Apple tablet vs. everything else: Who will win?

Do you want a tablet computer? I don't think I do. But I'm not sure. Apple might be able to convince me that it's exactly what I need. Next Wednesday, if thousands of rumors can be trusted, Apple will introduce a tablet. There are plenty of imaginative renderings of what the tablet might look like and much speculation about what it will be called. The more important question is what, exactly, will it be for?

Though the details of Apple's tablet are still mysterious, we saw many competing tablets at CES this year. The tablets were similar to the show's other major trend — 3D television — because in both cases, it was far from certain that anyone would want one. Will tablets catch on and become must-have gadgets the way smartphones and laptops have? Will it wipe out another category (say, e-readers)? Here, we break it down — how tablets compare to similar products, and what Apple's new toy will have to do to be a breakthrough product.


Tablets vs. e-readers

Why would you want an e-reader when you could buy a gadget about the same size that could also play movies? Though some believe that the non-backlit nature of E Ink is one of the major advantages of e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, I believe that there's a whole generation of potential tablet-takers out there (I am part of it) that doesn't find backlit screens to be hard on the eyes. Just turn them down a bit, and they're easier to read than a book (and you don't need to be sitting near a lamp). Some e-reader manufacturers are moving in this direction already: For example, this model will have a color OLED screen.

So why get an e-reader instead of a tablet? For now, E Ink's battery life is far superior to any LCD or OLED screen. But more importantly, most e-readers cost less than $300, while Apple's tablet is rumored to cost $800 (and at the very least, $600). Since a tablet offers many more potential uses than an e-reader, it can probably get away with costing a bit more than a Kindle, but a $500 premium seems excessive.

How Apple can kill the competition: A hybrid screen like Pixel Qi's that has all the advantages of E Ink and LCD screens rolled into one would be a game-changer. Also, in order to compete with the buy-a-book-in-seconds-anywhere nature of the Kindle, the tablet will have to have phone-network-based Internet access and not just rely on Wi-Fi, as the JooJoo tablet does.


Tablets vs. laptops and netbooks

Right now, it hardly seems feasible that Apple would introduce a tablet that could outright replace your laptop. I can type on my laptop without looking at the keys. DVICE writers have had trouble with other tablets because they're difficult to type on, without being a whole lot lighter than laptops. Someday, voice-recognition software may replace keyboards, but based on my experience with the latest dictation software (it requires a dedicated headset and typed "choose" as "Jews" last time I used it) that day won't come anytime soon.

On the other hand, a good tablet promises to be just as useful for surfing the Web, watching YouTube videos and writing quick e-mails as any laptop or netbook that you'd have lying around the living room. A lot of the time, all I want to do with my computer is scroll though my favorite blogs using Google reader, and I don't need a keyboard to do that.

How Apple can kill the competition: If tablets can't have keyboards, perhaps the next best thing would be temporary pop-up buttons so users can operate the tablet by touch alone. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a touchscreen that contains hidden latex air bubbles that serve as buttons in some situations and disappear in others.

It seems unlikely that such groundbreaking technology will turn up in Apple's announcement next week, since there's very little indication that it's ready for prime time. But Apple could still surprise everyone by including an area on the tablet for stylus-based handwriting and some amazing new software that would be able to recognize that handwriting without fail.


Tablets vs. smartphones

If you already don't make a lot of calls on your iPhone (and let's be honest, you don't) but love using its App Store, a good tablet could improve on that experience. It will deliver media beautifully. And as long as the tablet gets reliable Internet access, there's no reason you won't be able to use it as a VoIP-based phone as well. Though the tablet may be slightly more expensive than an iPhone, price isn't as much of an issue when the bulk of the price will be made up of monthly fees.

Unfortunately, unlike phones, tablets are too big for the gym.

How Apple can kill the competition: In this case, it's not possible. Pockets aren't going anywhere. If Apple really wanted its tablet to kill the iPhone (and there's no indication that it does), it would make its tablet extremely thin, and able to fold into quarters.


A new decade, a new kind of gadget?

But does Apple's tablet (or any of the new tablets coming out this year, for that matter) even need to compete with all these other gadgets? Perhaps there really is space in the market for a new tech category entirely. The three forms mentioned here — laptops, smartphones, e-readers — already step on each other's toes. You can read books and send e-mails from all three of them, and two let you watch TV and make calls. Yet they sell well separately.

Does the territory covered by this gadget trio leave you wanting, convinced that there must be a better way to consume media at home and around town? Then maybe the tablet can fit your needs. Or maybe the tablet just seems to fit that niche — an idea that sounds good on paper (ha!) — while in practice you'll find that it's not worth the space it's taking up in your backpack.

There's hope that Apple's mystery creation won't just be a toy that's more expensive than an e-reader, larger than a smartphone and less useful than a laptop. But whatever the tablet's particular advantages, Apple will have to make a strong case that its newest gadget isn't just beautiful and imaginative, but useful as well.