“O’ brave new world that has such (Playbooks) in’t!” – Miranda, ‘The Tempest’, sort of.

2011 is going to be the Year of the Tablet. What does that mean to you and me? Personally, I thought 2009 was the Year of the Tablet. It was for me personally because that was the year I bought my Fuji tablet notebook which by the way, I still love and use almost every day.

What are tablets? What are they for?

I have a client who is a high-end network nerd type. One of his pet peeves is that people are buying tablets, myself included, without really having a use for it. Is it an e-book reader on steroids, an overgrown digital picture frame, oversized DS or a handicapped, low power laptop? A tablet doesn’t really have an operating system for programs or hard drive. It has a few gigs of memory and a platform for apps. It is closer to a large smart phone than a small laptop.

What makes the tablet so appealing is its simplicity and convenience. Because it doesn’t have an operating system to learn it is far easier to pick up and just start using. Its size makes it far handier to move around than lugging even the smallest laptop computer. The appeal is enhanced by the fact that most of us are primates when it comes to technological needs. Using one of today’s sophisticated, over-engineered laptops just to read junk e-mail, watch kitten videos on YouTube and tweet about your grilled cheese lunch is like using a bazooka and rocket fuel to light your BBQ.

It gets the job done, but it’s a hassle to set up and far more than we actually need. Plus, it can be a real pain if something goes wrong.

Tablets are still in their infancy. Right now, they are used primarily as consumption devices. People use them to passively read, watch, listen, play and explore. The focus currently is on the “consumer” in the literal sense of that word, one who consumes. Going forward, we are just now starting to see the potential of how they could be used in the future.

My belief is that they will soon completely replace laptops. You can already buy cases with built-in keyboards to turn the tablet into the screen of a mini notebook. The difference though, is that unlike current laptops which have a relatively standard configuration, future tablets will be customized to the specific needs of the owner. For example, the 12 things you do on your tablet may not be anything close to the 12 things someone else does. Aside of course, from Angry Birds which it seems by law everyone must have on their tablet, at least the freebie version.

Which tablet should I choose?

There are dozens of models on the market ranging in price from $90 to nearly $900. Interestingly, both the $90 tablet and the $900 tablet are Android-based. However, for the average advisor the choice of tablet comes down to three main tablet choices.

#1. The Apple iPad

The iPad, technically the iPad2, has by far the largest market share. This second-generation device is to tablets what Kleenex is to tissues. The latest version has been updated with more power, better hardware and extras like two cameras – one on the front and one on the back to enable people to host video chats. Most significantly, it is backed up with half a million different iPhone and iPad apps. In addition, there have been hundreds of different accessories, covers, stands and gadgets designed for use with the iPad. It comes in six different flavors, three with WiFi & 3G connection and three with WiFi only.

#2. Android (Motorola, Samsung, Sony, Amazon, Dell, LG, HTC)

The Android tablets have the widest range of features and differences. This is because each hardware manufacturer that uses the Android operating system adds their tweaks, customizations and emphasis in an effort to be distinctive. However, there are two operating systems currently in use in the Android arena. Many of the existing tablets run Android 2.1 or 2.2. The other broad distinction is in size the tablets come either in a 7 inch or 10 inch form. The most well-known and Android tablet currently available is the 7 inch Samsung galaxy. There is however a whole new generation of tablets now running the new 3.0 Android tablet-specific software. There are very few applications designed specifically for the tablet just yet. However, like the Apple, Android tablets can tap into the hundreds of thousands of apps available for the Android phones though users have reported mixed success running these on their tablets.

#3. Blackberry Playbook

The newest and most distinctive of the recent tablets, the Playbook represents a huge change in Blackberry devices. The operating system is new and from the firm QNX, that RIM bought. This has allowed RIM to create a completely different, next-generation operating system that is fast and unique.

There currently is no backwards compatibility with existing Blackberry apps. There are many new apps appearing in the Blackberry Playbook World every day but there has not been time yet to develop mature apps that fully utilize the new operating system. RIM, going forward, will be producing its next generation of phones using the same system and, in the nearer term, will be adding additional features in the next few months.

The Playbook is currently only available in a 7 inch model. The most interesting aspect of the Playbook is its Bridge software. While still not functioning as smoothly as it should, this software has been designed to link securely and specifically with existing Blackberry phones and provides two benefits. First, it allows the Blackberry phone user a much larger screen to handle the e-mails, tasks, contacts and websites he has on his existing phone. Secondly, more sneakily, it allows the user to get the Playbook online through the phone’s data plan without paying a tethering surcharge. That could be a cost saving that would be substantial for a large company.

Which tablet should I buy?

