Why the tablet PC may finally be a big deal

After a decade, computer makers seem to have gotten the formula right.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rise of the FrankenTablet

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has long been an evangelist for tablet PCs, laptops whose screens can be twisted around so that they’re on the outside when closed, instead of face to face with a keyboard. Back in 2001, he predicted that within five years, “the tablet PC will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” While Mr. Gates still uses one as his everyday computer, few others do.

Perhaps ahead of their time, past attempts at tablets have meandered between being too kludgy, too bulky, and too expensive.

But the Web is now abuzz with tittle-tattle that two companies may have finally cracked the formula for an enticing tablet. The new approach? Stop trying to market them as inside-out laptops and instead make them feel like a smart phone’s big brother.

The CrunchPad, developed by the entrepreneurs behind Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch, is basically a Web browser in a box. Resembling a 12-inch iPhone, the entire front of the device is a touch screen. There’s no keyboard, just virtual letter buttons that pop up when needed. There’s no Windows, just a minimal operating system designed only to surf websites. There’s also no official release date or price, just a post in June saying it’s nearing completion and the long-term goal is to sell it for about $200.

The second, more-discussed device is still only a rumor. Several authoritative newspapers and websites have quoted anonymous sources that say an Apple tablet computer is on the horizon. The Financial Times reported that it could hit in September and feature “new services such as interactive booklets and liner notes” as a way to re-invigorate music album sales.

Why all the hullabaloo over tablets now, years after consumers shrugged at the idea? In part, both tablets seem informed by the success of the Amazon Kindle ebook reader; Apple’s iPhone; and small, cheap netbook laptops.

All three admitted right off the bat that they will never replace full computers.

Rather than try, they focused on improving the ways people consume what they love – whether it be music, books, games, or the Internet. They aimed for portability and a price tag that average shoppers could stomach as a secondary device.

If analysts, manufacturers, and “insiders” are correct about the final specs for the CrunchPad and Apple tablet, these new items are Goldilocks devices, snuggling into a spot between PCs and single-function gadgets.

And all the current hype suggests such a machine could be just right for the coming holiday season.

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