But though tablets are a commercial success, the same question people were asking two years ago still looms: Can tablets become work machines? The current wave has been built to resemble smartphones more than PC. They?re content consumption devices rather than content creation devices. Tablets are perfect for reading books but lousy for writing them. And the same point could be made for spreadsheets, presentations, photography, video, and music. In most of these cases, "there?s an app for that." But beyond the beautiful drawings that artists are making in Colors, the tablet has no part in content creation for most of us.
Yet consider that not so long ago society didn?t understand how PCs could revolutionize every part of our lives. Even businesses didn?t understand how a computer could increase productivity. So let?s stop viewing tablets as a failure in respect to work functions, and instead, objectively analyze them as what they are: a new class of machines just getting their legs under them.
So what needs to change for our iPads to become not toys, but workhorses?
Ergonomics, Inputs, and the Problem With Text
When you sit at your desk, not only does your computer have a desktop, but you have a desktop for your computer. That opens the door to an array of speciality peripherals?keyboards, mice, scanners, retina scanners, and more. Even the laptop, in its current form, has room for a slew of input devices thanks to the literal desk upon which it sits.
Right now, tablets have multitouch, and usually one of your hands is occupied just holding the thing. Simply put, content creation requires input devices. Multitouch enables a lot of incredible gesture-based functions, such as pinching-and-zooming photos, but no one wants to write their novel on a virtual glass keyboard.
Text input, the biggest and most obvious problem for working on a tablet. As archaic as written language might seem now that we have FaceTime, it is the basis of emails, spreadsheets, structured notes, and IMs. It?s not hard to send one email on a tablet, but try sending them all day.
Bluetooth-linked keyboards haven?t fixed the problem, either. Yes, it?s easier than typing a full message into the onscreen keyboard. But when you pick up a separate, physical keyboard, the tablet metaphor dies?you?re really just working at a mini laptop. Tablets will need to figure out other technologies?perhaps it?s voice recognition; perhaps it?s eyetracking; perhaps it?s reading our brain waves?to solve the basic problem of mass text input.
But beyond text, tablets will need to employ other solutions, solutions beyond multitouch, to compensate for humans? lack of a third hand.
The Need for Real Multitasking
Yes, iOS and Android both support multitasking. Many would agree that Android handles this feat a bit better than iOS, but neither system of multitasking is anywhere near as robust as what you can do with Windows or Apple?s OS X.
As I write this on my laptop, I can copy text from Google Docs and paste it in Gmail, juggle 20 tabs while sharing links from five in 10 different AIM windows, and then, since that?s not enough, I can tweet on an entirely different topic with my spare mental cycles. This is the level of multitasking that most of us are at all day, every day, and it happens instantly in an environment generally capable of reacting faster than we can think.
Tablets don?t have multitasking?not the real, 2012 stuff. Tablets either pull our attention to one app at a time (which is great for watching a movie or playing a game, but lousy for keeping tabs with your boss) or they give us a few superficial widgets and notifications (who needs to check the weather again?) in lieu of several full apps each firing on all cylinders at once.
As tablet continue to receive RAM upgrades, there?s no fundamental reason they that multitasking on them couldn?t get better. Except the big one: sheer size. Even puny 12.1-inch laptops have much larger screens capable of fitting more content than any tablet on the market (for now, let?s ignore arguments about resolution for sake of simplicity). Unless we want bigger tablets, we either need technology that makes a small screen seem bigger, such as 3D, or a multitasking system that makes large screens feel a bit less important. Or both.
The Crutch of Overused Metaphors
Beyond these obvious technical limitations, there?s a bigger limitation we?re putting on tablets: the tired metaphors of our old analog lives. We want to read books with rendered page animations (iBooks), and we want to write in Moleskins with faux bindings (Tapos?). We play music on virtual pianos and draw on chalkboards that clearly aren?t made of slate.
With a modern tablet, we?re holding sheer software translated through a dynamic screen. Why limit it by drawing the same way we would with a dried piece of pulp? We don?t need to press down the keys of a piano to make notes because tablets have no strings defining their limitations.
The rules of the analog world need not apply in a handheld window to the digital one. But as long as we try to force those metaphors upon ourselves, tablets won?t advance beyond their current station: accessible to a layperson, but unable to tap their deeper potential.
We?re using old ideas because we haven?t thought of new ones yet. How long did it take before our computers networked to create the Internet or our text messages evolved into Twitter? Right now, we?re all viewing tablets as these legal-pad-size computers that, for some strange reason, can?t do everything that our old computers can do. Tablets are a whole new platform, and platforms need time to develop. Maybe they were never meant to be our old computers in legal pad form, but rather, pliable information in absolutely no required form at all.
But until that day comes, let?s figure out the whole text input problem, okay?