Everyone seems tablet crazy, or at least tablet-rumor crazy. But why? Who needs or wants a tablet when we already have a huge array of smartphones, netbooks, e-readers and a crop of new lightweight laptops that provide the same features and more?
Popular Mechanics' November issue names TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington's "CrunchPad" tablet as one of the 10 "most brilliant products" of this year — and it's not even out yet. Supposedly Apple's coming out with a tablet early next year, Microsoft's got one on board and so, it seems, does every major manufacturer of any tech device that's ever been made.
Apple's not commenting, and when a prototype of a Microsoft tablet was "leaked" recently to Web site Gizmodo.com some weeks back, Microsoft did not comment. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
"For the most part, these are digital unicorns; they live only in the imagination of those who speculate on them," says Michael Gartenberg, longtime technology observer who is also vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC.
"Right now, what we know is that we’ve seen some concepts and prototype design work that leaked out of Microsoft. Microsoft does dozens of these type of projects every year to experiment with. Almost none of them ever make it into products.
"And as for the rumors of mythical Apple device, all I can say is, for every rumor that is out there, there are two other rumors that have contradictory information and tell an entirely different story."
The tablet fever may be due to the quest for ever-thinner devices, says one technologist.
"We have entered an era of the thin and light computers and, rather than worrying about power, we’ve become obsessed with the concept of thinness," wrote John Biggs in a recent piece for CrunchGear.com "This is why Apple, in their wisdom, created the MacBook Air and the iPod Touch."
In one of the Apple scenarios, the tablet looks like a larger iPod Touch, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who wrote about it in a research note last summer. Munster said he had spoken with an Asian component supplier that had received orders from Apple for a touch-screen device that would need to be filled by late this year.
Munster estimated the device would be priced between $500 and $700 and would compete with netbooks, the 2- and 3-pound laptops that have become popular in the past year because of their prices (around $350) and portability.
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group, believes the "focus on tablets now stems from the kinds of changes we've seen take place" with smartphones such as the iPhone, BlackBerrys and Palm Pre, and "to a lesser extent," PCs.
There's growing interest in using these devices for "media consumption and Internet access," he said, and not just for the basics like phone calls, calendar keeping or word processing.
"It's the difference between the iPhone and earlier smartphones that were essentially wireless PDAs," he said. "With the Web, digital media and casual games require relatively little keyboard input."
A tablet that has a screen size of between 7 to 10 inches, he said, "can take smartphone-style media consumption and optimize it for content — such as the Web, e-books, video/videoconferencing, photos and games — that can take advantage of a larger screen."
Such devices, Rubin said, "would be a better fit for around the home, or possibly in the rear seat of a car, particularly if they had embedded cellular access. Of course, inexpensive netbooks may prove to be competition for such devices ... as they would likely use similar display technology and Windows 7, for example, has extensive touch-screen support."
A way to consolidate?
Aren’t most of us getting by just fine, thank you, with laptops of all sizes now (including netbooks) and smartphones like the iPhone, BlackBerry and Palm Pre, and even e-readers?
"I think we could have said the same thing before e-books, smartphones and, for the most part, even laptops," says technology consultant Rob Enderle. "The first mobile computers weren’t very popular.
"Paper in a connected Internet age is static and largely outdated," he said. "Think of tablets as one of a number of ways to replace it, and to consolidate things like handheld gaming machines, e-books, visual media players and portfolios into a single device. It will likely take awhile to get this right, though.
"Think of this evolving into kind of a dynamic book or magazine where content can be static, in motion, or even interactive. Once done right, it does have the potential to change a number of industries, and the way many of us view content or read."
On Oct. 22, Archos is releasing a tablet with a 9-inch screen (it's called the Archos 9 pctablet). At about 29 ounces and .68 of an inch thick, it uses the energy-efficient Intel Atom processor and has a 60-gigabyte hard disk, no keyboard and runs Windows 7. Cost will be around $500.
"What better way innovation for a netbook than to get rid of keyboards?" the company asks on its site.
Toshiba plans a tablet with a 7-inch screen called the JournE for next year. The company, said Rubin of The NPD Group, "refers to it as the first of a family of such products. Such devices may also grow out of categories such as portable DVD players that transition purely to downloads or digital picture frames. An example of a light media consumption device with an attractive consumer user interface is the HP DreamScreen."
However, he said "it lacks both a battery and a touch screen."
The DreamScreen, which has either a 10.2-inch screen ($249) or a 13.3-inch display ($299), is meant as a home device for photos, videos, music and Web surfing. It has touch controls embedded in the display; a remote control can be used instead to maneuver around the screen.
Are these the tablets people want?
"The things that people are fantasizing about are devices with 7-, 8- 10-inch screens, things that aren’t pocketable and would have to be somewhat heavy and have limited usage scenarios," said Gartenberg.
"For some people, a tablet would is something that would just run a Web browser. The problem is that it costs about the same to build a device that runs just a Web browser as a device that runs Windows — such as a low-cost laptop or a low-cost netbook, which also has a lot more functionality."
"When people talk about Internet tablets, or tablet-like devices, they’re really talking about a new class of computing," he said. "The problem is, it’s been tried before and many times by companies like Microsoft and Nokia and others.
"The reality is that 'tweener devices,' namely those that have lived between the laptop and phone, have been around for more than a decade and they've all failed," he said. "Sure, there's a worldwide market of 50,000 of anything, but no one's seriously going to get into this market unless they have a proposition that long-term can sell 50 million — not 50,000.
"For now, the tablet market will likely remain niche enthusiast ... Until someone comes up on a very different spin, what we have (in the way of tablet ideas) are too big and clunky to replace smartphones, and not powerful enough to displace laptops."