More than a few people have called 2010 the year of the tablet. Last week, even I predicted that touch would be everywhere next year, making an Apple Tablet just one of many touch-enabled devices and forcing e-readers to adopt a good touch interface. But will an abundance of tablet-like computers make netbooks and e-readers the latest technology fad to never really take off in education?
If you believe ComputerWorld's Mike Elgan, the answer is yes:
Look, I know you like the netbook idea -- and you love netbook prices...here's my advice. Sell your netbook now while you can still unload it. By this time next year, the space between cell phones and laptops will be taken over by a new generation of touch tablets, and you won't be able to give that netbook away.
I don't disagree completely. Netbooks do represent a lot of compromises. They are, however, incredibly cheap and, where adults often find their keyboards challenging, most kids find the keyboards just right. Even high school students, accustomed to thumbing away on their cell phones, don't have any real problems with the keyboards. Elgan and others have argued that tablet users can simply whip out the external keyboard of their choice to type on a tablet, but this is just one more item to buy, break, and lose in the land of education.
This, of course, is one of the reasons I'm so enamored of the Convertible Classmate. It provides tablet capability (which is how kids use them the majority of the time) with a built-in keyboard that students need for any kind of serious text input. However, even the cheapest of standard netbooks provide a powerful Internet access and productivity tool for kids. Sure, tablets are a cool idea, but netbooks aren't going anywhere, especially at the low end of the market and in education.
E-readers are another story. As I've already noted, they need to get a heck of a lot better mighty fast if they want to avoid being lunch for inexpensive tablets. In an ideal world, huge amounts of content in EPUB format would come together with inexpensive, color, touch-enabled e-readers, making them solid textbook replacements and turning giant student backpacks into thin messenger bags.
This is hardly an ideal world, though. Yes, it looks like the inexpensive color e-reader will be a reality, but the same technology will also enable inexpensive color tablets. What is a school going to buy? A one-trick pony e-reader for its students or a really useful convergence device for a slight upcharge? Especially if the EPUB content does come together, then this will be viewable on any device (including said tablets). It becomes much harder to make the case for e-readers outside of bookhounds who value a device just for reading books.
What remains to be seen is just how cheap these new tablets can be, how quickly e-readers improve, and how fast content comes together for any platform. No doubt, 2010 is going to be a very interesting year for these intersecting markets.