The Flat Computer Society

Everyone’s ecstatic about the Apple tablet. But what are we supposed to do with it?

The Lenovo IdeaPad U1

At the now-defunct Comdex trade show in 2001, Bill Gates took the stage to herald the next great era in computing—the age of the “tablet” PC. The Microsoft founder showed off several machines that looked very much like Etch-a-Sketch pads. Each was about the size of a glossy magazine, 2 inches thick, and carried no keyboard—you interacted with the machine solely through its touch-sensitive screen. Gates was obviously taken with these computers, and Microsoft bet big on them, releasing a version of Windows that could be navigated with a stylus and could recognize handwriting. “I’m already using a tablet as my everyday computer,”Gates told the crowd. He added, “Within five years, I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

Was Bill Gates wrong, or was he just premature? Are tablet computers the wave of the future, or are they the flying cars of the computer world, dreamy but impractical machines that will never take off? Once again, the computer industry is betting on the former. At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, flat machines were everywhere. Lenovo, HP, and several other device makers unveiled full-fledged tablet PCs and more-limited thin machines designed mainly for reading magazines and surfing the Web. Microsoft was pushing the idea once more; during his keynote address, CEO Steve Ballmer showed off several Windows tablets—or what he called “slate PCs,” thank you very much—that he predicted would gain a wide following. But Ballmer predictably didn’t mention the main reason why tablets could finally hit it big: Apple will soon unveil a flat machine of its own.

If it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, the iSlate—as some believe it will be called—could finally spark the tablet fire. Or will it? I must admit that I’ve been wrong on Apple before. I didn’t think the iPod would do well (too expensive, Mac-only), and though I suspected the iPhone would be big, its success has surpassed all my expectations (and pretty much everyone else’s, too). I’ve long been onboard the tablet train—in 2008, I begged Apple to release a touch-screen PC in 2009, and I predicted that such a device would prompt the “next PC boom.” The more that leaks out about the iSlate, however, the more I’m getting pre-orderer’s remorse. Can such a device really capture a wide market? In particular, I’m worried about the price: I was excited for a tablet that sold for $400 or $500, but if Apple’s machine costs more than $800 (as some reports suggest it will), I won’t be nearly as bullish.

Whatever the price, the industry’s current tabletphilia certainly makes more sense than it did in 2001. The components necessary to make thin machines—powerful mobile processors, touch-sensitive flat-panel displays, long-lasting batteries, and mobile broadband—are cheap and widely available. More importantly, there’s been a shift in the way we use computers. At the turn of the millennium, PCs were still seen mainly as business tools—a computer was something you used at the office or for schoolwork, not to goof off. Today PCs are the world’s most powerful procrastination machines. For half the day we use computers to get things done; during the other half, we use them to watch movies and TV, to read books, to sort through family photos, to listen to music, and to squander hours and hours surfing the Web. Computing is now often what people in the TV industry call a “lean-back” experience—when you’re watching YouTube videos or reading an e-book, you’re only occasionally interacting with the machine. So why do you need a keyboard and a mouse?

Indeed, the boom in “netbook” computers—the tiny, cheap machines that dominated the sales charts in 2008 and early 2009—was really an expression of customers’ interest in second PCs. A netbook’s tiny keyboard and low processing power makes it relatively useless for work but ideal for goofing off—surfing Facebook from the couch or watching Hulu in bed. Tablet computers, I argued last year, would surpass netbooks as second PCs—they would be more comfortable to watch or read from, and navigating using your fingers would be easier than mashing a netbook keyboard. Already, I use my iPhone more to read the Web than to make calls. What I’m looking for is a big-screen iPhone—it won’t make calls, but it’ll be the best device in the world for reading the New York Times online.

Fortunately, lots of device makers at CES seemed to have the same vision. There were a raft of $300 touch-screen tablets and e-readers at the show, and over the next year we’ll likely see many such tablets come to market. I’ll bet these devices will soon zoom past netbooks in popularity. In fact, I can’t wait.

But Apple doesn’t seem to be positioning its tablet for this goof-off market. Eight hundred dollars is a lot of money for a machine to surf the Web, especially since the cheapest Mac sells for $599 and the MacBook, Apple’s entry-level laptop, goes for $999. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball argues, at these prices, Apple’s tablet seems to be something you’d buy instead of a laptop, not in addition. “I say they’re swinging big,” Gruber writes, “redefining the experience of personal computing.”

That’s exactly what makes Apple’s move so risky. A machine that seeks to supplant a laptop can’t offer just a “lean-back” experience—it’s got to let you enter text, too, and that’s where tablet machines have long failed. Let’s assume that Steve Jobs and his minions have come up with an amazing solution to this problem. In the same way that Apple managed to build an intuitive, easy-to-learn interface into a phone that lacked a physical keyboard, they could figure out a way to make it easy to type long e-mails on a screen that you’ve got to hold with both hands. But any new system will require a learning curve, and it’s likely that some people will never get used to it. Indeed, I still type on my iPhone only grudgingly. When I’ve got to pen a long e-mail, I wait until I’m near a keyboard.

I’m not saying Apple won’t succeed. I’m simply puzzled about its course—but that, of course, is how all great innovations are greeted. Steve Jobs likes to say that customers don’t really know what they want until some inventor comes along and shows it to them. What’s the point of an $800 machine that lacks a keyboard? I’m not sure, but I’m hoping Apple will show me.

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