Mike Elgan: Hello, tablets. Good-bye, netbooks!

Seven trends are conspiring to usher in a tsunami of tablets -- and sink netbooks

Look, I know you like the netbook idea -- and you love netbook prices. If you're like most people, you think tablets are expensive, slow, heavy and a pain to use. But if you've bought one, you know that netbooks aren't as great as they sound. And next year's tablets will be way better than you think.

JooJoo tablet
Fusion Garage's JooJoo, formerly the CrunchPad (see video.)

Of course, everybody's talking about, hinting at and arguing over all the non-existent tablets of tomorrow. You've heard a lot about Apple's rumored tablet, for example, which could hit the market as early as March.

News broke recently that Apple has taken control of the TabletMac trademark. The tablet formerly known as CrunchPad (now unfortunately named the JooJoo) goes on sale today for $499. Asustek is said to be planning to launch a tablet based on the Eee PC. And Dell may show a touch-screen Android tablet at the the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, next month.

I'm sure this is one seafaring hazard metaphor too many, but all this tablet news is just the tip of the iceberg. You can expect small touch-screen tablets from all major vendors, and minor ones as well.

As Ian Paul argued today in a PC World column, "2010 will be the year of the tablet computer." (Paul is one of the few Apple tablet deniers, but his recent piece indicates that he may be coming around to the inevitable.)

Why tablets are finally ready for prime-time

Tablet devices have a bad reputation, thanks primarily to Microsoft's fuzzy vision for the devices, which resulted in several years of incredibly expensive, slow, clunky, unappealing pen-based tablets from all the usual Microsoft partners.

Seven trends are conspiring as we speak to usher in a tsunami of tablets totally unlike the current generation of tablet PCs. Here's what's new:

1. Touch instead of pen

Microsoft always loved the stylus, but most people hate it. Apple and others understood that actually touching the screen is far more appealing than using some funky pen. And touch requires an entirely different user interface, which Microsoft was unwilling or unable to build into Windows until Windows 7.

The casual observer might believe that the usability difference between pen and touch is small. But using a pen is an unnatural act, one that until very recently only a tiny minority of people ever engaged in. The psychological payoffs for using a pen on paper are the tactile feel of the paper, the instant feedback of the trail of ink and the physicality of stacks and files and binders of paper notes. Pen-based computer systems don't offer any of those payoffs.

Meanwhile, interacting with and manipulating objects in our environment with our fingers is the most natural of acts. Early hominids were doing it before our species even existed.

Most users don't really know why they like or don't like different user interfaces. They don't know why tablet-based and stylus-based devices are somewhat irritating to use, and why touch-based interfaces like the iPhone are a joy to use. The reason can be found not in the design of the gadget, but in the design of humans -- we're the ones who are touch-based systems.

In one respect, pen and touch systems are opposites. One makes us adapt, the other adapts to us.

The main difference in usability between yesterday's tablets and next year's tablets is touch. And touch will make all the difference in the world.

2. Cell phone operating systems

Current tablet systems are PCs that run full-size PC operating systems, usually Microsoft Windows. The combination of mobile processors and the extra layer of code required for the pen system resulted in a relatively slow experience. It also helps make tablets more expensive.

Next year's tablets will run cell phone operating systems like iPhone OS, Android and others. That will make them cheaper, faster and far more usable on a mobile device.

3. Cheaper components

Because tomorrow's tablets will be big cell phones, rather than small PCs, they'll be cheaper to manufacture. They'll have lower-powered chips, less RAM, smaller screens, fewer ports and cheaper (or free) operating systems.

Plus, Moore's Law is still in effect. All component prices will come down, which means next year's touch tablets will be priced similarly to last year's netbooks: Cheap!

4. App stores

Apple's iTunes app store demonstrated how tightly designed, limited use, inexpensive applications can turn a ho-hum phone into an incredibly powerful and usable platform. All the other major smart phone handset makers followed suit, and developers are pouring incredible time, money and energy into creating mobile games and applications, many of which will work on touch tablets just like they do on cell phones.

Unlike pen tablets, which Microsoft envisioned we'd use for running Microsoft Office, tomorrow's tablets will run a gazillion free or low-cost apps from the platform vendors' app stores.

Because of cell phone apps stores, touch tablets will be way more fun to use than netbooks, old-school tablets or even cell phones (because their screens are bigger).

5. The rise of e-books

Everybody is talking about e-books. And although dedicated e-book readers will always be with us, most people will read electronic books with cell phones and touch tablets. Ignore the naysayers. Tablets will be great for reading books. You'll even be able to turn the page by flicking your finger across the top right of the page, kind of like a paper book.

6. Faster mobile broadband

The carriers haven't figured out the right pricing models for data in a world where everything is connected via mobile broadband. But they will. And when they do, touch tablets will be sold like cell phones, and always-there Internet connections will be standard.

7. HD video on demand

Consumers are gradually discovering that getting TV and movies over the Internet is the way to go, the TV itself is optional, movies are downloadable and the cable subscription probably isn't worth the money. Just as the masses really understand all this, along comes a cheap, high-quality tablet that functions largely like a cable-connected, Blu-ray-connected, DVR-connected TV set, but one you carry with you everywhere you go.

And this will be the killer app that mainstreams touch tablets: It's a mobile HD TV with a universe of downloadable programming.

Why tablets will kill netbooks

Netbooks suck for typing. Believe me. I'm a professional. One problem is that the keyboards are too cramped. But the other is that tiny netbooks force you to have the screen too close for comfortable reading.

A touch tablet is also a netbook. Just add a kickstand to prop up the screen and add a Bluetooth keyboard. The best part is that you can add the keyboard of your choice, not the one that happens to match the netbook's screen size.

It can be a fold-up, roll-out, light-based, or even giant old-school keyboard. Or it can be something that is built-into and detaches from the tablet itself, or the tablet's case. And the screen can be propped up and placed at any distance, not the distance dictated by the keyboard's location.

What is a netbook, anyway, but a tablet with a bulky keyboard attached? And what is a tablet, but an ergonomically adjustable netbook that also functions without the detatched keyboard?

Netbooks won't stand a chance against the tidal wave of touch tablets coming next year. Tablets have many advantages over netbooks, but netbooks have very few advantages over tablets.

So here's my advice. Sell your netbook now while you can still unload it. By this time next year, the space between cell phones and laptops will be taken over by a new generation of touch tablets, and you won't be able to give that netbook away.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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