Tablets: PC Biz Finally Figures Out What Insiders Have Known for Years

In 2001 Bill Gates categorically declared that within five years tablets “will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” It’s three years since his prediction expired, and looking back it seems preposterously quixotic. So here’s a preposterously quixotic update of our own on Gates’s prophecy: within five years tablets will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.

The reason, in one word: Education. As we wrote in 2008, the prize for the right student-friendly portable e-book is worth billions, and current models of Kindle, Sony Reader and iRex are simply inadequate for textbooks, illustrated books, schoolwork and homework. Even the much ballyhooed Plastic Logic Something or Other (we’ve dubbed it the “Teasle”) isn’t shaping up to handle tablet-sized tasks. For one thing, none of these gadgets is in color.

It appears, however, that Microsoft is ready to step into the ring for the Tablet PC Sweepstakes Round #2 in the form of something called the Courier. According to Gizmodo and PC World, this tablet has “two 7-inch, presumably color, touchmicrosoft courier tabletscreens that use a combination of multitouch and stylus inputs. From what we’ve seen so far, Courier does not have any kind of keyboard — virtual or physical — and depends completely on handwriting recognition software for entering text. Tech specs are scarce, but Courier would have Wi-Fi connectivity and a camera.”

And Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance, in Just a Touch Away, the Elusive Tablet PC published in the New York Times, report that “In June, Archos, a French consumer electronics company, began selling a small touch-screen tablet running Google’s Android software. Later this month, it will introduce another tablet that runs on Microsoft’s Windows 7, which has built-in support for touch screens.”

The iPhone? Steve Jobs has said “Never” to a tablet-sized iPhone. That could actually mean Never, Maybe Never, or Tomorrow Afternoon. The latest rumor places Apple’s rollout of a $700 tablet at early next year.

There are certainly hurdles to be overcome. The absence of a keyboard, even a virtual one, is a big drawback for any computer designed for classroom use. And touchscreens are fun but they can slow reactivity to a crawl. The ultimate in touchscreen tech, Microsoft Surface, is not ready for tablet prime time but if you’d like to see a mindblowing preview, visit the Surface website and be tantalized. Nevertheless, the time is right for Bill Gates’s prediction to come true. Okay, so he’s a few years late. Who of us has not been a few years late with something!

The key to successful prophecy is Don’t Be Too Specific. But we stand by our prognostication: five years from now there’ll be a tablet under every student’s arm.

Richard Curtis

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