By Nelson Schneider - 07/20/12 at 07:37 PM CT
I have been intrigued by the concept of tablet computers since they were referred to as "UMPCs." Yet, here we are in 2012, in the midst of the ďpost-PCĒ tablet revolution, and I still donít own one. No iPad, no Droid, no nothiní! Why? Allow me to elaborate.
I never sprang for a UMPC back in 2006 because they were high-priced gadgets with anemic hardware. If I was going to own such a device, I wanted the ability to use all of my regular Windows software on it. Paying twice as much for half the hardware capability as my regular desktop PC just didnít click with me, so I waited for the price to drop.
Iím still waiting.
While the UMPC evolutionary branch still exists, it was largely a dead-end, supplanted by true tablet PCs inspired by touchscreen smartphones. Thanks to a huge marketing blitz and rapid release schedule most people think Apple invented the tablet PC concept with their iPad, despite the fact that similar concepts were actually in development by a number of different manufacturers, in a case of parallel discovery.
So here we are today, with dozens of different tablet PCs available on the market with an array of different operating system options. Why donít I just pick one already? Despite their differences, all tablet PCs share a few major issues that repel me every time I come close to pulling the trigger on a purchase.
First, and most important, is that tablet PCs are currently in the lifecycle phase desktop PCs were in during the 1990s. I remember talking my parents into paying exorbitant amounts of money on two separate occasions Ė once in 1993 when I was just starting high school, and once in 1997 when I was ready for college Ė for new desktop PCs. In both cases the machines were obsolete about six months after I got my hands on them. Since they were so expensive, I made do with them until I absolutely couldnít stand them anymore. If I had waited but a few months, I could have gotten much better hardware for less expense. Of course, in those situations, I would have still been without a computer of any kind.
Today, I have a desktop that sits collecting dust while I do all of my work and experience all of my computer-based entertainment on my laptop (which frequently gets carried from my desk to a nice spot on the floor where an HDMI cable can reach it from the side of my 55Ē TV). If I delay my purchase of a tablet PC, I can still do all of my regular computing on at least two other devices. And with tablet PCs right in the middle of their rampant feature-creep stage, I just canít bring myself to buy one Ė despite the fact that even the most expensive tablet PC (iPad 3) is far cheaper than my 1990s desktops Ė because I know it will be obsolete before I even open the box. Apple especially seems to revel in this fact, unleashing a new-and-improved iPad every year to their masses of fanboys who will buy them no matter what. Even the other manufacturers seem to put faster processors, more RAM, and bigger storage into their tablets every few months.
The second reason I donít own a tablet PC is because I donít like where their operating systems are taking us. Every current tablet PC runs some version of a smartphone operating system. These are closed, locked-down, walled gardens that donít even trust their users to use them. There are no exposed file systems, making it very difficult to move files around on a tablet PC without using a regular PC as a kind of surrogate. And while not quite as bad as the closed-off file systems, I donít appreciate app exclusivity. Steam has shown me that digital distribution can be a beautiful thing for PC games. But when I run Steam on my PC, it doesnít forbid me from downloading and playing non-Steam games on that same PC. Tablet PCs seem to be moving further and further away from the idea of ďsideloadingĒ apps off of an SD card or some other form of removable media, placing all the power in the manufacturerís hands and undermining ideals such as the open-source software initiative.
The third reason I donít own a tablet PC is that I really donít know what Iíd do with it. I did actually own a 7ĒAndroid tablet for two days, but returned it because it was too small and couldnít do the one thing I asked it to do: Load up a PDF of the Pathfinder RPG ďCore Rulebook.Ē I have seen iPads perform this Herculean task, so I know itís possible, but I donít want an Apple device, both on principle and because Apple expects users to have an entire ecosystem of Apple devices, which I cannot and WILL not provide for a device that would essentially serve as an overpriced e-reader.
So, what would I do with a tablet PC besides read PDFs? I guess I could play games on it, but Iím not a fan of handhelds, and Iím REALLY not a fan of the putrid offal that passes for ďfunĒ in the smartphone game scene. I guess I could type documents on it, but none of the current tablets are compatible with my existing copies of Microsoft Office, plus I hate touchscreen typing. I guess I could use it to check my e-mail or surf the Internet, but I have a laptop that does that already, and I can fully customize my copy of Firefox on the laptop. I guess I could use it to do all this stuff while Iím out and about, but I spend all day sitting in front of a PC already and I donít carry a purse or wear a sporran, so Iíd have nowhere to keep it.
Take these three reasons together, and I see a potential roadblock for tablet PCs to supplant handheld consoles, as so many in the industry are predicting. Tablet PCs are PCs, not consoles: They are really expensive, become obsolete almost overnight, have inadequate inputs, and are BIG. At the same time, tablet PCs are consoles, not PCs: They force users to jump through hoops, only allow software approved by the manufacturer, and hide their inner workings. In these ways, tablet PCs take the worst features of PCs and the worst features of consoles and combine them.
Looking into the not-so-distant future, it looks like tablet PCs have one last chance to become something I would consider worth buying; and that last chance is Windows 8. And I mean the real Windows 8, not Windows ReTardation, which will be yet another identical take on the terrible smartphone OSes that pass as tablet OSes. If Windows 8 on an x86 tablet allows me to easily dump files from a laptop or desktop to a tablet or copy them from a networked drive, I will raise an eyebrow. If Windows 8 allows me to load up my existing copies of Microsoft Office, Adobe Suite, Steam games, and my other favorite open-source software, I might reach for my wallet. If a Windows 8 tablet costs less than $500, I might actually open my wallet.
But the cost is the sticking point. Since Apple was the first put a modern tablet on the market, the market has come to expect all tablets to be priced similarly to Appleís famously-huge profit margins, a.k.a., the ďApple Tax.Ē Since a Windows 8 tablet will have the capability to be so much more than a Windows RT tablet, Iím sure the price will be obscene.
But thatís okay. I can wait.