The hunt for the perfect device

By Kevin Tomlinson, library consultant 

Idaho Commission for Libraries recently completed the first round of Digital Literacy Updates for Trustees. In these sessions, many of the questions and concerns raised by participants centered on “The Hunt for the Perfect Device.”

The impact of tablets has not turned out to be exactly what manufacturers expected, as consumers have discovered that these devices are good for entertainment, but not really conducive to work or study. The iPad, for instance, was intended to be a mobile storefront, where consumers can part with their money in exchange for movies, music, and games. And tablets perform this function quite well, much to the delight of manufacturers.

Instead of eroding existing demand for notebooks, tablets have created a new—and separate—demand. As the first tablet that consumers really bonded with, the iPad absorbed a portion of consumer budgets that, a few years ago, would have been earmarked for replacing aging notebook computers. Now that the honeymoon period with the iPad is cooling down, Intel continues to launch newer, faster chips, and Microsoft has released Windows 8, both of which are expected to boost demand for notebook computers. Microsoft says that Windows 8 is designed to work especially well with tablets, and time will tell if this is the case.

In the meantime, consumers who have grown accustomed to tablets have also warmed to the idea of a lightweight, very portable device, but they now want these features in a productivity tool. Alas, the tablet is not quite there yet. Consumers are willing to take a chance on tablets because they tend to be small, lightweight, and have few controls that are easy to learn. And—best of all—tablets tend to cost less than notebook computers. The problem is that most tablets do not have much processing capacity or memory, because a mobile storefront does not need those features. And tablets just do not do a satisfactory job of word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, or other productive activities.  At least not yet.

What we learned from our love affair with the tablet is that consumers are pleased with the user-friendliness of tablets, but disappointed by their limited functionality. The result is that people are now purchasing notebook computers to replace their old desktop and laptops, although they are still intrigued by tablets and seem to be looking forward to lighter weight, faster, shinier versions of these handheld devices that serve as movie theater, reference library, e-reader, arcade, and babysitter all rolled into one. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are well aware of this, and are now offering lightweight new HD handheld reading devices that not only let you enjoy the latest Grisham, but also surf the Web, post to Facebook, send and receive e-mail, screen Netflix movies, and listen to your favorite radio program from anywhere in the world as well. But this still does not solve the problem of a productivity tool that is also a good traveling companion. Consumers want enough computing power to get real work done, and in a package that is lightweight and compact. But is that too much to ask?

One solution that is seeing a marked increase in sales is the ultrabook, a very lightweight Windows-based notebook computer with long battery life and a solid state hard drive. Because the solid state hard drive has no moving parts and is very thin, it helps make a small, lightweight computing device possible. In 2008, Apple pioneered this concept with its beautiful-but-expensive MacBook Air, which is thin enough to fit into a manila envelope, weighs a mere 2.96 pounds, and boasts a battery life of up to seven hours. So we know that powerful and lightweight are not an impossible combination. Now that tablets have caught the fancy of consumers, other manufacturers are finally responding to Apple’s MacBook Air with an assortment of lightweight notebook computers, tablets, and convertible hybrids that are designed to be both tablet and notebook. If Microsoft adopts Apple’s model of manufacturing its own computers, using hardware specifically designed to work with its operating system, then we could soon see tablets that are affordable and capable of serving both as portable consumer emporium (something we enjoy using) and productivity tool (something the boss enjoys seeing us use). And don’t forget about Barnes & Noble or Amazon, who may decide to capitalize on our hunger for The Perfect Device by introducing something new and innovative. When there is a demand, someone will eventually figure out a way to meet it. The question is: Who will do it first?

In the meantime, don’t forget that employers will never tire of trying to block out the fun elements of any device they purchase for employee use, so having two tools—one for productivity, and one for entertainment—may not be such a bad thing after all.