Is the tablet computer's lack of a keyboard a major barrier, or does it remove a barrier? Gartner thinks that the latter case applies, at least in the mass market. In a new special report, the company says that the multi-touch type of interface common to smartphones and, more recently, tablets will also be incorporated in PCs and other consumer electronics devices. Further, users will connect their tablets to other peripherals, extending the multi-touch interface to devices such as bathroom scales and blood pressure monitors via Wi-Fi.
Gartner says its report, iPad and Beyond: What the Future of Computing Holds, examines "how the iPad has impacted the hardware industry, and how media tablets are changing what users will expect out of their computing devices." Angela McIntyre, research director, says:
"During the next five to 10 years, media tablets will instigate change in computing form factors; modular designs will enable tablets to take on new functions, becoming the cross-platform controller and brain for hybrid consumer electronics and computers. Tablets will be substitutes for several of the consumer electronics consumers often carry with them. Thin-and-light mobile PCs with tablet-like features will become mainstream, pushing out some bulkier PC styles that have been the norm."
Gartner doesn't mention it, but this is a path that the personal computer started to tread more than 30 years ago. People were quick to connect their PCs to music keyboards and synthesizers, plotters and printers, and a wide range of commercial and industrial tools. Smartphones have followed suit over much of the past decade, so it won't be a surprise if similar things happen with tablets. However, such connections are not unique to, nor are they exclusive to, tablets.
New pathways to the internet
McIntyre also expects that "smartphones, tablets and tablet hybrids will become the first pathway to the Internet for many. The keyboard on PCs is a major barrier for those who have had no reason or opportunity to become facile with qwerty."
Historically, most people have accessed the net via PC keyboards, but the rapid growth in the sales of smartphones and tablets has already started to change that. Most people are content consumers rather than creators, so they really don't need keyboards. In fact, their long-standing familiarity with SMS text messaging on even the cheapest, most basic mobile phones is more than enough preparation for posting tweets and Facebook updates.
Whether it's the keyboard that's a barrier, or people just prefer the superior convenience of using a smartphone or tablet, is a moot point. Although most people who live in what we like to call the developed nations are familiar with qwerty keyboards, there are far larger areas of the world where they are not so familiar. Indeed, many of the world's most common languages don't use qwerty characters at all. In these cases, touch-based pictorial interfaces may well be far more accessible. The problem is that most of the people in emerging nations can't really afford smartphones, let alone iPads….
For us, tablets like the iPad are luxury toys for people who usually have PCs and smartphones already -- and probably have multiple games consoles, digital cameras, MP3 players, satnavs, set-top boxes and laptops as well. Tablets are just another way of flogging consumers yet another device that's basically a computer (processor, memory, software, box) but with the functionality restricted and customised for ease of use.
But in most of the world, the mobile phone (not just the smartphone) is the primary device that's driving fundamental change. Media tablets are just following in their wake, soaking up any spare cash.