By Adam Z. Lein | January 21, 2013 10:23 AM
Back around the turn of the century, personal digital assistants (PDAs) were a popular secondary device that people would carry to help manage contacts, appointments, mobile web clippings, notes, and other mobile computing functions that you couldn’t do with a mobile phone. PDA’s had touch-sensitive screens that were much larger than the mobile phone screens of the time and gave you a nice area to get more work done. The power users of the time would often pair a Bluetooth capable mobile phone like the Sony Ericsson T68i with a powerful PDA like a Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC. The Bluetooth connection allowed you to manage your contacts on the phone using the larger-screen PDA and also connect to the internet with the phone’s GPRS connection. Back in 2000 and 2001 that might have been cool, but it quickly became evident to me that the larger touch-screen PDA really needed to be merged with the mobile phone to create “the smartphone”. However, at the time there were many people who argued for the advantages of having both a PDA and a mobile phone. For example, the mobile phone had better battery life, it was smaller, lighter and more pocket-friendly, plus it had tactile hardware buttons that you could use with one hand. Today, of course, practically all phones are smartphones shaped like the PDAs of old since smartphones have grown to handle both mobile computer and wireless communications functions very well. Really, the advantage of only having to carry and charge one device far outweighed the advantages of having two devices that did different (yet related) functions.
The smartphone’s screen was still too small to run full desktop applications very well (even though it was possible with Remote Desktop apps back in 2003), so if you needed more power or a larger screen, you’d often carry a laptop computer as well.
Today many people are carrying even more electronic gadgets. For example, the iPad has become extremely popular as a large-screen portable computing device. It’s lightweight, it has great battery life, and lots of fun apps. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely replace a laptop since there are still many things you can’t do and it certainly doesn’t replace your smartphone since it doesn’t fit in your pocket or make phone calls. There are many instances where people, who have tried to replace a laptop computer with an iPad, still have to go back to the laptop or desktop PC to get things done. Many people keep both an iPad and a laptop in their bags for precisely those reasons. But laptops really aren’t as portable as the iPad. You can’t easily use it while walking around since the form factor doesn’t really facilitate holding the device with one hand while interacting with it with the other hand. I’ve seen people try and it’s very clumsy. So there’s a big disconnect since you still can’t use professional software that requires a laptop on your iPad, and you can’t really use touch-friendly consumption software on your laptop.
The solution is something Bill Gates introduced back in 2002 and what I’ve been using as my portable computer since then. It wasn’t cool to use tablets until 2010 when Apple introduced the iPad, but for many years before then, tablets capable of running fully functional high-end software were manufactured by quite a few companies. They had the usual limitations of battery life, thickness and weight that come with trying to fit the power of a laptop computer into a tablet form factor, but as long as you used the stylus, existing applications could certainly be operated while walking through the halls of a building.
Instead, the lightweight touch-screen gesture consumption tablets caught on due to their thinness, battery life, and lower cost. However it’s pretty obvious that, as those highly-limited tablets have become popular, more and more people want to use them for more and more functions. It’s exactly like how the dumb-phones of the early 21st century grew to add many more features until they were almost smartphones but not quite.
That’s why it’s pretty easy to predict where the future of tablets is headed. Either all of the functions of your average laptop PC are going to be transferred to the consumer tablet operating systems like iOS and Android. Or the existing laptop/desktop PC operating systems are going to evolve to function much better on thin tablet form factors.
Are you still carrying a laptop and a tablet or would you prefer one device that does it all?