to do more computing on the run and in places and situations where it would have been atypical for them to be able to do computing in the past.

      The only impact on PC sales that tablets have probably had is that people who otherwise may have upgraded a perfectly functional computer decided to spend their bucks on the new tablet instead and just keep the still functional computer for a while longer. In the vast majority of cases its unlikely that too many people have actually put their laptop or desktop out to pasture in favor of full time tablet use.

      As The one and only, Cylon Centurion has said the tablet provides for mobility. Its hard to say if in his case he is actually replacing some of his laptop use though, or just saying he can now carry a tablet where if he wanted to carry something in the past, it would have to have been a more awkward laptop, which he may or may not have done in the past.

      The fact is, the most significant number of times I have seen anyone using a tablet are in situations where it would be easy to see that nobody would have likely even bothered to try and use a laptop because of situational awkwardness.
  • Innovation

    With Apple, the iPhone points the way of the future iPad. Today will they bring Siri? TouchID? 64bit? (For those who say you don't care, I appreciate the point.)

    Though your central thesis looks valid to me.

    Where I'd argue there's clear room for innovation in the sector is for integration with other entertainment devices. The problems, of course, being the thicket of rights and fears that Apple in particular and others in general will claim the lion's share of profits.

    Evolutionary changes are not as damning to a company as pundits and technologists suggest. And there can be more than one successful manufacturer and os.

    We'll see.
    • iPad already has Siri

      The touch ID will surely come.
  • The Battery?

    There is plenty of room left for innovation in the battery department. If you really put a tablet thru its paces it gets no were near 10 hours of battery life. Just try and play a hardcore 3d graphics game, and see if you can get anywhere close to ten hours of battery life.
    • Good battery life????

      I like JK's articles a lot. They are very well done. But here, he is buying into the current limitations we are stuck with. There is not a smartphone or tablet or laptop on the market with good battery life. Calling 10 hour battery life good ls like saying 30 mpg is good; we should be doing sooo much better. I want one week or one month battery life and I think that possibility exists. It will just take a little bit of . . . innovation.
      • For a very looong time...

        ...we are not going to see a whole pile of battery time improvements. The reasons are pretty obvious.

        As battery power improves the producers/manufacturers are going to almost always eat up a good part of that improvement with improved performance that chews more battery power. I don't know a single person interested in tablets whos primary interest is not seeing the day when a tablet can operate just like a full blown computer, and as quick and smooth, and still provide the same kind of battery life a mobile type OS does today.

        And significantly improving battery life will obviously take more than just a little innovation. Going from, say, a 10 hour battery life to a 15 hour battery life would take some ground breaking innovation in rechargeable batteries. And by that time most tablet manufacturers will be hoping to make their product more attractive not by saying "you can use our product a lot longer", but far more likely by saying "you can use our product a lot more productively".
  • Add cellular calling capability

    My opinion the killer feature is the ability to make a phone calls not via Google voice or other apps but over cellular network with 4g LTE. There are international versions of the tablets that can do this but can only operate around 3g or HSPA. The first tablet manufacturer that can bring this to market will grab a lot of business (including mine).
    • You want to call?? Then DO IT

      Samsung makes a whole lot of Tablets from 7 inches through 10.1 that all have FULL PHONE capability.
      7" GT-P3100 and a couple of others in the same series.
      7.7" GT-P6800 a couple of others in the series.
      8" Some versions of the New TAB 3 8
      8.9 yes..
      10.1" The GT-P5100 and now some versions of the new TAB 3 10.1

      No,, you won't find them at any US phone store because the US telcos want to keep you buying multiple data plans for multiple devices. BUT, if you want it, you can buy it on Amazon. Be sure and read the tech specs for the overseas devices offered by Samsung. Understand you get no warranty. Read the Amazon reviews and ask questions.

      I have the GT-P6800 and I love it. 48 icons on a screen. Android 4.1.2 Put it on a Straight Talk GSM card for 50$ a month. Fits in a cargo pant or suit jacket pocket and a blue tooth headset means the world doesn't know you have it . Put it in a flip case and you can hold it to your ear and whisper to have private conversations and you don't look any sillier than you did standing in a parking lot hunched over at an open phone box with a big black thing on a 3 foot cord to your ear during a thunderstorm..
  • Tablets: Hitting the wall for innovation

    Tablets have always been limited in function. I'm surprised that they actually sold as well as they did considering they only work in limited uses. People are carrying them around less and going back to their laptops.
    • I disagree

      Tablets have *different* function to PCs/Laptops. I'd argue that for consumption they are far more convenient and better suited than your traditional desktop or laptop.

      If you observe people with free access to both types of devices, invariably they prefer to watch/read/listen/surf on a tablet and write or generally produce stuff on a computer.

      You will find plenty of exceptions but I believe the situation I state is the norm.

      The declining sales figures for laptops tend to speak volumes.
  • you're nuts James

    we have more selection than ever, wacom is just becoming common in relatively inexpensive tablets, they come in all sorts of sizes now, we have 3 major OSs, and the form factors have huge amounts of experimentation going on, from just a plain tablet, to transformer styles, to devices like the Lenovo Yoga line, and on and on. this is the peak point of innovation, tablets are only now just hitting their stride. you're insane to insinuate there's a lack of innovation.
  • Innovation is a word you seem to throw around easily

    Yet when I look at the desktop, notebook and tablet market, the biggest innovation is actually happening in the desktop space.

    True, Apple may have bragging rights for inventing the tablet, but it's been stuck in the stone age for years. It took Microsoft's Surface initiative to bring the device into the industrial era with it's better hardware, feature set and productivity potential.

    As for netbooks being gone, I see more of a renaissance given even your insatiable craze for jacking a keyboard onto every tablet. It's only a matter of time before manufacturers realize that the netbook as a form-factor wasn't a bad idea after all.