Tablet PCs meet toilet PCs

Tablet PC mania is gripping the Net. But whether it's the Apple iPad, Microsoft Courier, or HP Whatever, one device alone won't be enough

You can't stumble around the Internet these days without bumping into it. News, rumor, speculation, and hot gossip about -- no, not David Letterman's love life (who knew he had one?) or the Jon and Kate Gosselin train wreck -- tablet PCs.

Yes, over the last year the PC's buck-toothed, developmentally challenged second cousin from the sticks has become an Internet darling.

[ Back in the realm of real products, Cringely asks: Where oh where is that 8-hour laptop? | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

As the New York Times' Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance so aptly summarize:

Tablets have been around in various forms for two decades, thus far delivering little other than memorable failure. Nonetheless, the new batch of devices has gripped the imagination of tech executives, bloggers and gadget hounds, who are projecting their wildest dreams onto these literal blank slates.

The Times reports Apple has been working on a tablet PC since 2003 -- or about as long as Steve Jobs has been publicly dissing the concept. (Jobs' alleged one-sentence dismissal: "What are these things good for besides surfing the Web on the toilet?")

No matter. Every week brings more "details" about an Apple tablet that Apple claims to know nothing about. A former Newton marketing weasel pro rejoins Apple, and it's yet another sign that the iPad will soon appear, borne aloft by angels next January or possibly February or maybe March.

The mania is hardly restricted to Apple. Last month HP announced the DreamScreen, which is really just a Net-connected digital photo frame on steroids, and bloggers breathlessly embraced it as a new tablet, even though it's a) not portable, b) has no touchscreen or usable input device, and c) what exactly are those guys at VentureBeat and Mashable smoking?

Gizmodo posts an animation of a proto-tablet called the Microsoft Courier and the blogosphere goes b***** crazy. (OK, pop quiz: When's the last time the blogosphere went wild over anything with the word "Microsoft" attached to it? Yeah, I can't think of anything either.)

No less a personage than TechCrunch impresario Michael Arrington, whose ambition appears to be as bottomless as his arrogance, vowed over a year ago to build a "dead simple Web tablet for $200." So far his team has produced several slick-looking prototypes but no actual working models. In fact, it's pretty darned quiet over there in Crunchland lately, considering that Arrington boasted he'd be making a big announcement about this in August.

(This NSFW site claims to have the inside scoop on the allegedly upcoming CrunchPad, but I'm not entirely confident of its sources.)

Why are we suddenly gripped by tablet madness? It's not about the hardware. It's really all about the sci-fi future we've been promised, the ability to log on and get to whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want it. It's about swimming in the Internet like a goldfish in a bowl, so surrounded by connectivity we are oblivious to it.

(Also: What's with the castle with all those bubbles coming out of it? And can we get something else to eat besides those disgusting orange flakes?)

Trouble is, we haven't solved the human problem yet. Nobody has yet made a device big enough to read yet small enough to carry, with a reasonable way of putting information in so we can get useful information out. The iPhone, the Kindle, the netbook -- they're just baby steps, each with its own fatal flaws.

The geekerati look desperately to Apple to solve this, because, well, that's what they do. Nobody else seems to have a grip on how to give people the devices they really want (and some, like the Apple TV, they really don't want). But if Apple can't or won't give them the UberTablet, they'll take it from anyone who can.

Me, I do think people want to surf the Web on the toilet. And in bed and while eating breakfast and, god help us, while driving. But it probably won't be just one device that does all of that.

Here's my prediction: Apple will come out with something tablet-ish next year, but it won't be called a tablet. It will get too much attention for what it does and cost too much. Imitators will rush to market, and they will be largely ignored.

And in a few months or a year we'll be wishing and hoping for the next great gizmo -- one that really solves the human problem.

Are you longing for a Web tablet? If not, what device would really get your attention? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me:

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