Of course the easy answer, because I used the word can, is yes. The harder answer is “will they” and we’ll get to how that might happen towards the end. I figured this would be fun to explore this week.
Tablet Advantages and Exposures
The advantage the tablet currently has is that it is vastly lighter and more portable than a laptop and it is more fun to use. Users tend to like to use them in bed or on the couch mostly though, increasingly they can be found in meetings for note taking. This last is ironic because several years before there was an iPad, Steve Jobs thought such a use was silly given how much more quickly we could type and how common laptops were.
However, tablets largely suck for creation because they lack screen size and aren’t good at handwriting recognition (and thus you have to use the screen keyboard which further exacerbates the screen size issue or a wireless keyboard which makes it vastly heavier). In effect they are an in-between device (called a tweener), in that they have more screen size then a smartphone but are less useful than a laptop and fall between in size and weight. This would suggest if either a smartphone or a laptop could approach the capabilities of a tablet, the form factor would become obsolete or if the tablet could embrace both functions it could make the smartphone and laptop obsolete.
Currently smartphones are toying with a 5” form factor under both Android and Windows Phone platforms. While this isn’t yet large enough to fully challenge a tablet, it is within shooting distance of 7”, which is. Users are increasingly becoming comfortable with headsets and hands free systems thanks largely to laws requiring them in automobiles and there is reasonable chance we could see acceptable products in this size range by mid-decade. However, getting people to even use 5” phones has proven daunting and unless there is a compelling application that drives these larger form factors, it would appear unlikely that large smartphones will be able to take tablets out prior to the end of the decade.
Ultrabooks are more interesting, they are approaching fully configured iPad prices at launch and should drop from there and Windows 8 may give them touch capability. However touch won’t come easy because it doesn’t lend itself to a notebook for factor as it currently exists, because they are so light that touching them overbalances the product and requires a two handed approach, likely making the solution too difficult to use. In addition, the current generation of touch displays are both heaver and thicker than standard panels, detracting from the ultra-thin profile this product leads with and contributing to the overbalancing problem.
Still, Apple accessory vendors may have pointed the way to a solution that they had to implement for the similarly overbalanced iPad problem when you attach a keyboard. This is to place a kickstand behind the screen – do that and it can be touched with a single hand, making touch useful and not overly compromising the weight of the product (the other approach is to add more weight to the base but that is counter strategic to a platform that leads on lightness).
Wrapping Up: Will They?
It appears doubtful that smartphones, as they currently are, can displace the iPad or tablet market (if it ever emerges) prior to 2020, which takes it out of a strategic planning period. By then we likely will see the rebirth of wearable devices which will put all three at risk; Ultrabooks on the other hand could do this within 3 years if the vendors can figure out an elegant way to support the screen while not sacrificing their critical weight advantages. Ultrabooks also have additional advantages, beyond media creation, because they can stand on their own without accessories (making them better for TVs, movies, and some games) and their screens are less prone to glare due to their angled placement.
However, they are still likely to be bad at reading and hand held games unless the Ultrabook can be converted to a more tablet-like device. This suggests solutions like the Asus Transformer, which weds the tablet to a docking keyboard, might be able to hold Ultrabooks off. If those two uses, or new ones, uniquely advantage the tablet it will survive and flourish, if they don’t, it will be displaced by the Ultrabook and become shelf ware.
I have yet to see a prototype touch Ultrabook with this feature though suggesting it may not actually show up until 2013 or later and, given Apple’s iPad experience, it may show up on their MacBook lines first.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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