As much as I love and am amazed by my new Nexus Android phone, I do not believe current Android tablets have enough distinctiveness to make them worth considering at this point. Two exceptions to this may be the newest Sony S2 which has dual screens -and built-in support for the new PlayStation apps just don’t give them your credit card info at present – and the funky but expensive Motorola Atrix which is actually a phone but allows you to spend even more money for a docking station that turns the phone into the brains of a laptop device.

The one other way to play this would be to do what I did initially and buy a cheap no-name Android tablet to begin to experiment. They are available for just over $100 but, mine at least, created several challenges for me. Specifically, I could not download apps from the Android market for whatever reason so I have to find alternative places to download apps. Then the very low end hardware meant most programs ran slowly or not at all. That being said, it still allowed me to read e-mail, go online, play some games and even read e-books from Indigo/Chapters.

Assuming you have more of a life than I do, your choices really come down to either the iPad or the Playbook. This means you choose between a second-edition device with a larger screen and hundreds of thousands of app choices and accessories but browser limitations or a next-generation device with a smaller screen making it more portable, a more powerful operating system, better cameras that can link directly to your Blackberry phone and an incredible web browser but almost no apps.

There is a strong case to be made for either but after watching my Test Subject – I mean, my wife – play with both, I would recommend you buy the Apple iPad2.

As you know, I am a huge fan of my Blackberry phone and I can appreciate both the hardware goodness inside the Playbook and see the potential of what is going to be available for the Playbook in the coming months. I LOVE the finger swipe methodology for handling the multi-tasking and watching Showcase’s ‘The Borgias’ in bed. And I honestly have found three or four excellent games to waste time on. Plus, both can be used with Bluetooth keyboards to be turned into mini (or micro) laptops for web browsing and word processing.

However, unlike the phones that I view as primarily single purpose communication devices, the tablets are generic platforms whose main strength ARE how they can be customised to be precisely what the user needs. There are simply not enough Playbooks apps currently in place for this customization to be effective with the RIM device. The most cost effective and most flexible choice is the iPad.

How can I get started on my tablet?

I approach this question from the point of view of a financial advisor, primarily. Here is my list of what I believe an advisor will find most useful in a tablet to get started.

  • Read/write e-mail
  • Browse/share websites
  • Manager your schedule
  • Create/Display presentations
  • Access/Edit/Create/Send documents, spreadsheets
  • Review Resource Material, such as PDFs, books, magazines etc
  • Play games – don’t pretend you won’t

There is alot of spillover area between the smartphone, the tablet and the laptop/desktop. And that’s a good thing. Being able to create a document or presentation at the office, work on it at home on your laptop and then present it to a client in his office or over lunch is a blessing. Not that you have to do that but now you have the choice.

Of course, without a Bluetooth keyboard, creating extensive documents on the tablet itself is going to be a magnum opus of slow, frustrating pecks, taps and backspacing. Having to go into one program, then close it down and go into another and then close it down and then go back to the original program would wear on my patience pretty quickly – which is another reason I hold out great hope for the future of the multi-tasking Playbook.

The hardware/operating shortcomings of the Apple machine itself are more than compensated for the increasing comprehensive nature of many of the core apps offered by the developers. Many have learned to counter the tablet’s limitations by linking to each other independent of the OS.

Looking Ahead

Over the next year I expect the software situation on the Playbook to improve dramatically. The addition of Java, Blackberry 6 and Android apps to the app store will greatly expand the range of options (and therefore customization) available. Hopefully the Bridge software will be expanded to offer improved connectivity and less ‘fussiness’ as well as the Blackberry Messenger. Of course, Apple will continue to be a powerhouse of the product type and will app developers will continue to pump out slick apps for its system.

Further, Microsoft, HP, Nokia and a few others have yet to really throw their hats in the ring yet so as these companies also begin to introduce products, services and innovations there will be more choices and options. As the laptop market disintegrates like the ice caps, these giant tech polar bears will be forced to offer tablets to survive.

My prediction is eventually the Android OS, supported by the hardware companies mentioned above, will dominate any single company manufacturer such as Apple or RIM. And with that will come further innovations and specializations, choices and most importantly, new uses for tablets.

And that is a key point. We as end users have yet to really determine the best and most efficient use of tablets as distinct from a desk top or laptop computer. The potential ‘best practice’ uses based on the unit’s portability, touch screen, wifi connection and cloud storage have not really been explored yet, let alone been integrated into our working and personal lives.

And as tablets move from luxurious novelty items to essential life equipment, shortcomings like the lack of apps for the Playbook, the lack of multi-tasking and extra controls for the iPad and the lack of consistency in the Android tablets will all slowly be resolved and evolved.

So, leap in, make a choice, dig into some apps and pay attention to what you do now and what could possibly be done more easily on a tablet. AND accept that just like your car, computer, house and possibly spouse, you will continually need to refine and upgrade every few years.