This syndicated post originally appeared at No Jitter - Recent posts by Zeus Kerravala.

A tablet is a great, maybe the best, display tool. However, for any of us that don’t just consume information but have to create it, it’s not a great device.

One of the most interesting items at Cisco Live 2011 was, of course, the Cisco Cius tablet. It’s been talked about and shown before at some events, but I think this is the first time so many people had access to be able to touch and play with the device. In addition, most of the support people directing you around the Mandalay Bay event center were using a Cius to look up information and direct people around, making the Cius even more prominent. If Cisco wanted to use Live as a way of showcasing the Cius, they certainly did do a great job of it.

However, despite the hype and popularity of tablets today, the tablet hasn’t really replaced anything, as people still carry laptops and smart phones, so it’s become just something else to lug around. I carry both and I know a lot of other people that do too. So what’s holding tablet computing back from being a viable replacement for laptops? I believe it’s the input interface.

A tablet is a great, maybe the best, display tool. Being able to go through a Power Point and flip the pages using a swipe across the screen is a very natural way of doing things and frankly it looks pretty cool too. However, for any of us that don’t just consume information but have to create it, it’s not a great device. The primary input mechanism for most tablets is a virtualized keyboard displayed on the screen that users have to tap to be able to write anything. I actually have one of the Kingston cases with a built in Bluetooth keyboard, and that works ok, but it does add weight to the tablet and there’s no mouse control, so I’m constantly moving my hands back and forth between the screen to move the mouse pointer and back to the keyboard to type; not very natural.

I saw Blair Pleasant at one of the roundtables using an actual keyboard that was Bluetooth connected to her iPad, but carrying around an external keyboard isn’t the right answer either. I think the problem to date is that we’re trying to apply an input mechanism made for laptops to tablets and they aren’t the same things, and the industry needs to evolve in this area for tablet computing to really take off and start replacing laptops. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and these are some of the ways to improve the input to a tablet to evolve tablet computing:

* Prepopulating information based on user context. The tablet is a mobile device. It has a camera, compass, accelerometer, possibly a GPS and other things. If I need to fill in any fields regarding address or other personal information I should have the option of choosing saved information from my home or work or just populate it with where I currently am based on location information. This would be useful for mapping programs, searching for restaurants, etc. Additionally, you could actually use the camera and facial recognition technology as a way of identifying people. The key is the more that can be prepopulated, the better.

* Using the USB (or other) port for information downloads. I have to give credit for this concept to Tom Puorro from Cisco. He and I were talking about an application built for the Cius where a copier could be connected to the tablet via a USB cable and then diagnostic information moved from a copier to the tablet. A technician or even administrator could then take that information, and upload, e-mail it or process it locally with no manual input. This makes tablets a great diagnostic tool for almost any kind of machinery or networked system.

* Speech enabled input. Speech technology is certainly very interesting. It’s been around for a while but not a lot of people use it. Perhaps it’s because it has been a solution looking for a problem. Do I really need to use speech as an input to a laptop? It might save me a bit of time, but I type fairly fast so the incremental value is small. However, I can’t type nearly as fast on a tablet as I can on my laptop, so the value of speech input to a tablet is higher. Perhaps tablets are the problem that speech input has been looking for since its inception.

* Gesturing technology. This is one of the more interesting emerging areas. Gesturing has become big with gamers using things like the Xbox Kinect to change the way people interface with the game systems. There’s no reason to not expect this technology will eventually make its way to tablets as well. A user could use gesturing technology to answer multiple-choice questions, choose from drop down boxes, etc.

In practice, I don’t think any of these input mechanisms are really any better or worse than the other–they’re different and serve different purposes. I would expect that, over time, they would all be used to change the way people interact with tablets depending on the use case. What’s really exciting is that, even without really any evolution to input, tablets have exploded on the scene. We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with tablet computing. I’m looking forward to the next half decade to see where it goes.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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