The teletabtop: Device convergence in an era of tablets, notebooks and phones

So I’m sitting in the office of a Canadian CIO having a discussion, throughout which he is taking notes on his Apple iPad. I notice, however, he has a RIM BlackBerry PlayBook on the table behind him. I have to raise the question.

“I like this. It does the job,” he says of the iPad. He picks up the PlayBook. “This I’ve just played with and haven’t really touched in months. What does that tell you right there?” The problem comes down to the difficulty to really type on the PlayBook, and more importantly, the wealth of iPad apps versus what’s available on RIM’s store.

“But this is the bigger problem,” he says, putting his BlackBerry on top of both his iPad and his notebook. “What am I supposed to do about all this?”

Indeed. It’s amazing in such an innovative industry that this basic problem never really goes away. We talk about device consolidation, but no one is really doing it. We’re adding different devices for different use case scenarios and trying, where possible, to use one device for a couple of things – always with a usability tradeoff of some kind. And despite the occasional OEM attempt at a convertible or all-in-one machine, it’s never really happened.

I think part of the problem could be a failure to think more freely about what such a device might look like. We picture a tablet that looks kind of like a glorified phone (the PlayBook) or a notebook that converts into a tablet, which included many of the early tablet designs. Perhaps we’re all restricting ourselves to these compromised visions because of the difficulties we imagine around engineering, but the most innovative products are never conceived that way. Innovation is about imagining what people would really like, and then figuring out a way to do it. So what would real device consolidation look like?

This isn’t really a hard question to answer. It would be a device that could not only be used like a phone, laptop or tablet, but would actually look like one depending on the use case scenario. Something that would become large and display-oriented if you needed a sleek tablet, but could be folded up into a handset if all you needed were a phone. Or something that could be extended into a keyboard/display if a laptop made more sense. An amorphous, shape-shifting chameleon that could be converted as easily as folding out a newspaper.

Can’t be done, you say? I’m not so sure. It might be made out of a bendable, stretchable rubber rather than metal or plastic, with a tiny core computer/phone based on the more microscopic circuitry that will likely be developed in less than 10 years. Surface technologies on the market today are already far more flexible than ever before, and miniaturisation is the most likely next step. This is the kind of idea Xerox’s R&D Centres have played with for years, as have Intel, IBM and others.

Right now such a device smacks of science fiction, but so would the iPad and PlayBook 15 years ago. The job of vendors, IT departments and others in the industry is to recognize what people really want rather than pretend the problem doesn’t exist or will go away. What people want is a single device that will look and perform as they need at the time, and not to carry around multiple devices. A teletabtop, in other words. First out of the gate will redefine the personal computing market. Any takers?

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