Tablet PCs: Can we please calm the hype?

Consumer demand is what you'd see if Ford said it was working on building a car powered by sneezes. It's not what we're seeing for tablet computers, so let's all calm down shall we?

Nate Lanxon Special to CNET News
3 min read

Consumer demand is what you'd see if Ford said it was working on building a car powered by sneezes. It's not what we're seeing for tablet computers.

Let's look back to 2006, when nobody was asking for £200 robot dinosaurs, but Ugobe said it had designed one anyway. People continued not to demand them into 2007, but in oblivious response, Ugobe brought out a robot dinosaur called Pleo.

The modest hype for the useless product quickly drained away. Store shelves were left stocked with expensive mounds of rubbery green drek with legs, which consumers not only didn't need, but for £200 they bloody well didn't want either. In the first half of 2009, Ugobe filed for bankruptcy, pushing dinosaurs into their second extinction in as many epochs.

It's now 2010, and we're seeing tablet computers being hyped as if they're pocket-sized supercomputers powered by global warming itself. They are not. They won't even fit in your pocket, for crying out loud.

The most notable example is the one from Apple -- the iSlate/MacBook Touch/iBlahBlahBlahPad -- which doesn't even officially exist yet. The same goes for Microsoft's alleged dual-display Courier. Then there's the dirt-cheap JooJoo, formerly known as the CrunchPad. It, too, is yet to hit shelves with a real, honest-to-goodness price tag.

And now we've got Freescale saying it's designing a super-cheap one as well, while Hearst says it's been working on making a bendy tablet-cum-ebook reader. Sticking to recent tradition, neither have release dates, and neither have high-street price tags.

All this, despite what I see as zero consumer demand. Sure, there's the dense, niche group of early adopters (myself included) who think they might like one. But no-one in their right mind would call this 'consumer demand', any more than you'd call the pining for the return of Birds Eye's discontinued potato Alphabites consumer demand.

And it's been this way for years. Throughout history we've seen the tech industry toy with the idea of tablet computers. We've seen magazines ask, "Is this the year of the tablet computer?" And for years the answer, as dictated by the collective jangling of consumer wallets and purses, has been, "No. No it is not."

Now we're in a new year, people are once again asking the same, tired question. But this time manufacturers are frantically scrambling to build their own tablets, and the press is scrambling to write about them. Consumers? Meh, they're not doing a whole lot of scrambling. It's leading us to wish everyone would relax the talk about how 2010 is going to be the year of the tablet -- almost all of which don't exist yet -- at least until they do exist.

Even when Apple released the iPhone, it wasn't really until it hit its second generation that it became a global, industry-disrupting smash. So even if Apple unveils a tablet designed by Jehovah himself, and consumer demand not only begins, but explodes, you can bet your bottom dollar/pound/yen that it'll be 2011 that's the year of the tablet, not 2010.

After all, some nutter's bringing Pleo back, so 2010 could end up being the year of the piggin' dinosaur anyway.