OPINION

Do You Really Want a Smart-Tablet?

This is the question that is floating around this year. What is strange is that people act like the anticipated Apple device is made of fairy gold and powered by gnome breath. It will do everything and anything you want because we all know it is surrounded and protected by Steve Jobs’ now-famous reality distortion field.

Archos has had products in this class for some time, generally well received, but they haven’t exactly been iPod-level sellers. Personally, I think the class is interesting — but before Apple tosses stars in everyone’s eyes, I thought it might be interesting to consider what the tablet initially will be and what it eventually could be.

I’ll close with my product of the week, which is the only MP3 player to ever beat an iPod consistently in reviews, and that isn’t easy. It’s the first Zune that didn’t disappoint me, the Zune HD.

Apple Tablet or iPad

I’m really referring more to the class, but I want to start by pointing out that we don’t even have a consistent name for it yet. I’ve started calling the class “smart-tablet” myself for lack of a better differentiated term and so folks don’t mix it up with tablet PCs.

The “pad” name reminded too many people of a feminine hygiene product, and the name “iPad” resulted in this Mad TV skit. A number of my peers think Apple will go with “iPad,” but I’m thinking this video will likely keep it from doing that. We’ll see.

Whatever the name, the device is basically a large Apple touch or iPhone-like device that benefits from an even larger screen.

Smart-Tablet vs. Smartphone Compromises

This really depends on the size of the device and whether it has phone capabilities. The problem a lot of manufacturers are dealing with is that the device should be connected to a cellular network so you can access the Web from anyplace. If you already have a smartphone, that means two data plans — and this thing will use a lot of data, so that means the data plan associated with this device will be expensive.

You’ll get a nice cellphone carrier subsidy, but at between US$60 and $120 a month for the data plan, this makes for a really expensive device. If you could afford a data plan, you likely already have one, and this will double your monthly cost. If you can’t afford a data plan, then no subsidy and no cellular network — so you initially pay more for less.

Ideally this would share a data plan with your phone. Unfortunately, there aren’t any carriers — at least in the U.S. — who are allowing you to do this. This means you have to make choices. With a smartphone, you will choose portability over screen size, which gives you a more portable device. With the smart-tablet, you choose screen size over portability, which gives you a better Web, picture, game, and augmented reality experience — but the device isn’t as portable.

If it doesn’t have a built-in phone, you’ll still have to carry a separate one, though it can be really small. If it does have a built-in phone, you’ll want to learn to use a headset, because it will look like you are holding a brick to your face if you don’t.

One other trade-off you’ll have to make is with e-books. Smart-tablets will be better than smartphones for reading books, but not as good as products like the Kindle that use e-paper. E-paper won’t do color, browse the Web well, or do multimedia, but it is unparalleled for text — and for devices having battery life, we measure in weeks.

Looking Ahead

When the iPod first came out, we had real trouble imagining what it would evolve into, and I’m not aware of anyone who guessed the iPod touch, let alone the iPhone. The smart-tablet will evolve as well to explore new form factors and capabilities. Let’s explore a couple. The Microsoft Courier concept is getting a lot of play with many of us thinking it could be the ultimate tablet. The idea of two screens, if you get beyond the expense, could be incredibly compelling and vastly more book-like.

Automotive: Intel demonstrated this a few years back at IDF with VW — back when we were calling this a “UMPC.” The concept it showcased was an integrated dash and back-of-seat dock, so that the device could become integrated with the car’s electronics.

Music, navigation and video content could then come in and out of the car with the driver or any of the passengers, who would then dock their device to the car for things like power, wireless connection and in-car stereo connectivity. It would require some standards we don’t now have, but think of it as the next evolution of something like Microsoft Sync.

E-book-Tablet: Pixel Qi has just recently started demonstrating its 3qi technology (if you click on the link note the Acer branding), which blends an e-paper display with an LCD display and promises the best of both worlds.

Low power e-paper for reading, but if you want to browse the Web or watch a video, the LCD technology kicks in and you get multimedia — albeit with a battery-life hit. This could result in a smart-tablet that could replace an e-book and vice-versa. I haven’t seen this myself, but I’ve spoken to several people who have, and they’ve told me this technology is amazing. Estimates are that it will be ready for high volumes sometime in 2011.

