CES: It'd be great if we could just go back to calling 'em computers
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's, well... it's a little bit of everything, really. That seems to be a common refrain at CES, with many companies (the ones which aren't selling smartphone cases) introducing hybrid devices that bridge product categories to varying degrees of success.
So many devices are becoming "tablets." All-in-one PCs swivel and turn into monstrous tablets, smartphones continue to get bigger and bigger, and a few tablets have added a few buttons and a couple joysticks to become some unholy mix of the videogame controller and a 10-inch slate. One stroll around the LG, Intel, Samsung, or Sony booths, to name a few, should dispel any doubt that the tablet is the future of computing.
Of course, each of these companies have a different name for these hybrid devices. LG refers to its tablet-slash-laptop as a "Tab-Plus PC," Intel refers to them as "Ultrabook Convertibles," and both Sony and Samsung have their own, instantly-forgotten monikers for the shape-shifters. And that's before you get to the gaming tablets, the gargantuan smartphones the tech press call "phablets," or any of the other "Well, we added a touch-screen, so that makes it a tablet, right?" products on the show floor.
Other companies are building hybrids via software. Canonical is touting its Ubuntu for Android software at its booth, telling visitors about its plan to create an operating system that goes from the phone, to the tablet, the computer, and the television seamlessly and via one device. Microsoft's Windows 8 is out in full effect as well, its colorful tiles and stark aesthetic appearing on all kinds of devices.
Exhibitors aren't the only ones showing the rise of the hybrid, either. A fair amount of attendees are walking around with their iPad minis and at least a few have been using other "phablets" like Samsung's Galaxy Note. Despite the "boos" and chants of "But look how stupid it looks when you hold it against your face!" from the tech press, it seems, people actually like big screens. (The phablet's surprising popularity led Quartz's Christoper Mims to speculate that Apple will release a similar device in the future, a sentiment I agree with.)
Some, like Farhad Manjoo, aren't sold by the concept of hybrids. Manjoo cites pricing concerns, difficulty mastering Windows 8 and its split personalities, and the different specs required by laptops and tablets as some key barriers to these amalgamate devices. Valid points, though eventually the problem shifts from "Why would someone buy this?" to "If this is the device everyone is making, what else would people buy?"
Touch is making its way to all kinds of devices, and since we used the "smart" prefix to describe anything with an Internet connection, "tablet" has had to lend itself to all manner of devices. So the question is, if everything's called a tablet, what does "tablet" mean? Will it simply become a meaningless word like "literally" or "awesome"? If smartphones are getting bigger and many are approaching phablet size, are they all phablets or are they smartphones?
Here's a novel idea: Why don't we just call anything larger than a smartphone a computer? Sure, we're currently at the beginning of a new era of how we interact with our computers, but that doesn't change what they are. Were they re-named after moving from the command line to graphical user interfaces? No? Then what's wrong with keeping the name?
Touch is the future of computing. Hybrids, if the CES show floor and the Samsung Galaxy Note's strong sales are any indicator, will also play a large part in our technological lives. But we can stop trying to come up with new names to describe these things and stick with what we know.