I started using the original Apple iPad the day it launched in 2010. Same for the iPad 2 in 2011. For most of the other high-profile tablets that have arrived during the past year -- Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook, HP TouchPad -- I've been fortune enough to get my hands on them even before they were available to the public. For all of these tablets, I've been able to experiment with them for weeks, if not months.
This little journey has made the past year pretty exciting with all of these uber-gadgets to work with and write about. But, after working with the iPad and most of these competitor tablets month after month, I've come to a bit of a sobering conclusion: If you're already highly-proficient with a computer then you're probably going to end up pretty frustrated with most of these tablets.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto/ozgurdonmaz
I've come up with a new rule for technophiles who are thinking about which tablet to buy. I'd encourage you to repeat this to yourself. Memorize it. It will either save you money or help set your expectations correctly if you do decide to get a tablet. Here it is...
New rule: Tablets are for people who hate computers
Okay, I know that "hate" is a pretty strong word here, but let's be honest, there are still a lot of people who are scared, intimidated, or simply averse to using computers. For many of these people, tablets like the iPad are perfect. The interface is self-evident, the user experience is limited and uncomplicated, and there aren't a lot of buttons and menus to cause confusion (especially with the iPad).
Tablets like the iPad are also great for children. Since most kids are natural touchers, they tend to learn the multitouch interface almost instantly, without any instruction. I've seen kids as young as two who have watched their parents use an iPad and quickly learned how to swipe to unlock it and pull up the Photos app and swipe through pictures.
However, if you are a person that is already highly-proficient with a computer and has refined a way of doing things on a PC or Mac that enables you to speed through your most important tasks, then you will probably be impressed with the look-and-feel of a tablet in your hands, but ultimately frustrated that it can't do a lot of the things you're used to doing with a computer, or at least can't do them fast enough.
That's the same feeling I get with every tablet that I try to use for an extended period in place of a laptop. I continually run into moments where I try to do something and get frustrated because it's slow, clunky, or impossible to do on a tablet. I always end up just wanting to put the tablet down and pick up a laptop to speed through the task. Examples of normally simple tasks that end up getting really frustrating on a tablet include copying and pasting text from one email message to another, editing a spreadsheet or a presentation, and shortening and URL and then posting it to several different social networks.
As a result, that pretty much relegates a tablet to a companion device. It's just not going to replace a laptop for people who are already PC-proficient. The best case scenario is that it might replace a second laptop -- the old, low-powered laptop you used to leave downstairs in the basement or the den, or maybe on a bedside table. Even then, watch out. There will be times when you'll get frustrated by the things you can't do on the tablet. As I've said before, tablets are good for two things, reading and Scrabble (or other games).
Don't get me wrong, there are moments of utter coolness with tablets. One time we had some friends over and decided to order Chinese. I grabbed the iPad, pulled up the restaurant's menu and passed it around for everyone to decide what they wanted. That was cool.
Despite the occasional cool moment like that, I think lots of business professionals and technologists will find that the Amazon Kindle is a lot better for reading books while laptops are better for reading articles since the social tools for sharing and commenting are a lot better. The only real advantage that tablets have is that they are a lot easier to learn how to use and there aren't as many ways for people to mess them up. That makes them appeal to a lot of people and that's why Apple will sell 40-50 million of them in 2011. But, I think that techies and professionals who buy tablets will increasingly find that they use them less and less as they reach for their laptops to do stuff that's simply too frustrating on a tablet.
Exceptions to the rule
Naturally, there are few exceptions to my new rule. Tablets aren't completely worthless. Here are some of the ways tablets can still be useful for certain people and certain tasks in the business world.
- Field workers - For people who aren't at a desk all day, but need to go on site and meet with clients, show them photos or illustrations, and get them to simply sign documents, the tablet makes perfect sense and always has. Some of these folks were already on board with Microsoft's Tablet PC. The biggest advantage of the iPad and the other new multi-touch tablets is that they're a lot cheaper.
- Single-purpose tasks - The iPad and other tablets can serve as inexpensive systems for doing single tasks like presenting photos (as in a showing for a photographer), serving as a document viewer for large documents, being a survey tool for people to fill out feedback forms, and lots of other functions that you can see if you browse the App Store.
- The meeting machine - For people who are in meetings all day, like project managers and sales professionals, a tablet can be the ideal computer to carry. You can use it to quickly access email, calendar, address book, documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. You can take notes with it. You can use it to show off charts. And, there's also a social aspect to this. There's just something a little more friendly about having a tablet sitting flat on a table and tapping a few notes on it than putting a laptop between you and the person you're meeting with.
- Inexpensive kiosks - Another interesting way that businesses can use tablets is to create a low-cost kiosk. The iPad already has a number of apps that can streamline the process. You can set up a video or a presentation on a loop, or create something more interactive. A business could even build its own interactive app and install it as a private app on the iPad or on an Android tablet.
- The truth about iPad: It's only good for two things
- I discovered a third use for the iPad
- Why iPad popularity is slowing PC sales
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.