'Tis a weird time to be in "mobile." Our perception of just what makes a device "mobile" is changing from phone to handheld device, voice to data, pocketable to portable. Once upon a time a "car phone" was attached to your car, a "mobile phone" could be carried on your person, and a computer was a computer. Nowadays the lines are blurred, what with cell phone companies offering data-only rate plans and connected netbooks and whatnot.
The rise of e-Readers and the second coming of the tablet computer threatens to further blur the lines and make mobile more people's primary way of communicating with one another. While it remains to be seen if the success of Apple's iPad will really usher in the golden age of tablet computing or not, it does look like the Summer of Smartphones is poised to give way to the Winter of Tablets, as everyone from BlackBerry to Palm (with a million Android OEMs in between) is reportedly readying a slate or three to foist upon the consumer market.
Yes, if you read a lot and want to cut down on the load you haul around, the time you have to wait to get a new book and the death of trees at the hands of your favorite authors, it stands to reason that you need an e-Reader.
No, you most likely do not. The closest thing to "need" I could come up with relative to the tablets currently on the market is a rationalization based on extending the functionality of a cheaper product you were already thinking of buying. Huh? You're going to buy an iPod Touch or portable DVD player for the kids, so why not go all-out and pick up an iPad, instead? You've been wanting a TV for the kitchen, would rather have an all-in-one computer there instead, so a tablet would split the difference price and performance-wise. That sort of thing.
I can't really see how anyone could need a tablet right now, unless it's a very specialized art project or workplace need (like the handheld communicators the FedEx and UPS folks carry around). Old tablets? Old and ill-conceived. iPad? Can't do half of what a decent laptop can do. (I know some of you just got angry. And it may well be that you're right and I'm wrong. Let it out in the comments.)
If you're reading this, you already do - at least a little bit.
Me, I pre-ordered an iPad so I could unbox it and start the review process on the day it came out. Occupational hazard. Since then, I honestly haven't used it that much. I think iPad is a really cool piece of kit, and it works really well, but since I'm literally always within arm's reach of a smartphone and/or desktop/laptop computer it's rare that I find myself going out of my way to pick up the pad. Smartphones are easier to carry around, laptops are easier to type on and can do more - way more - than an iPad can.
More recently I've started playing around with e-Readers, including the Barnes & Noble nook, iBooks for iPad, and various e-Reader apps running on various smartphones. I've found that while I like having a copy of my current book with me at all times, I also get distracted by all of the other content on my phone/tablet, and often wind up reading Email or surfing the Web instead of reading another chapter's worth of literature. And while a standalone e-Reader like nook is much more comfortable than an LCD-based tablet or phone for reading of any length of time, the sad truth is that I just don't read enough novels these days to warrant another gadget in my life.
Magazines I read like they're going out of style. But digital magazines are another story for another time.
A friend of mine, a voracious reader who travels a lot for business, recently told me what gear he takes with him on a business trip:
- Laptop computer: For work
- BlackBerry: For work and personal email
- Amazon Kindle: For reading
- iPad: For watching videos and surfing the Web during travel
The laptop stays tucked away during the flight unless there's some work that needs getting done during the trip. Otherwise, it's Kindle for reading and iPad for watching downloaded video or Web surfing via in-flight WiFi.
"I've tried reading on the iPad," he explained, "and it's just not the same. The Kindle is much, much better for reading. It's built for reading. But the iPad is so great for consuming media that I bring it too. It takes up less room and is easier to use on a plane than my laptop."
By the same token, browsing the Web on an e-ink screen like the ones Kindle and nook use is a bad joke. Nevermind the fact that you're browsing in greyscale, the constant fullscreen flickering that accompanies screen redraws is maddening. So even though some e-Readers - the Android-based ones like nook, in particular - have the software chops to double as decent Web readers, their screens were built for reading and reading alone, plain and simple.
A new generation of e-Readers with crazy dual-screen form factors and shape-shifting display technology promises to bring the best of both worlds to avid readers who also want to catch up on Hulu and CNNSI.com without switching gadgets. But while bloggers and tech nerds have been salivating over prototypes and spec sheets built around things like "Pixel Qi" for years now, we're still waiting to see them hit retail shelves.
And don't even get me started on that blasted CrunchPad/JooJoo mess.
So after that little "Intro to the very Beta, Vaporware, Under-Functional world of slate computing" take on things, how could I possibly assert that you'll wind up wanting a tablet of your own this holiday shopping season? For a few reasons:
1. There's a decent chance that carriers, gadget makers, and big box retailers are going to tablet-market you into submission between now and New Year's. Resistance, as you know, is futile.
2. That whole Verizon-Motorola-Google-Nvidia rumor. If this thing pans out as I think it will, Verizon's "Droid Pad" (or whatever) ads could become the unwelcomed soundtrack to your Winter television time.
3. Video chatting. Not a big deal now. Europeans have been doing it for years and will tell you it's still not a big deal to them. But if your Mom, co-worker, and neighbor all get video chat capable iTouches and Android tablets, you know you're going to want in on the "fun." At least for a week or two.
4. The future of television. This is the big one. That Verizon tablet rumor I mentioned? There's a decent chance that VZW's iPad killer will support full-on FIOS television service. And while 2010 won't go down as the year that mobile broadband put cable TV out of business, between iTunes, Hulu Plus, YouTube and whatever Verizon is cooking up, the writing is on the wall: mobile network infrastructure combined with the growing trend towards time- and placeshifting of video content will eventually merge your "ISP" and "Cable provider" into one giant pipe's worth of data available wherever you want it. You might not want to get your TV through a tablet computer that can be docked to your living room HDTV or taken with you on the road, but I sure do.
5. Easier touchscreen typing. For as much as I'm currently enjoying a hard QWERTY renaissance thanks to phones like the Epic 4G and Droid 2, it stands to reason that buttons will go the way of the dinosaur as virtual keyboard technology improves and advancements in display tech allow for lightweight, compact/foldable devices with ample screen space for content and controls alike. May as well hop on the bandwagon now, right?
Not to get ahead of ourselves too much - as is so easy to do in this hazy business - let's get back to the present. Follow the link below for our Back to School guide to the tablets you can actually pick up right now, or should be able to within the next few months, and stay tuned for my own experiences with e-Reading on an e-Reader, a tablet, and a bunch of smartphones.
Meantime, do you think you'll be picking up an e-Reader or tablet? Why or why not? Discuss in the comments, or cast your vote in our oh so timely poll.
READ: PhoneDog's Buying Guide to Tablet Computers