Essays on Technology and Culture

The Future of the Tablet

Gloom and doom is the forecast for tablets these days. Sales are dropping, even for iPad, the king of the tablet hill—which is a small hill, to be sure. With bigger smartphones coming at it from one side, and tiny, ultralight laptops coming at it from the other, where does the tablet go? Why spend $400 on a tablet, when you can get a perfectly good laptop for a little more, or a perfectly good Chomebook for a lot less? Tablets are a luxury! They’re a niche product! They’re doomed to be an also-ran in the computing space!

For now.

The Childhood of the Tablet

We’ve only been in the tablet computer era for five years, at least If we go by the launch of the original iPad as the birth of the modern era of the tablet. There were plenty of computers in a tablet form factor before the iPad, but most were just giant, thick laptops with no keyboards, and with interfaces optimized for keyboard and mouse. The iPad was the first tablet to provide a specific, finger optimized interface, which is exactly what you want for a handheld device. The iPad was the basic form and UI of a tablet computer, done right.

To make a clunky analogy, tablets, pre-iPad were giant IBM PCs. The iPad was the Mac—a refined product with a new, user-friendly UI with some restrictions that the IBM PC didn’t have. Back in 1984, when the Mac launched, there wasn’t much need for the average person to have a home computer. They were the province of hobbyists, geeks, and hobbyist geeks. It wasn’t until the rise of the Internet in the mid–90s that home computer ownership became a real need, though that was primed a bit by the CD-ROM Multimedia Gold Rush. If 2010 was the tablet equivalent of 1984, then we’re only in 1989, where computers are a useful home accessory, but not even close to a necessity.

There’s a ton of potential in tablet computing as a form-factor that we are only just beginning to unlock five years in. It’s not hard to envision a future for the tablet that sees it, not just as a secondary device, but as the primary computer for most people. With the right developments, the tablet could even become the primary computer for developers and other power user laptop and desktop computer holdouts. What does this future look like? Come with me, as I explore the Tablet of Tomorrow.

A Day With the Tablet of Tomorrow

The year is 2025.

You wake up, shower, dress, and scroll through the morning news and email on your tablet at the breakfast table. Nothing new here. Time to leave, and you toss your tablet into your bag, and head to work. Your desk at work has a 24" display at retina resolution, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and a small docking station with a lightning port. At your desk, you whip out your tablet, plop it on the docking station to charge, and get to work.

How? The tablet has instantly connected, wirelessly, to your keyboard, mouse, and display. It knows you’re on your office Wifi, and switches to what you were last working on, be it your email, the Henderson report, or an HTML file in an editor on one side, and a web browser viewing the file on the other. You work, switching between apps as you need, occasionally setting up your tablet to show something you need to work with you—maybe a chat window for Slack, or your email if you’re expecting something important. Maybe the stream of the Sportsball Playoffs, if you’re not.

After a couple hours of work, you have a meeting, so you grab your tablet off the docking station, fully charged, and the optional stylus. You switch to a note-taking app and write down stuff, or sketch and doodle as the meeting goes on, waiting for your moment to present. When that happens, you switch to your presentation app, swipe the slideshow over to the meeting room’s projector, and do your presention. People ignore it, because it’s a meeting, but hey, you’re done. Now it’s time to go back.

You return to your desk, and plop your tablet down. The 24" display lights up with everything you were working on before you got up for your meeting, while your meeting notes display on the tablet. If you want, you can swipe those notes up as a pane on your desktop, or just leave them on the tablet and mark them up while you work. Use a stylus, or use your finger. In the meantime, you get back to work.

Soon, quitting time rolls around, so you throw your tablet in your bag, and head home. On the train (or in your self-driving car if you must), you catch up on the news and email. At home, you drop your tablet in a charging dock at your desk, where it connects with your own home desktop monitor, keyboard, and a trackpad, ’cause that’s just how you roll at home. You catch up on your work and personal email, then edit and post a couple photos and videos to Facebook from your trip to the beach over the weekend.

When you’re done with all of that, you take your freshly charged tablet off the desk, swing downstairs, and drop it off in the living room while you eat dinner. While you eat, your tablet wirelessly connects to the 48“ TV. After dinner, you plop on the couch and grab your tablet. It’s already showing you your TV app of choice, and so you swipe through your options. Settling on Season 16 of Game of Thrones, you tap the latest episode’s listing, and suddenly the 40” screen across the room lights up and the theme thunders through your speakers.

Then, you realize you have a form you need to fill out for a doctor’s appointment, so you switch to your email and fill it out. You use your fingers to fill in the checkboxes, and for text, the haptic Force Touch keyboard on the glass is good enough for a little bit of touch-typing. You’ve been known to compose emails, take notes in meetings, and even write the occasional short blog post on it, but for longer work, you use your wireless keyboard at the desk. Meanwhile, as you fill out your doctor’s form and mail it off, the TV screen doesn’t skip a frame of bloody, sexy, fantasy action.

After Game of Thrones, you throw on some tunes over the home audio system, have a videochat with your special someone, and then play a video game. Realizing it would be cooler if your game was on that big 40" display, you shoot it over, and it doesn’t skip a frame, while your tablet turns into a custom controller with more features and a mini-map. You play for a while, and with 50% battery remaining, realize it’s time to turn in. On your way to bed, you plug your tablet in with the cable you keep on the sideboard.

Getting to the Future from Here

You know what’s not in the picture above? A traditional computer, desktop or laptop. The only presupposition is that, eventually, we get fast enough, power-efficient enough Bluetooth-like short-range wireless, and fast enough home wi-fi to send 4 to 5k video to a display at real time. Ten years might be an optimistic timeframe. It could be fifteen or twenty, but it’s not an impossibility. The obstacles are just wireless transfer speeds, processing power, haptics, and battery life. These aren’t problems we’re close to solving, but ones we’re making huge progress on. Everything else is stuff we can do now, at least in terms of software. Cloud storage handles the heavy lifting of storing documents and photos. The closest thing to a conventional computer in the home that I see in this future is a small home media server.

In a way, this vision of the future isn’t dissimilar from the idea behind Microsoft Surface. Surface tries to be all things to all people, but limits its ambitions to a device that’s all compromise—a hybrid touch/desktop UI that nobody likes, a crappy hardware keyboard, and an awkward form-factor. It’s gotten better, but it’s a device that carries with it 30 years of legacy computing baggage.

Could you do all this with a powerful enough phone? Maybe, and I could even see that being an option for people who have giant 6" Samsung phones. However, the tablet has a much more flexible form factor. A phone form factor isn’t great for multitasking, while a tablet has enough display space for multiple apps. A bigger form factor means a bigger battery, and more space for storage and RAM that are naturally constrained on a phone form-factor.

Imagine the ability to do computing work everywhere and anywhere with a screen you can carry in a small bag, or even in a big enough pocket. Imagine turning any big screen into your desktop. This is where the tablet could go, and what the tablet could become. The potential for a tablet to replace the conventional personal computer for the vast majority of people is immense.

People who worry about the future of the tablet are thinking too short term. It doesn’t matter what happens next quarter for iPad sales. It matters what happens in a longer-term scenario where the tablet becomes more capable, more connected, and more powerful—enough to replace the box on your desk, and yet still connect with all the extra stuff you need to live your digital life. We’ll get there in time. Until then, don’t panic, and start working to build that real post-PC future. Or, stick to your old, legacy computing device. It’s not going to go away, but the balance will certainly shift given enough time and development. I’m looking forward to it.