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Why Are We In Denial About The Flaws of Tablets?

Publishers are beginning to figure out that an imperfect form factor means tablets aren’t the be-all and end-all.

Users and the iPad are having an extended honeymoon, mostly because it’s so much better than what came before – nothing. But that doesn’t mean the iPad and other tablets that share its form factor are perfect, or even close to it. And these devices’ failure to deliver in certain roles illustrates just how far short of the ideal they are.

The iOS family. Photo: Blake Patterson

The Slow Death of Content Apps

Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin has said it before, and analysts are saying it again: Apple’s attempt to replace magazines with apps and the Newsstand isn’t the sweeping defeat of the web that Wired’s Chris Anderson seemed to imply it would be.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but they can all be summed up like this: Magazine apps combine the worst features of print and online reading. The web offers infinitely more flexibility, findability and customizability of your reading experience. And print offers a package that is a lot more pleasant to hold. The iPad 2 weighs 1.33 pounds (the iPad 3 is even heavier), which is as much as a sizable hardcover book, only all that weight is concentrated into a single unyielding slab.

Personalized Video Is Great – But Only For the Subset Who Need It

Meanwhile, the iPad, like headphones before it, made an entire medium personal. But unlike music, visual entertainments are still for most of us essentially social – i.e., best enjoyed on something other than a 9.7 inch screen. Plus, are we really fooling ourselves into thinking we prefer a small screen held inches from our face to a full-size television or theater experience?

Meanwhile, Smartphones Keep Getting Better

Music, games, video – your phone does those too, and on an ever-larger screen. Best of all, your phone has the ultimate killer app of always being with you. Navigation, photos, a distraction in the queue when you need it – these are not things you’re going to do with a tablet unless you’re particularly dedicated. Even a full-length novel on the retina screen is a surprisingly pleasant experience, given that, like paperbacks of yore, it fits in one hand.

The iPad is Really A Laptop Replacement

For many people who don’t make their living on the computer they use at home, the iPad is a credible laptop replacement. For certain uses it’s an improvement on the PC form factor, but it retains many of its flaws. Comics look amazing on an iPad, but the robust sales of various e-readers indicate that we’d still rather read a book on a distraction-free reflective screen. And all those iPad magazine apps are demonstrably not better than the print experience.

Imagining Something Better

Displays are going to get lighter, processors more nimble per watt and batteries slightly more energy-dense. We’re going to get something vivid and dynamic and flexible and light enough to be a credible replacement for print, and at the same time it might also supplant even more of the tasks we currently perform on both our PCs and our smartphones. But especially when this magical device arrives, are users going to want to put up with the walled gardens of content apps? I think not.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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