iPad 2, Xoom, TouchPad: The tablet age is upon us.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 14 2011 6:17 PM

The Tablet Age Is Upon Us

Computers are getting smaller, more portable, and more connected than ever. Here's the bad news.

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All of this sounds obvious: I'm describing the iPhone, iPad, and devices like it. But which iPad-like system should you buy—Apple's, Google's, Microsoft's, or somebody else's? Your decision will depend on larger shifts in the tech business: Will developers continue to create apps for this machine? Will the maker of this tablet be able to make deals with enough book publishers and Hollywood labels for me to get "content" on it? Will it allow me to take my apps to another company's tablet? Is this company investing in important technologies—speech recognition, cloud storage, advanced networks? In other words, am I choosing a winner? Or is this platform doomed?

This sort of uncertainty is the hallmark of a platform war. We had to make these calculations when we chose between Blu-ray and HD-DVD or VHS and Betamax. But such decisions are unusual in the modern PC industry, which had taken a remarkable shift toward compatibility. For PC makers, compatible hardware allowed for lower prices, which is why even Apple reaches for standard components—including Intel chips—in its Macs. The Web has also helped impose compatibility. Now that you can store all your data in the cloud, and you can manage everything from your e-mail to your money without downloading anything more than a Web browser, it doesn't really matter what machine you use. I've got a Linux laptop in my kitchen that is just as useful to me as the Windows laptop I was using a couple years ago.

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This doesn't hold true in the tablet world. The Motorola Xoom seems like a pretty nice machine, but I have no idea if developers will create Android versions of the slick apps we have on the iPad. If not, then why should I pay $800 for Motorola's tablet? Or look at the HP TouchPad: Will Netflix work on it? Nobody knows. And even if HP does manage to get such high-profile apps eventually, will programmers still think of Apple as the most important app platform? Apple, though, suffers from the opposite problem—because it severely restricts what developers can do, it risks stifling innovative programs. I waited for months before my iPhone could run Google Voice's app. Do I really want to stick with a company that oversees app development with an iron fist?

I still have hopes that the Web will push the same kind of compatibility on tablets as it has on PCs. As I wrote last month, Amazon could escape Apple's restrictive policies by building a Web-specific Kindle app that made its books compatible with all touch devices. I think that in time, the mobile Web's broad reach and low barriers to entry will win over developers. But those moves toward compatibility won't happen for some time. For at least the next few years, we'll be switching to computers that don't really work with one another. More than a few of us will choose losers—platforms that die and then take our apps with them to the grave. Sure, tomorrow's machines will be fantastic. But switching to them will be rough.

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