The technology rumor mill's latest prediction is that Apple is working on a smaller version of the famed iPad, a model that measures around 7 inches rather than the current 10. As usual, Apple receives a great deal of attention for this type of rumor, despite several other manufacturers going down this road previously. Dell experimented with 5-inch tablets, releasing one of the first Android devices that blurred the line between mobile phone and tablet, while Samsung has released multiple sizes of its popular Android-based tablet. During the holiday season, I couldn't help but notice the parallel between a hot technology gift of Christmases past: netbooks.
I'm certainly not the first to compare tablets to netbooks — the low-cost, lightweight laptops that were flying off the shelves a few holiday seasons ago and now seem largely forgotten. The purported benefits of netbooks seem eerily similar to the current crop of tablets, with manufacturers claiming that consumers and enterprise users needed a cheap "third screen" somewhere between a desktop and full-powered laptop. The initial crop of netbooks was nearly all the same, and most of them ran a customized version of the Linux operating system, much to the chagrin of consumers who were unable to run their familiar applications.
After the initial few releases, most netbook manufacturers offered a Microsoft Windows option and tried to differentiate their offerings by experimenting with new hardware and form-factor options. Everything from desktops with netbook-grade hardware to larger "netbooks" that looked like traditional laptops at a lower price point came to market in an effort to keep the netbook relevant, all while consumers realized that perhaps they really didn't need the vaunted "third screen" after all.
Tablets have now reached a similar point in their timeline to netbooks, where consumers begin questioning their relevance and manufacturers struggle to offer up more than evolutionary hardware changes. Tablet skeptics cite the obvious: we've reached a point where the industry has settled on a slate-style device, and it's unlikely to make any revolutionary changes in core features like battery life, weight, or screen resolution. These skeptics see Apple playing a game of inches as a last grasp at selling a few million more devices to the faithful before the tablet fades to irrelevance.
I don't see as grim a picture as the diehard skeptics; however, tablet manufacturers do need to focus more on how consumers, especially in the enterprise, should be using these devices. Apple, in particular, is famous for showing how a consumer might use its devices to perform some common task, such as finding a restaurant and booking a reservation, but no one seems to be doing this in the enterprise space. Rather than vague talk about "vertical industries," tablet manufacturers should show us why the average CIO needs to have tablets on the agenda for the next quarter, rather than on the "I'll get to it someday" list.
While we may have resorted to shrinking and enlarging current tablet designs on the hardware front, there is promise on the software front. Microsoft's reentrance into the tablet market holds a great deal of promise for the enterprise space, a market Microsoft has dominated for decades. At this point, it's also fair to say that Apple's iOS and Google's Android are here to stay, and they present an interesting and viable alternative to Microsoft, whereas most netbooks had abandoned Linux at this point in their evolution.
Nearly ubiquitous storage and applications delivered by cloud services also present a compelling selling point for the tablet form-factor that manufacturers have yet to exploit well, despite unending promises. We may be done with breakthroughs on the hardware front for the coming months, but I still believe that writing off tablets is premature.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.