Weighing in on Tablet PCs

Jason Bradbury’s view that (specifically) Apple’s new tablet PC will ‘change publishing forever’ is interesting, if not a little premature I think.  First off, we’re all focused on Apple’s upcoming announcement about what we assume is their tablet entry (it’ll be interesting if it’s not), but other manufacturers are already offering the devices and 2010 will see lots of different devices become available, so let’s address them in general.

The Screen

First off, tablet PCs are different from e-readers in that they’re supposed to be general purpose (or at least fairly general) PCs at heart.  E-readers do (mainly) one thing, let you read e-books.  The main technological difference is the screen.  Most e-readers use an e-ink or similar screen.  Reading on a computer is slower than reading from a printed page because the resolution of print is infinitely better than the screen (our eyes also tire more easily looking at screens).  E-ink displays are much closer in resolution to reading a printed page and lack the flicker of a normal screen, although they’re limited to black and white (due to the current costs for colour versions rather than the technology — the Fujitsus Flepia has one, but retails at 5-10 times the price of a normal reader).  The screen on a tablet PC is likely to be colour and touch sensitive, so their resolution won’t be high enough to match print.  They’ll do OK for occasional reading, but you wouldn’t want to trawl through a novel on one.

Then there’s real estate, these are hand-held devices, probably no more than 12” diagonal.  Anyone who has read a broadsheet online will know that they don’t translate well.  Yes, you get the content, but the presentation and ease of use is crap by comparison.  Likewise magazines with their quirky layouts.  Don’t stop your subscriptions just yet, the digital experience won’t be as good if nothing else.

Battery Life

Reading a novel on a tablet would be hard without the screen issues though, as e-ink screens use tiny amounts of power (because they don’t need it to display what’s on screen, just to refresh the page when you select a new one), which means a Kindle, for example, can last for seven days on a single charge.  Even the best netbooks only manage eight or so hours and the more powerful the machine, the more power it needs, so the battery lasts even less, plus there’s a weight penalty for bigger batteries, meaning holding it for long periods will be uncomfortable.

The tablet machines will be low-powered, no two ways about it, you couldn’t cram a high-spec processor in their with their heat and power requirements and the uses for a table PC won’t require that much grunt anyway, the hardest will be Flash movie clips (notoriously hard on the CPU, but Adobe is finally working on a fix).  Even so, eight hours still leaves you a lot shy of the average time it takes to complete a novel.  Compare that with a paperback which requires no power and it’s no contest.  Not to mention the disposable nature of newspapers, which means they’re ideal for commuters, casual reading, general travel, filling in small slots of time, lighting fires, putting in the cat litter tray, etc.  A tablet PC can’t and won’t replace that, editors everywhere can breath a sigh of relief (not that they should be scared, these pose a new payment stream, not competition).

Where the Tablet Will Succeed

There seems to be a lot of thought that tablets will be mobile devices around town.  I don’t think so.  Where I think they’ll succeed is in the home.  As someone who has an old laptop sat in his kitchen I can tell you how useful they are; for looking up recipes, quickly checking email or websites, playing media, I even have an HDHomerun network tuner, which means I can watch live TV on it.  As I posted a couple of days ago, a tablet PC with a stand/wall bracket would be ideal for this, the touchscreen makes it all the better to interact with as it means you don’t need to have a mouse and keyboard loitering on the side, and ideal for food covered hands when cooking.  Just look at the apps on Ryan’s iPhone inspired kitchen PC: to-do lists, barcode scanner, weather, photo slideshows, cooking timers, twitter client, TV, maps, music as well as internet access.  And when you’re done you can still wander around the house with it, sit on the sofa and surf, use it to look up parts or instructions when doing DIY, make video calls over VOIP.  Computers will start to appear all around the house.

There are a million-and-one uses I can think of and I’m sure many more to come.

Pitfalls

The biggest, by far, is price.  This won’t be a main PC for anyone.  Netbooks have shown people are prepared to buy a small (typically) second machine if the price is right, this is another gadget not a replacement for an existing one and, despite all the uses, it’s going to have to fight for user adoption.  As I said, they don’t need to be complicated, but Apple’s rumoured price of £8-900 is too high, it has to be below £500 and ideally in the £2-300 bracket.  I doubt Apple will hit that point, it’s not the way it operates, they’ll come in high and the Mac fanboys will be whipped into a frenzy and buy them anyway, it’ll set the benchmark and grab all the headlines but the rest of us will buy those from other manufacturers (while craving the Apple one).  Freescale have mooted one at $199, the Archos 7 is already available for around £250 and the likes of HP and Dell will be releasing them as well as a slew of manufacturers you’ve never heard of.

One thing that will need to change is the user interface.  Right now it’s designed for keyboard and mouse interaction, but touchscreens will mean simpler layouts, bigger icons, less typing, more clicking/tapping, the iPhone has laid the groundwork, but it needs to be ported to a new OS (Apple will likely just bring the iPhone OS straight over, Google’s Android is being used too).  Ryan’s PC runs XP so any OS should be capable with a certain amount of tweaking.  Apple have a good start on apps too, though I’m hoping most tablets will run a standard OS and that Windows 7’s touchscreen capabilities are up to the task, I don’t want to get tied to one vendor.

The Future

So yes, I think this year will see the rise of the table PC, but it won’t revolutionise the publishing industry as much as Jason thinks.  It’ll give it a good nudge and it’ll add some weight to the biggest issues stopping e-reader adoption: proprietary formats, price and availability.  The choice at most e-book stores is pitiful, the prices are dearer than a paperback (why, exactly?) and if I buy one I can’t guarantee I can read it on another reader.  This is what’s stopping the e-reader revolution.  The tablet PCs will only highlight these deficiencies and Amazon has already been forced to react by opening it’s Kindle reader to allow third-party developers in (innovate or die).  I can see the smaller vendors going under this year.  As for newspapers and magazines, I think tablets will speed the move to paid content.  The digital revolution is coming, but we’re not th
ere just yet.  Having said that, I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of printed material, it’s just far too nice to interact with, some innovative publications will live in even if it’s just in certain niche markets, at least until large, flexible screens come out.

One last thing: Jas, any chance of a job on the Gadget Show?

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