The Report of Tablets' Death Was an Exaggeration
The future of tablets got a good workout in the blogosphere recently, thanks to Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins assigning them a five-year lifespan. It was a good try at stirring debate, but iPads of all sizes will still be around. Smartphones such as iPhones will continue packing in computing power. Tablets, however, will be a part of the computing equation.
05/02/13 5:00 AM PT
When I saw the widely reported quote from BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins that there won't be a reason to have a tablet in five years, my first reaction was one of keen interest.
After all, what's the opposite of dead tablets? Something else that's supercool. I expected that Heins would say something revolutionary -- that he would express, at the very least, a better vision of a tablet-free world in five years.
Of course, his comments were not actually as silly as the headlines painted, despite saying, "Tablets themselves are not a good business model."
That's just a dumb statement no matter how you frame it.
Tablets are a far cry from the netbook fad that came before. The design has proven to be a winner -- a great balance of usable, even fun, computing power. Does the Heins claim come from an utter lack of understanding the magic of a tablet? Is it the pure hope that since BlackBerry isn't sure how to create a tablet that people will buy, they will be replaced by powerful phones instead?
What I think Heins is getting at, however it was reported, is that smartphones are becoming so powerful -- pocket computers -- that we'll be able to simply use our phones for the bulk of our computing requirements. This statement isn't that dumb at all. In fact, it represents a great opportunity -- not so much for BlackBerry, but for Apple and the Android world.
Let me explain. First, the vision and imagination of a powerful smartphone is a good one. I just don't believe that they'll make enough gains in computing power in five years to displace tablets, Macs and PCs. No freaking way.
If you froze the innovation of a laptop and a tablet, and made sure it didn't gain processing capabilities, then maybe. However, tablets will continue to get bigger, prettier, lighter and more useful. A smartphone is not going to overtake a tablet, much less the processing power of a Mac and the storage to go along with it.
The supporting infrastructure of Internet access is not going to be fast enough and bulletproof enough to replace onboard storage. If you think so, consider how many companies you trust to hold the only copy of your most precious family photos. Think "customer service" when something goes wrong.
Your Smartphone Is the Only Brain You Need
What if the smartphone became the brains that you plugged into other peripherals?
What if your smartphone wirelessly projected the screen to a touchscreen external display? Not a bad idea. My iPhone 5 is as powerful as my iPad 2, right?
What if I have a big touchscreen display that would use the iPhone's brains, but give me the chance to touch and swipe on the bigger canvas? Then I could return my iPhone to my pocket and go on my merry way.
That would be cool. Instead of trying to sync every app through the cloud and mess around with different versions, accounts and settings, what if it was all crammed into my iPhone 9?
What if I need to view a spreadsheet and type on a real computer keyboard? Couldn't you connect, wirelessly or physically, an iPhone to the shell of a MacBook Pro? I know my iPhone 5 would certainly fit inside the frame, that's for sure.
However, is it enough brains for what I need?
No way. Not even close. Maybe in 5 years, right?
I hope so, but I doubt it.
Tablets for Work and Play
Anyone who has to do real work that's not just poking at email with one-sentence-or-less answers will respect and crave quick, snappy power. Workers need responsive hardware and software that is never a bottleneck.
Will a smartphone be enough for CEOs and executives in five years? Yes. For everyone else who has to do in-the-trenches work? A smartphone brain will only be good enough for some.
What about consumers?
Plenty of consumers could get by with a smartphone brain and ability to use external peripheral displays. Heck, I know plenty of people who rarely log onto their Macs and PCs at home, using apps and mobile browser interfaces to engage with the world through news and social media. But they're still using old-school PCs and tablets at work.
Why not just say a phablet will be the future of the world? A 7-inch phone/tablet hybrid, perhaps?
One word: jeans.
The only way I'll believe that the majority of people will be willing to walk around with 7-inch "phones" in five years is if it's foldable. I'd like a foldable screen with no crease lines. I just don't expect to see it in five years.
What about Bluetooth headset peripherals? Why isn't everybody walking around with a Bluetooth headset poking out of one ear? Isn't that a cool and effective technology?
Yes, yes it is.
However, if the minority use of Bluetooth headsets tells us anything, it's that a) the majority of people don't want to be cyborgs, and b) peripheral accessories seem better as a concept then they do in real life.
Right now, peripherals are a hassle. I am more inclined to believe they'll still be a hassle in five years.
I don't think BlackBerry has the means to fix that. I barely believe that Apple and the Google/Android ecosystem has the means to fix it, either. And I can almost guarantee that there will be no standard touch-tablet external monitor in five years that will work with an iPhone, Android phone, and BlackBerry phone.
These guys are far too busy fighting each other for market share, mindshare, and using patents as clubs. Their vision can only see as far as their own ecosystem, as far as their own product launches.
Do I believe that the fighting factions of electronic commerce will be able to move us to this blissful vision where smartphone brains rule the world and plug into everything big and small?
The Real Future of Tablets
So what do I believe we'll have in five years?
Macs. PCs. Tablets. We'll also have a better, smarter Siri -- voice commands that actually work. Our iPhones will be able to use external displays and keyboards for input. Hey, AirPlay to an HDTV for video and some apps show us that this is nearly possible for all sorts of computing right now in 2013.
I'd like to see devices that project big screens onto flat surfaces, and holographic computing spurted out by watches, pendants, or baseball caps. (Just not glasses, please.)
I hope that the magic of touch on a tablet will be augmented by haptics that give us touchy-feely humans tactile feedback.
I hope for these things. However, what I know is that tablets aren't going anywhere in five years.
As for Heins, I have to give the guy props for talking about the future with at least a semblance of vision. We can't get Apple CEO Tim Cook to say anything more than Apple is working on some great new products.