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Why the Tablet 'Fad' Will Never Die

One of my PCWorld comrades, Katherine Noyes, recently wrote a story titled "Why Tablets Are Just a Fad". Katherine and I often find ourselves in opposing camps on various issues, and apparently tablets are no different. So, I offer up my counterpoint explaining how Ms. Noyes is off base, and describing why tablets are a "fad" like horseless carriages, or that Internet thing were fads.

Fads come and go. Some were born to die--like pet rocks, or High School Musical. Others run their course, but eventually lose momentum--like the Rubik's Cube, or Sudoku puzzles. The sheer number of tablets hitting the street qualifies the tablet craze as a fad right now, but when the dust settles and the "fad" ends, the tablet itself will still be here.

Let's examine the tablet "fad" in more detail using the points from Noyes' article:

Limited Functionality. Limited? I think not. Different, perhaps. For example, if I am going to sit down to write and research a 10-page white paper, I would rather do that at my desktop PC with a real keyboard and a 23-inch monitor or two so I can really multitask.

Does the tablet have functionality that is not already available on a smartphone or notebook? Yes, and no. It is the hybrid evolution of combining the smartphone and the notebook--a device that is mobile, yet still has the power and functionality for actual computing. Try typing an essay on your iPhone. Try reading a Dan Brown novel on your notebook on the train on the way to work. Both tasks are possible--and both can be done better on a tablet.

It's Inconvenient. It is silly to compare the tablet form factor to the smartphone. I readily concede that the iPad will not fit in my pocket--although the five-inch Dell Streak will. However, saying the tablet is "inconvenient" because it is larger than a smartphone is like saying the smartphone is "inconvenient" because it is thicker and heavier than a Motorola Razr flip-phone. The two devices are similar, yet not, and fill vastly different roles.

Noyes goes on to talk about how the tablet is impractical because you would have to carry it in addition to your smartphone, but then goes on to extoll the virtues of instead lugging around a notebook--a "portable" device that requires its own luggage and generally involves packing extra batteries just so you have enough juice to make it to lunch without recharging.

Waning Excitement. I really don't know what to say about this argument. We obviously have polar opposite understandings of the term "waning". Which part of the tablet craze, exactly, indicates the waning excitement? Is it the fact that there were 50 or so new tablets unveiled at CES 2011? Or, the fact that tablets stole the spotlight at the recent CTIA 2011 show which traditionally focuses on mobile phones? Or, perhaps the fact that Apple burned through 500,000 or so iPad 2s on launch day and can't keep up with demand?

Noyes supports her assertion by pointing out that the iPad 2 reviews were less sycophantic than one might normally expect for an Apple gadget. True. I have an iPad and an iPad 2 sitting right in front of me, and I think the iPad 2 is awesome, yet I wouldn't recommend that anyone with an original iPad rush out to get one. It is better, but not by enough to be worth trading up.

But a lack of fawning over the iPad 2 is not an indication of waning excitement. What Noyes fails to point out is that many of those mixed reviews end with statements to the effect that the iPad 2 is still the tablet to beat. And, calling tablets a fad just because reviewers weren't ecstatic about the iPad 2 is short-sighted given the Motorola Xoom, HP TouchPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, and the hundred or so other tablets joining the fray.

Remember the PDA? Yes. Yes, I do. And, I remember how it evolved into the smartphone, as Noyes herself points out. It didn't die. It's not that having access to contacts, and calendars was a fad that faded away. It transformed into something better.

The notebook was an evolution of the desktop. It took the computing experience and made it portable. The tablet takes that experience and evolves it from portable to mobile.

I'm sure many horse and carriage devotees warned people that the automobile was just a fad, too: "You just wait--those dangerous, crazy machines will never replace a real horse." Just look at the list of automobile manufacturers that have come and gone--just in the United States, yet the car itself remains and you don't see people riding around on horses any more.

I do think it might be premature to call this the "post-PC" era--especially for the Apple iPad which actually requires a PC in order to activate or sync. Apple is going to have to overcome that little handicap if it wants the iPad to be taken seriously as a "post-PC" device. But, the tablet is a "post-notebook" device that represents a culture shift for mobile computing.

Some are just slower to embrace the shift and join the future.