Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but did you know that tablets are the future? It is a line parroted by manufacturers and pundits alike, one that announces the arrival of the slate as the form-factor that will dominate the computer landscape for years to come. Since the introduction of the first iPad, the future of tablets has been rosily finger-painted as the future of computing itself. Consumers are led to believe that they will soon be able to get rid of their desktops and laptops and replace them with cheaper, more personable tablets offering a comparable experience. Some wonder if it is feasible already. No. It is not possible now, and never will be. Let me explain why.
The Conventional Tablet Experience
In order to highlight the limitations of the tablet, it is important to first recognize the strengths. First and foremost, the tablet is a device for media consumption. It is a single screen without the multitude of distracting buttons you find on a laptop; a display dedicated to the viewing of videos, pictures and text; a dump truck funneling media into your brain-hole.
Although the tablet form factor is integral to the experience, the device would be nothing without the UI that drives it. Touch adds a special meaning, and the main strength of tablets is the interactivity of their software. It is the confluence of this touch-based UI and physical simplicity that gives the device warmth and makes the experience special.
Surprisingly, it is also its greatest weakness.
Upon examining the function of tablets, we are greeted with a rather unexpected nutritional metaphor: if the energy consumed by an organism exceeds the energy spent, and if this cycle continues for a long enough time without interruption, that organism will become unhealthily obese. Picture for a moment bloated dolphins buoyed to the surface by their grossly excessive amounts of blubber, devoured by hungry sharks as they bob up and down with the waves.
But dolphins are not just mindless consumers of mackerel; they laugh, they play; they explore the ocean depths with childlike curiosity. Likewise, we humans are not merely consumers. We edit proposals, write papers and communicate. As a result, the tablet must overcome its status as merely a stage for content delivery.
It is important to note that the tablet currently suffers the same limitations as most slate devices. However, unlike its more mobile brethren, the tablet possesses the size to make productivity a viable option. The one tool that is absolutely essential for this is the keyboard. Sure, tablets possess a keyboard, perhaps several depending on the system’s OS. Unfortunately, they are the bane of the tablet experience, and continually plague users with poor performance and unreliability. They are not a dream to type on.
To be fair, the modern physical keyboard is a piece of hardware that few could live without, and creating a suitable virtualization of it is obviously more than a difficulty. Tactility naturally lends itself to productivity, and aside from a multitude of other benefits, never having to look at the keys leaves the eyes free to roam the screen. Typing with a virtual keyboard is pure torture. Eyes on the keys the whole time. Actually, scratch that. Your eyes are doing a weird dance, making sure you actually pressed the keys and spell-checking the word you just wrote before jumping back to the keyboard. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s nauseating, and so are the results: furiously pecking away you can only barely keep pace while instant messaging Grandma Srbinovski, who uses two fingers and an English-Serbian dictionary to chat. You can forget about having multiple conversations at the same time. Even when you do successfully form a complete sentence, your twitter update announces: “Its Finland the weekend!”
I am sure that you are all thinking the same thing, that the answer for productivity is a Bluetooth keyboard . . . and a stand . . . and a little extra room in your satchel. I am now sure that you are berating yourselves for even thinking of such a snarky, ridiculous idea in the first place. Clearly, the answer is not to sacrifice standalone simplicity.
But what of the other built-in input options for tablets? Voice? Have fun screaming out the novel you’re writing in your room alone, lunatic. The capacitive stylus is certainly useful for doodling and jotting down quick notes, but the technology is still hamstrung by our own human limitations to write quickly, neatly or in small enough script. Unless the tablet is able to afford users the ability to input text with relative speed and ease, it stands no chance of ever supplanting the PC.
The obvious reason for a virtual keyboard is rooted in the mainstream idea of what a tablet is, which is a slimaspossible window to the world of media. In order for the tablet to take a more prominent role in our lives and function as a standalone, that idea has to fundamentally change.
The Very Near Future
Don’t get me wrong, I love tablets, but they are more footnote than future. To effectively replace our current workhorse, we need to combine the two paradigms of tablet and laptop computing into one fantastically awesome machine: One with a touch-based, intuitive UI and the productivity afforded by a physical keyboard. I’m not talking about a netbook with touch screen. I’m talking about a 10-inch slider that, when closed, is light and compact enough to hold in one hand, and versatile enough to type a paper on when the keyboard is deployed. This isn’t some crazy pipe dream. In fact, it’s not even a new idea. Albeit on a smaller scale, products such as the HTC Shift have been playing this game for years, but only now is the technology catching up with the ideology. The most recent example of this may be the Asus Eee Pad Slider. Sure, the Samsung Sliding PC 7 does roughly the same thing, but it is a netbook masquerading as a tablet, whereas the Slider, much like its cousin the Eee Pad Transformer, is trying to bridge the gap to PC-esque productivity by way of a slide-out keyboard.
A certain company says that they are leading the charge into the post-PC future, and while the iPad 2 is a fantastic tablet and an apt performer, Apple is not pushing design as much as they would like to think. I have an idea: take the MacBook Air and have it run iOS, re-engineer it so that it has an outward-facing display that slides open on a beautifully architectured hinge. Now, imagine the display sliding back to reveal that brilliant, backlit keyboard. Bam, next-gen tablet.
Obviously, mobile OSs will have to improve for this to be a viable experience, and aspects such as file-management will have to take gigantic leaps forward, but those changes will not happen until the ability of the form-factor allows them to be taken advantage of.
The ultimate question is if hardware technology has advanced enough for manufacturers to create an enjoyable experience without sacrificing the portability that has made tablets so popular. If not now, technologies such as carbon fiber construction will soon make our dreams a reality. Until then, I’ll be happily gorging on as much as mackerel-flavored content as I can stomach.