Why Apple's rumored iTablet will fail big time

Clever engineering still can't overcome these fundamental limitations of tablet computing

Tablet PCs suck. They're underpowered, only marginally portable, and awkward to use in anything but a traditional seated position, with a desk to support them. Microsoft and its cadre of hardware partners have been trying for years to create a compelling tablet computing experience -- and consistently failed. Yet this year, persistent rumors of an Apple tablet -- an "iTablet" -- created a real buzz. But to believe that Apple can somehow succeed where all others have failed is to ignore some fundamental realities of tablet computing.

Reality No. 1: The lap doesn't work as a desk
Have you ever tried filling out a paper questionnaire on a moving train? Even with a clipboard, the mechanics are anything but graceful. With each lurch or bump you risk missing the mark. At best you end up with illegible chicken scratch; at worst, you put the pen right through the paper. It's a real mess.

[ Stay up on tech news and reviews from your smartphone at infoworldmobile.com. | Get the best iPhone apps for pros with our business iPhone apps finder. | See which smartphone is right for you in our mobile "deathmatch" calculator. ]

Now imagine this same scenario with the iTablet. You're trying to enter an e-mail address or a URL using a nifty onscreen keypad. Each time you aim for the "R" key you end up hitting "T" instead. Then, just as you go to touch the Send button, you slip and hit Cancel -- or worse.

Contrast this with a typical small laptop or netbook, where the combination of your lap and palms acts as stabilizing influences. Add the surety of a traditional keyboard -- for typing, navigating, and so on -- and this "lapdesk" modus operandi gives the clamshell form factor a distinct advantage when operating in raucous mobile environments.

And don't think that your iPhone skills will somehow map over to the larger, clipboard-style implementation of the iTablet. There's a big difference between interacting with a handheld device that fits snuggly in the palm of your hand and a book-sized device that rests awkwardly in the crook of your elbow (or jammed, tray-like, into your abdomen).

Reality No. 2: Typing is much faster than writing
I don't know about you, but I type a heck of a lot faster than I write with pen and paper, and given the prevalence of text messaging, word processing, and similarly keyboard-centric technologies, I'm guessing I'm not alone in this sentiment. For many of us, the act of scribbling with a traditional writing instrument seems almost anachronistic.

So given our preference for typing, why would anyone want to go back to the prehistoric world of dragging and scratching? Sure, the various touch-centric navigation gimmicks of an iTablet would be fun for a while. But when it came time to enter data -- to type a long e-mail message or edit a complex document -- the limitations of the tablet form factor (onscreen keyboards or stylus, plus handwriting recognition) would begin to grate on even the most die-hard touchscreen aficionados.

It's no secret that the first peripheral to appear for many popular touch-only handheld device categories is an external keyboard. Adding such a kludgy option to an otherwise sleek piece of Apple engineering would no doubt ruin the whole iHalo effect -- you know, that hip, white-on-white, earbuds-displayed-prominently-for-all-to-see look that seems to lure so many of the beautiful people into the Apple Reality Distortion Field. An external keyboard? Dangling from your iTablet like some weird appendage? I just can't see it happening.

Reality No. 3: The netbook conundrum
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to iTablet success is the netbook. Lightweight and sleek, today's units have all of the advantages of a notebook PC -- including nearly full-sized keyboards -- and none of the disadvantages. Compared to an iTablet, netbooks simply make more sense for how the vast majority of users think and work. And that, more than anything, will decide the iTablet's fate.

Unless Apple pulls something truly revolutionary out of its hat, the iTablet will become yet another footnote in the sad, miserable history of tablet computing.

This article, "Why Apple's rumored iTablet will fail big time," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments on Apple, netbooks, and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.