“If the heap of new products that Microsoft showed here Sunday is any indication of the future of computing, the desktop PC is old news,” or so read the lead story from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yeah, desktop sales are tanking. Tablet sales are exploding. Yeah, desktops are old news, right on. Oh wait, that’s the lead story from PC World’s report on CES in November 2000, more than 12 years ago.
I offer this little historical gem as a bit of perspective and, perhaps, counter-prediction to much of the snarky and dismissive commentary emanating from this year’s CES. Sure, there are some great targets for comedy, like bragging about a phone you can take in the shower (“The Xperia Z can even survive being dropped in the toilet” – great, does it dispense hand sanitizer after that?). But with the entire computer industry in the midst of a transition from boring old form factors to exciting new varieties, that ugly dog you laugh at today may become best in show in a few years.
Looking back at earlier efforts to build tablet computers, you can see the ideas and the technologies evolve. Slowly, the expanding computing abilities of tablets enabled more and better uses and at more affordable prices. The iPad only came along after many, many duds and failures, including even from Apple (although the ill-fated Newton did produce one of the funniest bits ever in Doonesbury).
It wasn’t obvious from the start which features would be most compelling. Bill Gates’ original vision focused on a hybrid of the features of computer applications and a pad of paper. In the first couple of years, the big manufacturers all got on board and built tablets but in a dizzying array of different forms — folding tablets, hybrid tablets with keyboards, many of the same form factors that have shown up again this year at CES, oddly enough. None had mobile broadband and most weighed as much or more than laptops.
I’m not trying to argue that we will all one day be playing virtual air hockey on our computers. But there is some merit to the larger tablets and luggable touch screen computers that will only increase as they get lighter and more powerful.
The other day, my eight-year-old daughter and I were in a local Best Buy perusing one of these weird new form factors — Sony’s Tab computer. That’s it pictured at the top of the post. It’s your basic all-in-one desktop computer with a 20″ screen. But by adding a small battery and touch sensors, Sony’s also created a giant, luggable tablet. It weighs about 12 pounds and the battery lasts for only an hour or two, but you can see where it’s going. My daughter enjoyed the drawing program, sorting photos and editing photos was a whole new experience and it’s a fine way to watch a movie.
So maybe it’s time to reconsider that most infamous 2001 prediction Gates made about tablets — “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” After being claim chowdered to death on that one, now it seems he was just a bit optimistic on the timing.