I’ve been spending the weekend at MileHiCon here in Denver this weekend, an annual SF convention that often also has really good sessions on writing and technology. This morning, they had one on the future of the tablet computer.
My biggest surprise was how many people on the panel and in the audience were still taking seriously Windows 8 in general and Surface in particular. Despite the repeated observations in the tech press about how abysmally Microsoft is screwing this up, they might have enough brand power left in Windows to succeed in spite of themselves.
Although it could also be a last gasp before they poison the brand forever. One person was really looking forward to getting a Surface tablet “because it runs Word.” Once she buys the Surface RT (which is the only one available until much later this year or early next) I wonder if it will be an unpleasant surprise that it isn’t the full version of Word (Does Word RT support Track Changes, the “must have” feature for most professional writers?), and that she legally can’t use it for writing anything she plans to sell commercially without buying an additional license?
There was also a lot of discussion about what a tablet actually was. Does the iPod touch count? The iPhone? The Galaxy Note? Apple has done an interesting job in defining the tablet as the iPad, but it’s clear that consumers are interested in a wide spectrum of flat glass touch screen devices capable of general purpose computing. That last bit I mention because the consensus at the panel was that Kindles and similar special function devices are _not_ tablet computers. So what about the Kindle Fire? It’s a general purpose computer with a special purpose user interface? Where does it fit?
As far as the “future” aspect of the panel, the thinking was pretty unanimous that tablets, whatever their size, will become the standard for mobile computing, that laptops without touch interfaces are destined for niche status. Writer types like myself will probably have some kind of hybrid that includes a full size keyboard, but even that is negotiable.
The other big surprise for me was that a lot of the panelists and audience (but certainly not all) still considered tablets to be primarily for consumption, entertainment devices rather than tools for real work. Writers like myself and my friend James Kendrick over on ZDNet who use our tablets as our primary work devices and produce lots of content directly on them remain a minority. Tablets just aren’t fast enough to keep up with the pace of real work, the doubters say, and there was a lot of interest in something like the Surface Pro that could be a tablet when you were out and about, then dock into a station giving you access to a large monitor, mouse and keyboard when you get back to your office. It’s a great idea in theory, and I remain curious to see how well it works in practice given the compromises Microsoft has made with the formerly-known-as-Metro interface in Windows 8 Pro.