With all of the hubbub about the Apple iPad, my gut reaction hangs on an “and yet”.  Tablet PCs have never taken off before and may not now, and yet conditions may finally be right.

3 Reasons why the iPad will Fail

Tablets have been coming for so long.  Hearing all the hype about the iPad reminds me of this Microsoft Office ad that aired during the 2004 Super Bowl.

I remember scoffing six years ago not at the (kind of fun) end zone celebration in the office but at the fact that the guy is spinning a tablet.  They seemed not ready for prime time then in 2004, and they have not spread since then.   This may be a lame reason to cite for what’s supposed to be a game-changing technology, but I will posit that the iPad will fail because all prior tablets have failed.

Part of the tablet’s p.r. problem is that people have been touting it for so long.  Famous people.  Bill Gates publicly went gaga over tablets in 2001.  Sales figures are hard to come by, but the highest percentage I’ve seen place tablets at around 2% of the PC market.  Apparently, most of the adoption has been in task-specific places like the healthcare industry.

Keyboards are good input devices.  There is actually something useful about having a physical keyboard to type on.  It frees the user to look at what the typed output (not the keys).  Muscle memory increases speed, and the sense of touch confirms accuracy.  It seems ironic to me that one challenge for tablet PCs has been teaching computers to respond to human touch.  The question remains whether humans can learn to touch a computer as quickly and accurately as they can a keyboard.

A touch computing device that actually took off was the PDA.  Did you ever see someone whip out one of those folding PDA keyboards?  Kind of ridiculous, right?  It’s three times the size of a device whose name starts with the word “portable”.  And yet, the market for them sprang up because stylus input felt clunky and required one to learn a new language (quick, what was the stylus stroke for “k” in graffiti?).

When PDAs evolved into smartphones, what feature did they get?  Keyboards.  Little thumb keyboards that make one’s fingers feel enormous at first, and yet, it’s a raised, hard key keyboard.

The Size/Performance/Flexibility/Price ratios are off.  The iPhone and iPod Touch and the Droid phones succeed because they’re pocket devices; they can go with us anywhere without a second thought.  A tablet is big enough to require a bag of some sort (or perhaps the mainstreaming of map pockets in jackets) and yet most prior tablets have been less powerful than a desktop or laptop available at the same time.  Finally, they’ve carried a price premium.  If new tablets can’t tout a bargain proposition, they won’t make it.

4 Reasons why the iPad will Succeed

Content ubiquity. Maybe Gates made his famous prediction about tablets taking over because he foresaw the expansion of wireless capability coming in the aughts.  Maybe the iPad will succeed because, as smaller devices have shown, when we can get access to data anywhere, we will.  The culture has adjusted to this availability, and now we want access everywhere.  If a user doesn’t have to plan ahead in order to have a book/movie/sound clip on the device in order to enjoy it wherever he is, he’s more likely to use the tablet.

Touch computing has finally matured.  When I watch my 3-year-old take his grandmother’s iPhone and navigate to his favorite game, I must say that the touch interface has the intuitive, second-nature feel that wide adoption requires.  It’s taken a while to get from touch screen kiosks in public places to no-second-thought touchscreens in our pockets, but that moment has arrived.

The iPad aims at infotainment, not work. We have not seen tablets in offices, being spun in end zone celebrations, or being used for work.  We may, however, see them in living rooms, being used for play and in place of print media and as a sometime replacement for television and video.  If success does not mean office workstation replacement, well then the iPad might succeed after all.

Apple’s on a long roll.  Apple hasn’t made many mistakes since the introduction of the iMac.  While Microsoft has bumbled and its PC industry partners have merged and had their warts, Apple has been doing things right.  Presumably, they’ve done their homework on this one and see an actual market for this device now.

Predictions in this realm have proved perilous.  That may be why I’ve hedged with both pro-con predictions.  For now, I’m hiding and watching.