Saturday’s launch of the Apple iPad, and the ensuing fanboy circle-jerk, have thrown into the public eye yet another category of device to further muddy the gadget waters. It is by no means the first tablet, nor will it be the last by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s probably the device that’s most widely spread the idea that “hey, tablets exist”.

It’s another category on the increasingly analogue spectrum of communication and computation gadgets. As far as I can tell, we now have:

  • Dumbphones – phones that just call, text and have a web browser for light mobile site use. Most of Nokia and Sony-Ericsson’s output.

  • Low-end PMPs – dedicated media players, such as the iPod nano and classic.

  • High-end PMPs – media players with smartphone OSes, capable of everything a smartphone is except being a phone. iPod Touch, Archos and Cowon players.

  • Smartphones – phones with good browsers and support for user-installed applications. e.g. iPhones, Android & WinMo-powered phones.

  • MIDs – a largely unsuccessful category, pretty much large QWERTY smartphones without a phone radio.

  • Smartbooks – netbooks with less powerful and less battery-hungry processors and smartphone operating systems.

  • Tablets – handheld touchscreen devices with no keyboard, smartphone or laptop OSes.

  • Netbooks – laptops scaled down in size, weight and processing power.

  • Laptops

  • Desktops

Is that too many categories? Probably not, since they all seem to be successful (with the exception of the poor MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices)). But increasingly the job of the gadget-lover is to pick points on this spectrum at which to buy devices.

Too few, and something will have functionality you wish you had. Too many, and you waste money.

I have a smartphone, a netbook and a laptop, and the netbook hardly ever gets used – it’s not fast or comfortable enough for long browsing sessions, and for short ones my phone is always on and much more rarely runs out of battery power.

My first thought is naturally that if my netbook doesn’t get a lot of use, there’s no way a tablet would. But the more I think about it, the more I think one would have a place - if I gave up my smartphone. This is, of course, crazy talk. But I shall explain:

My phone is bad at everything.

That’s not to belittle the the achievements of HTC or Google in creating it – it’s a device that was barely imaginable ten years ago. It’s so close to being able to surf the ‘net, but it just can’t quite handle JavaScript, large pages or Flash sites designed for normal desktop browsers. And it’s taken 10 months to find a ROM for it that, when I receive a phone call, actually lets me answer while it’s ringing, rather than spending the entirety of the 30-second incoming call time trying and failing to load the ‘Phone’ app.

Is the answer to replace smartphone and netbook with dumbphone and tablet? That would resolve the main smartphone problem, providing a good internet experience and a good phone experience by separating the devices. This creates one more problem: as most of what I do with my phone is using the internet, I’d have to carry the tablet around with me all the time. How stupid is that going to look? I guess if the iPad is as popular as Apple hopes, we’ll get ample opportunity to find out over the next year or so.