Flexible Displays: The big problem with this class of device is its portability or relative lack of it. This is set by the screen size, and we constantly have to trade off a big screen experience for portability.

The most interesting of this class is currently FOLED, or Flexible Organic Light Emitting Diode. Although this was showcased several years ago, there have been yield and fatigue problems with the technology, suggesting it is likely still about three to five years out. If you could make larger screens more portable than small screens are today, think of the amazing devices that would result. Gene Rodenberry, in his Earth: Final Conflict series imagined something like this over a decade ago.

Wrapping Up

The number of vendors that are building devices in this class is astounding, and next year we will likely be hit by a wave of these devices from Acer, Apple and others. My question to you is — other than the obvious, which includes an iTunes- like media experience, an iPhone-like application store, and a great browser and multimedia experience — what do you want on this device?

Have you looked at the Archos or the JooJoo and found either compelling? (The JooJoo had an unfortunate start but is actually kind of a cool device). I’d really like to know what you want in a smart-tablet, and whether you really want one. I’m afraid I do.

Product of the Week: Zune HD

Product of the Week

I was really struggling (as I often do at year end) with choosing a product for this week when I attended a meeting full of executives — not from Microsoft — praising the Zune HD. This is the only product from anyone that, to my knowledge, has consistently done better in tests than the comparable Apple iPod. Beating Apple is tough; for Microsoft to beat Apple in hardware is, or should be anyway, impossible and yet they apparently did that with this device.

Zune HD

Microsoft’s Zune HD
(click image to enlarge)

The kids, as reported by their parents, loved the display, the user experience and the fact that they had something better than their iPod-toting friends. The parents (executives) loved the fact that for a small monthly fee, they didn’t have to worry about the RIAA showing up and taking their house away because their kid pirated some music.

Siblings were sharing music with each other legally, and most thought the device was damned attractive. We did joke a bit about how when the product wasn’t very good, Microsoft marketed the hell out of it — but now that it is great, it doesn’t. We wondered what would happen if Microsoft brought out a great Zune and great marketing it at the same time — kind of like it did with Windows 7.

That’s the difference between Apple and every other company. It produces both great products and great demand-generation marketing.

Beating Apple on its home turf isn’t done often — in fact, it is almost never done. The fact that any company, let alone Microsoft, did this is a great reason to make the Zune HD — which is kind of a small smart-tablet — my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

1 Comment

  • That is all I want to know. I have a *dead* Palm TX, and a similarly dead Palm Lifedrive. The later may be fixable, if I want to spend almost as much as it cost of buy the damn thing to replace the failed HD in it, or replace it with an idiotically rare 4GB HD card, which is directly compatible, and was only made by one company. It would still make the thing complete junk, with bad memory management, a near useless DB based OS, and an expansion slot that doesn’t support HDSD, but at least I would have something that a) worked, and b) was *allowed* to have with me on the sales floor of the store I work for.

    Why isn’t anything else allowed? Because they are all frakking phones. I am surprised, at this point, that my tooth brush or electric razor don’t have phones crammed into them, somehow. Not everyone can have, needs, or wants, phone service in their palm computer, and even here, I can find Wifi, often free, so I don’t need to spend **extra** money every month to have access to cell-fi, just so I can look something up once a week on a tiny screen, using a browser that won’t necessarily show all the content I want, or not crash when it runs into something not "designed for cell phones".

    I would love to see someone come up with a palm top computer, thinner than the horrible Lifedrive was, with solid state storage, *real* support for large HDSD cards, without stuff crammed together in it in a way that makes it break a year later, which has an OS that you can actually put things into, or take things out of, like a thumb drive, not using special software, proprietary BS, restrictions on who, how, and even *if* you can code your own apps for it, and, as this point, I don’t even mind if it costs more than a bloody high end laptop. I might have to wait a bit to buy it, but as least it wouldn’t be a bloody phone, it would work in a way that was usable for techies, not just people downloading the latest, "certified and accepted by Apple app", and I could install something on it what would let me write things to do what *I* need.

    Since that isn’t going to happen, unless hell freezes over. Just leave out the stupid phone, so I can actually use the bloody thing. lol

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