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Who Needs a Tablet?

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Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden
Now that the netbook hype has fallen, tablets are all the rage.  There are predictions that the tablet will not only kill off the netbook, but also kill off the venerable PC.
My prediction is that tablet sales will stall.  I think tablets will meet the same fate as netbooks. 
Why do I say this?  What makes me make a prediction so counter conventional wisdom?
The problem with tablets is the same as the problem with netbooks.  Both serve an awkward niche between smartphones and traditional PCs.  Neither solves the input/output problem and the portability problem simultaneously, instead giving us a device that too large to be pocketable like a smartphone but also has an insufficient keyboard and screen to do anything other than very light reading, entertainment, and communication. 
Moreover, the tablet does not solve a problem that mainstream users have.  Most iPad sales have been to wealthy, non-price-sensitive, early adopters. Most iPad owners own many devices; many own a PC, iPhone, and iPod in addition to their iPad.  Very few are ditching their PC for an iPad, instead using the tablet as a supplement.  
In fact, since most tablet sales are mostly to wealthy early adopters using the tablet as just one of their many devices, one could argue that iPads are just the latest fashion accessory, something hip and cool, something to be seen with, something fun.  And that not only means a limited audience, but also that imitators such as Android and Windows tablets that do not have the same cachet will not see the same sales.
I am not saying that tablets will not see some sales to some audience.  What I am saying is that, in the next several years, the audience for tablets is limited, tablet sales will soon stall around the same level where netbook sales stalled,  and the PC is under no threat from tablets.
The core problem is that simultaneously solving the input/output and portability problems in a device requires solutions still in the research stage, at least 20 years out.  Current versions of tablets don't solve that mainstream problem (or any major mainstream problem) and so they serve only niche.
For decades, people have been trying to build a tablet computer that gets broad adoption.  The Apple Newton, the Microsoft Tablet PC, many others came and fell before.  The question is whether the current generation of tablets will find mainstream appeal where those did not, or, despite the hype and overwhelming tide of conventional wisdom, suffer the same fate.   
Please see also my previous article, "Who Needs a Netbook?"




This is an appropriate link, though it doesn't necessarily contradict Greg's thesis: Rather than predict the relative fate of netbook, tablet, smartphone, and other points in the near-term computing ecology (which also contends with cloud infrastructure), perhaps there is no killer device to which we all converge. There are many economic, political and other factors in the mix.


I have a sneaking suspicion you don't own an iPad. I use mine on my couch or on the plane for reading news, playing games, watching videos, quickly checking e-mail, and other small tasks I would never want to flip my laptop open for.


Pretty sure the article states the tablet use is to supplement.

And your not exactly convincing with your reply that you have ditched your other devices to use the tablet exclusively.

Hence the point of the article. Enjoy the device, awesome for facebook and p0rn.


@the second commenter

I have one too and I use it for the exact same things you do!

Oh, except mine is called a Droid 2, and its going back in my pocket right after I call my friend to ask if the address of the place I direct txt'ed him from the Google Maps app is good enough for a random Wednesday night.

Anyways, got to cut this short - I have a work email I need to send before the end of this cab ride and Royksopp just came on my Pandora station! Word.


P.S. I'm probably going to buy the iPad 2.


Yes, as Watson (of IBM) said in 1943: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."


I don't know about how far sales will stall but you've identified the reasons (awkward input/output +price) for my hesitation even though I do want some sort of portable ereader+everythingelse.

I'm curious about the "solutions still in the research stage" for input/output+portability.

Greg Linden

On solutions still in the research stage, if we are talking about something that actually threatens the PC rather than just supplements it, I think that would require a major technology shift in the human-computer interface. I doubt anyone knows what exactly will do it, but my guess would be that it would take something like implanted devices, near perfect voice and gesture recognition, artificial agents, retinal displays, or large, thin, and portable surface displays to fully kill off the PC. My understanding is that technologies like those are all in early research and 30+ years out for mainstream adoption.

Marti Hearst

Greg, you're definitely right about tablets being supplementary devices given that for the ipad at least, Apple requires you to have access to a computer that can host a recent version of itunes (see the system requirements here: ).

But given how many businesses are adopting the ipad, (see "How Apple iPad is changing the way many West Michigan businesses operate",,
I think touch screen tablets will have much wider adoption than you do. As an example to supplement the link above, my hair stylist, who recently went out on his own, does all of his transactions with clients on his ipad.

The appeal of "natural interfaces" that allow for direct interaction should not be underestimated. And the recent demos of apps like garageband for the ipad seem to show that the power of such devices is only starting to be adapted.

John Whitley

I feel that there's an underlying assumption in this article that I must challenge: that primacy matters. TV did not eliminate Radio, but the balance of power fundamentally shifted between these media at the advent of television. While I agree that tablets are supplemental, this is because they must be understood as ubiquitous computing devices. In that view, virtually every computing device is supplemental. Tablets are about commoditization of computing and of applications, and they are already permanently eroding application domains formerly held by traditional computers -- because traditional computers were the only option.

I must likewise disagree that tablets suffer from the same problems as netbooks. Netbooks are niche devices that stagnated in the marketplace because they are simply poor appliances. They have all of the negative attributes of laptops and traditional computers, including that they command user posture and attention to use them due to the physical UI. Netbooks still retain all of the design baggage of our modern WIMP-based systems. Netbooks were doomed when conventional laptops caught up to various appealing attributes of netbooks (price, weight) without the UI or performance sacrifices. Tablets are distinct from either netbooks or notebooks in terms of usability and uses; I strongly doubt that they will suffer from a similar fate.

Daniel Tunkelang

Greg, I admire your chutzpah. But seeing how early adopters have fallen in love with them makes me skeptical that this is a passing fancy.

I'm no Apple fanboy -- I don't own any device that startes with an "i", and, while I like my MacBook, I see it in purely utilitarian terms. But much as Apple changed the world's (or at least America's) attitudes towards touchscreen phones, I believe it is doing so for tablets.

Anyway, why speculate when we can simply wait for history to run its course? :-)

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