When I visited the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there was a lot of excitement about tablet PCs. In fact, the New York Times has declared 2010 the Year of the Tablet.

Although there is much current hype, tablets have actually been around for 20 years or more, adopted in vertical industries such as healthcare, field service and construction.

You can draw a direct line from the Gridpad and other pen computers in the 90′s to what we are seeing now. Conrad Blickenstorfer did a great summary on tablets, Tablet PCs: Learning from the Past, featured in Information Week.

One of the challenges for both users and manufacturers of tablets is that the term is broadening so much that it has lost a specific meaning. Industry insiders have a number of criteria that they use to determine what category a mobile product fits into (Operating system, screen size, CPU, etc.), but these are all pretty arbitrary and not really helpful to the user.

It is similar to the debate we used to have around notebooks versus laptops – they were supposed to be different products based on size but now consumers use the term interchangeably.

We are seeing a similar pattern in tablets with the introduction of so many new products. To most people, a Kindle is a tablet or a slate computer. The Apple iPad is also a tablet, although it is very different from the Kindle. HP also announced a new notebook at CES with a swivel hinge and a touchscreen that is categorised as a tablet PC.

From my perspective, it is more useful to look at how people use the devices rather than the technology inside. One of the interesting recent trends in tablets is that many of them are purpose-built rather than general purpose.

By purpose-built I mean form follows function. An E-book like the Kindle is a great example. The device is built around the display, chosen because it provides a very readable black and white experience, great battery life and an affordable price. For me, the purpose-built form is one that allows people to access information and input data while walking or standing.

I call this point of service computing. I believe this trend continues with the launch of the Apple iPad. It is optimised for content consumption – watching videos, reading digital magazines (with lots of pictures, etc.). Regardless, the buzz in the tablet market is interesting and I’m excited with Apple’s launch. While different from my company’s industrial, rugged purposed-built devices, it will be interesting to see how consumers adopt the new device.