Along with jetpacks and the paperless office, tablet computers have been just around the corner for at least 50 years, and Microsoft and others have spent the last decade trying to turn them from sci-fi fantasies into real business devices.
Apple got there first, of course, largely by ignoring the received wisdom and re-inventing the tablet as primarily a consumer — and content consumption — device. As a result, the market for tablets turned out to be massive — extending far beyond the worthy business niche that most tech companies were miopically trying to mine.
With the rise of BYOD, these tablets started leaking back into business, but rather as second-class items: companion devices and hangers on, relegated to the position of sidekick as a result of their consumer heritage.
Many managers have never been convinced that tablets have a place in business that goes beyond being a nice trophy gadget for executives and shiny bauble for salespeople making presentations. I still see a lot of comments describing tablets as toys that have no place in business.
But I think they're wrong. Touchscreens and tablets really do matter for business, and will herald a major shake-up of our work space. Here are a few reasons why:
Firstly, because Microsoft wants them to succeed. It's betting big on tablets and touchscreens, making them the heart of its future business strategy — and that means its enormous installed base of users better get used to the idea of swiping as well as typing.
Touch actually works this time around. After a decade or more of false dawns, touchscreen technology works very, very well and it's cheap. If you can get a Nexus 7 for £199, then why would you not begin considering such touch-centric devices for use in business?
Touchscreen and keyboard actually work better than a keyboard and mouse. There's a smattering of research that suggests using a touchscreen as your only input method makes you less productive because the virtual keyboards are slower than physical ones. And touch input can be less accurate and more tiring, too.
But add a physical keyboard into the mix, and touch really works. Ok, so the first few days using a touchscreen does make you feel a bit like a character from Minority Report, but it's far more intuitive than keyboard and mouse. I think it's also more efficient.
I've been using a tablet (the Surface RT) on and off for the last month or so and the combination of touchscreen and keyboard feels very natural, despite the odd fat-fingered error. So much so that going back to the old keyboard, mouse and dumbscreen combo feels stultifying. Touch creates a much more intimate relationship between me and what I write — less mediated than using the mouse and keyboard.
It's what everyone is already buying. The PC era is over, even though the PC industry might be hoping that we are moving into a PC-plus era, where we'll all have some kind of PC alongside a number of other devices in other form factors.
But it's looking increasingly likely that we're moving into a post-PC world where the PC becomes the minority form factor. As a result...
It's what your new staff will expect. Everyone has seen those YouTube clips of kids trying to swipe a magazine. That's your workforce a few years from now. And you thought it was irritating when everyone wanted an iPhone.
Touch computing has changed my work dynamic. Work has always been a lean-forward experience. What I've found is that using a tablet has made work a lean-back experience as well (in contrast to watching TV, which for many has gone from lean-back to lean-forward.)
I'm pretty convinced that after 50 years of waiting, tablets here to stay
An example: I came across a piece of useful research when writing this column. Instead of leaning in I detached the Surface from its keyboard and sat back to read the research, and to think. It might seem like a trivial difference but for me it was revelatory because that form factor change altered the way I consumed that piece of content. If a new technology can make your staff more productive and more creative, why would you not use it?
Tablets may even change where we sit. The office was originally designed around immovable adding machines and typewriters and hasn't really been rethought since then, even as the devices have become lighter, cheaper and more portable. Even hot-desking just recreates the same cubical culture, without the clutter. Tablets and touchscreens could make for a much more open and collaborative culture, if you let them.
Of course, none of this means that the desktop or notebook will disappear overnight and they will both still have useful niches. And it could be decades before the real impact emerges. But I'm pretty convinced that after 50 years of waiting, tablets here to stay.