So I bought an HP TouchPad. I can't really afford it, but I couldn't resist - WebOS just seems so cool, and I wanted to really get a feel for how it worked in real life. Also, I wanted to see for myself if HP had what it takes to create a viable entry in the Tablet platform wars. It took me a week after launch, but I couldn't deal with the urge any more, so yesterday I took the plunge, dented my credit card even more and got yet another tablet.
I was thinking this morning I should write up some thoughts on the TouchPad because there's some really nice things, and some really bad things about it which makes you want to share. But then as I started writing I realized I really wanted to write more about Tablets in general, because otherwise my thoughts just don't have context.
I *love* tablets. They truly excite me. I just absolutely adore the form factor, am amazed by their usability and universal utility, and think they're set to revolutionize information technology and society as we know it. They are accessible to just about anyone of any age or education, relatively inexpensive, provide instant access to information, entertainment and education, and fit perfectly in our daily lives.
I used to be a 'mobile' guy, but not any more. I believe that Tablets make good on the promise of smartphones. I already view my mobile as an inferior tablet, not a superior phone. Though mobiles will continue to be much more popular than tablets for the foreseeable future, I predict they will increasingly be relegated towards less information-centric tasks, and more on core 'portable' functionality such as communication, navigation and imaging. There's just a natural limit to the size of a "mobile" before it's no longer mobile, there are only so many moments when we truly are moving (and thus away from our homes, offices, etc.), and there's already an established size for optimal information consumption (hint, it's the size of those things sitting in your bookshelf.) We spend most of our time in one of three places, and in those places the Tablet will rule.
I own a variety of tablets already. Starting with the original Web Tablet, the Nokia 770, and then the N800 and N810, then the Archos 5, then iPads (1 and 2), a Moto Xoom, a Samsung Galaxy 7" tab, and even the Nook Color and a Lenovo netbook which converts into a Windows Tablet with a touchscreen. I keep gathering them so I can see what works and what doesn't work. Every device shows some cool new innovation, has pros and cons and sometimes major flaws, but they're all stepping quickly into the future.
This is a really exciting time for what I see as an incredible new technology.
First, there's an established leader - Apple, but their platform isn't open. Will the closed nature of iOS lead to its downfall as similar tightly-controlled platforms have failed in the past?
Then there's a second tier lead by Google, but even though the Android OS is open, it's not as good as iOS in a variety of ways, OEMs end up fragmenting the platform to differentiate themselves, and there's serious legal issues clouding the platform from both Oracle and Microsoft.
Then you have the outliers - HP with their Palm-created WebOS, and Blackberry with their QNX-created Playbook OS based on Neutrino (a distinct non-Unix micro-kernel based OS).
Then, there's the sleeping giant - Microsoft. Windows could suddenly become a major tablet platform if the UI is tweaked enough and it ran on tablet-sized devices. Or maybe there's a skunk-works project deep within Redmond to upsize their Windows Phone 7 OS to tablets. Either way, they're still a powerhouse. In theory, Microsoft has advantages that combine the best of all their competitors: A relatively solid OS, experience in the consumer market (XBox), a decent virtual machine (.Net/Silverlight), great development tools and millions of experienced developers, a monopoly on the PC desktop and a strangle hold on corporations with Office and Exchange. They also have decent Search and Maps now (competing with Google) and are expanding into the cloud. They also have a deal with my employer Nokia as well which should expand their presence globally.
It's early days yet for tablets, and that's what makes it exciting. Nothing as it is now will be this way in a couple years, I can guarantee it.
The future, however, is hard to predict.
Android could go either way in my opinion - it's got *so* much manufacturer support now, it's hard to see Google losing that momentum. When companies like Amazon create another several million devices, it's going to be hard going back. But the honest truth is that the OS is still pretty clunky and provides a sub-optimal experience for consumers. If people don't buy Android powered devices, the OEMs will stop making them, it's as simple as that. Also, with Microsoft demanding payment for each Android device (and getting it), will there suddenly be less economic reasons for manufacturers to go that route? What happens if Oracle wins some massive judgement against Google - not just for money, but also for property rights, etc. That result could be 2, 5 or 10 years away, but its effect could be huge, and the cloud it creates is ominous.
I see tablets not as the rich person's toy it is now, but as a tool of the everyman. Unlike laptops and desktop computers, the idea of a "premium tablet" is almost ludicrous. The prices will drop - the costs of creating a tablet today will be halved in a year and competition will be fierce, and that means pretty decent hardware will start showing up for $150 at your local Wal-Mart. What does this mean for Apple? Will they follow the market and lower prices? They've done well with the iPod creating variations at different price points over the years and have dominated that segment. Will they do that for tablets as well? Again, this could go either way. They are a niche player in the PC market, yet completely dominate iPod, smartphones and tablets. Are tablets more of a CE device, and thus Apple will dominate like they do with the iPod, or will it be more of a general computing device, and thus be relegated to being one of a several platforms?
It's hard to imagine Apple continuing to dominate the tablet market so completely - given my prediction of their general ubiquity it just doesn't make sense. Think about all the people in your office or school that use laptops now - that's how I see the future of Tablets evolving. Is every corporation, home and college in the world going to get their hardware exclusively from Apple? I doubt it. Supply and demand alone would prevent that from happening. Thus there needs to be an alternative Tablet OS that's either open or licensable - like Windows or Android or WebOS to fill that need. Or maybe Apple sees this as well and licenses iOS? Maybe, but I highly doubt it.
Anyways, I think the whole area is just incredibly exciting - now if I can just figure out how to take advantage of it, so that in five years when all this stuff I'm seeing comes around. Despite the fact that I really grokked the power of smartphones back in 2003, when the wave of iPhone-lead smartphone popularity hit in 2008, I wasn't anywhere near the place I needed to be to take advantage of it - I didn't want to develop for Apple, I wasn't expecting Apps to be such a huge business, and honestly by that time I was getting tired of waiting and had forgotten what the excitement was all about. Hopefully I can avoid making that mistake again in the future.
The tingly sensation is back, the countdown to general adoption has begun, and the players are all set to start. I just hope I can figure out where to be when the whistle finally blows, you know?