Is The Age of the Web Tablet Finally Upon Us?

With rumors about a potential Apple iPad lighting up the Internet the past few weeks, I was reminded of a past attempt at web tablet glory.  Back in 2000, the buzz around web tablets was such that even chipmaker Intel had the chutzpah to make one. Although it demoed the product in January 2001 at CES, the company realized — perhaps thankfully — that it was a tad early on this market and never actually released it.

If Intel released a web tablet today, no one could claim it would be early. Instead, it seems we are the precipice of a new and glorious web tablet era — or so that’s what you’d think from reading the fawning discussion about the yet-to-be-released Apple product.

So what’s going on here?  Tablet PCs have been around since the early ’90s, and web tablet concept prototypes have been making the jump from cocktail napkins to white boards over the past 10 years with no real breakout hits as of yet. Is this really the dawn of a new age, or are we setting ourselves up for more disappointment as the web tablet solidifies itself as a perpetual good-in-theory-bad-in-practice product category?

Anyone who’s examined the history of the concept has a right to be skeptical, but I think the web tablet is for real this time. And before you accusing me of saying it’s because Apple may enter the market – because hey, Apple always succeeds, right? – that’s not the reason why. Instead, the real reason the web tablet will succeed is there is an actual hole in the market for a lightweight, mid-sized surfing and entertainment touchscreen device. And, while most people think Apple’s success lies in its industrial design and care for detail, I think its actually because the company has an uncanny ability to see holes and then move to fill them.

Ironically, Microsoft identified this hole before Apple with its UMPC/Origami efforts (though Apple would claim its Newton was the first attempt at this market). But you know what they say: everything looks like a nail when you’re carrying a hammer (or, in this case, a monopolistic market position in desktop operating systems). The market doesn’t need a fat-client software stack stuffed in a mid-sized form factor device. Apple (and others) realize this, but Microsoft doesn’t.

The market is screaming for a lean, mid-sized, highly connected web device. For video, reading and gaming applications, a bigger screen would excel over a smaller device (such as a smartphone), and a web tablet would in many ways be much more enjoyable for these applications than laptops or even netbooks (which is what Microsoft’s UMPC should have been in the first place).

So why now and not 2001? Pretty simple: Advances in CPUs, the rise of mobile broadband (remember that old Intel device? It had a Home RF connection), and the accompanying move of applications and entertainment into the cloud. All these factors mean a great experience in such a device is possible today. Back then — it just wasn’t.

Question of the week

Why do you think there’s a sudden interest in the web tablet category?
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Michael Wolf

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7 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. Mark Jaquith Friday, May 15, 2009

    What do you think about the possibility of a carrier-subsidized tablet (or ultraportable)? That could really get the price down. Like, to “free.”

    1. We’re starting to see this approach with netbooks and I’m watching to see how this plays out. My gut feeling is it won’t impact netbooks nor the tablet you reference. Mom and Pop User don’t want a $60/ month fee to get on the web.

  2. James Kendrick Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    ^^^I think the biggest factor affecting the timing of acceptance for a web tablet is price.^^^ It’s the same factor that has propelled the netbook into the forefront. There have been small, portable notebooks for years but it wasn’t until they hit the $200 – $400 price point that netbooks took off.

    There have been several web tablets over the years, the Pepper Pad being one. It’s not much different than a tablet that would be produced today. The problem preventing the public from accepting them earlier was largely price, although the lack of prevalent WiFi was a factor too.

    For a web tablet to reach mass market potential even today it had better be $300 or cheaper or it won’t go mainstream which must happen for the genre to take off.

  3. Stacey – I mentioned CPU improvements at the end, and here I was specifically thinking of Atom. You are right though, advances here are worthy of even more emphasis given they are driving huge innovation in mobile devices. Interesting to me is Apple and whether they will utilize the PA Semi assets to design their own processor for something like a web tablet

    1. I think that you’re spot-on about the PA Semi impact, Mike. Apple is successful when they can control (and therefore best integrate) the software and hardware.

  4. Mark Jaquith Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    It seems that just like every year is the year that Linux gains substantial desktop user share, every year is the year that tablets take off. I’ll believe it when I see it. But if it does happen this year, think it will be because Apple showed everyone that making a portable computing device isn’t about cramming a full sized computer’s form factor into a smaller space, but by embracing limitations for their ability to free them from past design constraints. That just might have people thinking outside the box enough to do a tablet PC that isn’t just a desktop PC without a keyboard and with a stylus instead of a mouse.

  5. Stacey Higginbotham Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    You neglected to mention the improvements in ARM-based chips or even Intel’s Atom that have allowed for lighter machines that can run longer on smaller batteries. Plus there’s also the rise of capacitive rather than resistive touch leading to a better user experience. However I’m not sure that general purpose tablets will beat out my smartphone. I can see a market for Internet-enabled specialty devices like a Kindle or web-enabled gaming tablet, but otherwise the category mystifies me.

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