With all the excitement that is building around the forthcoming tablet computers or smartbooks from Apple, Google, Lenovo and others, I was reminded of a chart that Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky once drew for me to explain why Palm succeeded after the Apple Newton failed:
Her theory was that due to the tradeoffs of functionality and size, there were certain form factors that were popular with consumers. Things that fell in between these optimum sizes were doomed to fail. Hence, we will wear a wrist watch and carry a cell phone, but hardly anyone carries a pocket watch. Similarly, devices such as the Apple Newton and numerous tablet computers that have come since were too large to fit in a pocket but not powerful enough to displace the laptop computer.
Some of these categories have shifted over time. Among recent graduates, wristwatches are less popular now that cell phones can tell time, and laptop computers are selling faster than desktops. The PDA category itself seems to be in danger as most of its functions have been absorbed into the cell phone (and the cell phone has grown to the maximum size that will fit in a pocket).
Meanwhile, netbook computers are a rapidly growing category that have redefined the low end of the laptop market, but they didn't catch on until they could run Windows.
So the challenge that Google, Apple, etc. will face is whether people will carry a device that does not fit in their pocket but also doesn't run all of the applications they could run on their laptop. Apple has shown with the iPhone that it is possible to introduce a new, incompatible platform and Google is on the way to doing the same with Android, but will the range of applications these platforms offer be enough to get people to leave their laptops and netbooks at home? We'll probably see a few billion dollars spent before we get the answer to that question. In the meantime, if we get inexpensive, always-connected wireless access across a broad range of devices we'll be better off no matter how the contest is ultimately decided.