Being wrong is one of the perils of prognostication. Early last year I wondered what was so special about the iPad, given its price and features. It is supposed to fit in the gap between mobile phones and notebook PCs, but to me there's not much of a gap to fill there. A phone is small and the ultimate in portability, but inconvenient for data input or high fidelity display. A notebook (or even a netbook) is a pain to lug around, but is much more flexible on the input and display side. A tablet like the iPad has a slightly larger screen, but essentially inherits all the other drawbacks of an iPhone.
My pessimism didn't stop the iPad from becoming wildly successful, though. In my defense, just about everyone underestimated its popularity and potential. Take a look at these numbers for projections and actual sales in 2010. They sold almost 15 million units! Perhaps at least some of those sales have come at the expense of dedicated devices like portable DVD players, Kindles, or GameBoys. Still, that kind of popularity is starting to cut into PC sales, even though PCs far outsell tablets.
Although plenty of people underestimated the tablet, there was one industry visionary who clearly saw the rise of the tablet a decade ago. No, not Steve Jobs, but Bill Gates, who said this at Comdex in 2001: "The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone's office," said Gates. "The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits -- and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
Although his tablet timeline was a bit optimistic, Gates turned out to be spot-on about the popularity of the tablet. Problem is, it wasn't running Microsoft software. Tablets still aren't running Microsoft software today. The iPad essentially has a lock on the actually-shipping-and-available tablet market. Some Android devices are here and more are arriving soon, pushing Microsoft further to the back of the line. Meanwhile, Microsoft expects to have its "real" tablet solution ready with Windows 8, whenever that ships.
Not everyone at Microsoft seems to agree with Bill Gates that tablets are the future. For example, Craig Mundie, global chief research and strategy officer, isn't that optimistic about tablets; he actually sounds a lot like my "what is it good for" of a year ago: "I think there's an important distinction -- and frankly one we didn't jump on at Microsoft fast enough -- between mobile and portable. Mobile is something that you want to use while you're moving, and portable is something that you move and then use. These are going to bump into one another a little bit and so today you can see tablets and pads and other things that are starting to live in the space in between. Personally I don't know whether that space will be a persistent one or not."