On the usefulness of tablet computers

I recently read an interesting article on TechCrunch which talks about the 6 or so operating systems geared towards tablets which will soon have to face a battle for who gains the most popularity in the limited market of tablet PCs.

Linda Lawrey posted this article on her Google Buzz which sparked a discussion about who might be coming out as winner, but it also generated a conversation about why anyone would want a tablet in the first place. I think 3+ million iPad owners would have something to add to that conversation, however, my post is not about that.

I personally believe tablets are useful for certain things today: While not exactly great for use on-the-go such as mobile phones they are useful as a replacement for net-books, say, for use while having a coffee at Starbucks, for taking notes while at meetings, or as a bed-side computer to check mail and browse the web before bed. But my thoughts about their usefulness are centred on the future: Internet-powered centralised intelligent home & office devices.

I can see them integrated to each room in a house, possibly on the wall, where one can quickly browse their calendar, program their alarm, control the lights of the house, communicate with the house’s security system, view CCTV video from other rooms and program DVR recording, control other digital devices from their room, etc.

Imagine: You’re going to bed so you go to your wall and program the alarm clock for 8 AM, you also program your children’s alarm clock for 7:30 AM, activate the home security system, and set up chilled-out relaxing music for the bedrooms in the house. You also program the device to start up the radiators at 6:00 AM and the hot water at the same time. At the same time you set up the A/C to maintain a certain ideal room temperature during the night. John, your kid, doesn’t like the music so he gets up and sets his own device to mute for his room. You wake up to the sound of music, increasing gradually in volume in each room, as a start to a great new day.

You might have a party that evening and you are having a discussion about a certain word definition, or the location of a country, so you get up, unplug the tablet from the wall, and perform a search on Wikipedia, bringing the tablet to the table and sorting out the discussion in moments.

In the office, you create a powerpoint presentation with interactive graphs and cool pictures on your PC. You store it on the local network, pop in to the conference room, take a tablet down from the wall, then you can discuss the points and make changes directly on the tablet, making the meeting a more productive one than the usual guy talking in front of a projector while people take notes. Not good enough? Connect a pico-projector to it, then you can have your boring meeting with the capability of making changes or taking meeting notes directly on the tablet, which makes the use of paper basically redundant.

So how useful do you believe they are? Useful enough right now? Or more useful in the near future?

4 Replies to “On the usefulness of tablet computers”

  1. I think the idea of using them as home control devices won’t ever happen. We’ve had the ability to make robot homes for a long long time and it has never caught on. Way back in the 80’s we had interface boards full of relays and so forth for controlling external devices but nobody used them to automate their home. The basic problem is interfacing the PC to the control device. Most control devices have no external interface. I could build a motorised curtain-opener but the time, the cost? And then interfacing it with a PC?

  2. Definitely, but as microchips become easier to program (for example: Arduinos) it becomes easier to get this sort of projects done…

    Plus it has always been “the dream” to have a computer-controlled home, and I have seen several good experiments with this, I believe some companies even deploy semi computer controlled home devices already.

    Who knows, it might not happen however the devices themselves hold the potential for those functions, it’s just a matter of a big enough company developing the apps, electronics and servers.

  3. The home central portal for calendars, weather, traffic, etc, has been tried, even by the company I work at. We pushed a product and service from conception to production and it didn’t gain much popularity. Unless the cost of ownership is really low, people just aren’t interested in it.

    As for home automation, this is something a tablet might be good to interface with, but, again, this goes back to the central portal idea.

    For a tablet to be useful, ultimately, it needs connectivity and portability.

    Tablets do have their place if you keep an open mind on how to define a tablet. We have smartphones these days with massive 4+ inch displays that could easily be considered a tablet. If it’s always connected, it’s useful as a personal and a business tool.

    One use for larger tablets I’ve seen that seems to be catching on is in the field of photography. The iPad has facilitated many photographers to share their works immediately, do story boarding, photo layouts, etc, all on the fly, and with the customer able to see everything as it happens. There’s even an app for jailbroken iOS devices that connects to eyefi cards so photos can be transferred on the fly wirelessly to these devices.

    One field I’m really surprised tablets haven’t taken much adoption in is the medical field. I’ve only ever met one doctor that used anything close and he was using an old Dell PDA. It would seem being able to carry a medical library, patient information, etc, throughout the doctor’s office would seem invaluable.

    For personal use, this is really a preference issue. Many people love their iPad, but I will never own one. The capacity that I expect I will ever own a tablet is a large smartphone, such as one the size of the Droid X (that 4+ inch area). Some people like reading on their tablets, but to be honest, I hate reading on a LCD screen.

    However, tablets are NOT a good replacement for a netbook/notebook. They never will be. They are different and separate devices with different and separate markets, be it niche markets or otherwise. Even Apple recognizes this. Just look at their new 11″ Macbook Air. đŸ˜‰

  4. Nimdae:

    Quite insightful your thoughts. I think you are 100% spot on with the medical field, great applications there.

    But I still believe that, even though you have already tried this with a company, the centralised home idea will finally catch on in the future.

    I wasn’t talking about the hear and now with this post, but more about what the future will bring. I can see tablet computers and touch-screen PDA devices for controlling ones home.

    I mean, it’s practical. Maybe you are right though about the tablets, but likewise it could be your smartphone. You are in the driveway, your home-centric device see’s your bluetooth signal and prepares the home for you, turns on the heaters and the lights, boils the kettle, who knows… Maybe give it 5-10 years and we’ll all have star-trek panels everywhere… Maybe not, but it’s worth speculating.

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