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Are tablets the smartphone killer?

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Apple worked on a tablet first but shelved it to make the iPhone
  • iPhone greased the skids for the iPad, which came three years later
  • One answer may be to get a carrier who doesn't cripple tethering devices
  • Samsung's tablet is described as a "complete communications solution"
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(WIRED) -- Gadget Lab editor Dylan Tweney is posing the question: What is the perfect phone to tether an iPad?

Like me, Tweney is an iPhone and iPad owner, and we've been having this discussion offline for months, like Vladimir and Estragon, with about the same results.

He's tired of waiting -- hence the attempt to crowdsource an answer on the off-chance we haven't thought of something.

But the fact that this power user of ... everything, is having issues in his connected life in what has to be the golden age of gadgets and digital tech strikes me as extraordinary.

To be fair, this is something of a convoluted problem exacerbated by the business models of Apple and AT&T, which conspire to require users of iOS devices to pay separately for connectivity on each device. No multidevice discounts. No tethering without an upcharge or without hacking your iPhone in a way that voids your warranty and still isn't for the technologically meek.

But this very new dilemma begs the question: Are we at the dawn of an age in which tablets will become the jewel in your gadget crown, eclipsing the mighty smartphone only a few years into its reign?

There are a couple of truisms at play here. Our brains get wired bit by bit -- you couldn't possibly understand a fax machine without first knowing what a telephone is. And, every advancement creates the conditions for revealing or introducing new problems.

We know, for example, that Apple worked on a tablet first but shelved it to make the iPhone. The iPhone was revolutionary in many ways, but it was not paradigmatic -- there were other feature and smartphones already out there. There were also plenty of stabs at tablets, none of which caught the world's imagination.

But look at what happened. The iPhone greased the skids for the iPad, which came three years later. One of the pitches for the iPad was "you already know how it works."

One of the criticisms was that it was just a bigger iPhone -- or rather iPod, since it is not a mobile phone. And now Apple has re-introduced the MacBook Air, the most moribund device in their portable line that suddenly makes more sense (especially the 11-inch model) as something very much like an iPad, with the "missing" keyboard.

And having both an iPhone and an iPad has exposed the shortcomings of what was once called "the Jesus Phone."

"After six months of semi-regularly using Apple's tablet, I'm growing increasingly disenchanted with even the iPhone 4's high-resolution "retina" display. The thing is just too small to use comfortably," Tweney writes. "The more I read on my iPhone, the more sad and tired I get. Bending my neck to stare at a tiny, smaller-than-index-card-sized glowing screen a foot or so in front of my face makes me feel as if my world has shrunk to the size of a playing card."

One answer may be to get another smartphone, from a carrier who doesn't cripple tethering.

But that is a half measure, meaning that you have (and pay for) lots of duplicate functions. The better answer could be a plain vanilla mobile phone and a connected tablet -- AT&T's business decision to charge a la carte for data plans makes a decision to get what amounts to a Jitterbug much easier.

Sufficiently scaled, the mobile phone industry could devolve in an entirely unexpected way, back to the Stone Age. Calling and data plans are already commodities. Why not handsets?

This isn't just about the iPad. Among the tablets coming out are 7-inch models, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, whose TV ads strongly suggest you would keep it in the same breast pocket where you now keep your phone -- in other words, it is a pocketable, go-to device. And the Tab is humongous compared to Dell's 5-inch Streak.

Of course, Samsung is still marketing smartphones. It's the No. 2 vendor in the world. It launched a new Android-powered Galaxy S model, the Continuum, Monday night.

But even Samsung anticipates this future. Check out the Tab ad. You will see nobody using a mobile phone and you will hear Samsung's tablet described as a "complete communications solution."

I'm not ready to ditch my fancy iPhone. And there are hardly enough tablets out there yet to dent the handset business, even if every single owner dumbed down their phone. But it feels like we are at a turning point where, suddenly, the unthinkable is plausible.

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Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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