When Apple released its category-defining iPad in 2010, naysayers derided the device as suited for content consumption, but not creation. "The iPad is not a laptop," wrote David Pogue in The New York Times. "It's not nearly as good for creating stuff."

Over the last three-plus years, that has become the conventional wisdom. The critique has generally been that the iPad and Android tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Google's Nexus 7 offer an excellent user experience for portable content consumption, but they aren't content creation devices.

I think, though, that that characterization is missing something: Tablets empower a different kind of content creation -- one that differs definitively from both PCs and smartphones. As such, tablets are increasingly used as productivity enhancers by workers, who are realizing that tablets don't have to be laptop replacements to generate productivity.

Some people have tried to do just that, of course, and it is possible to go to great lengths to turn a tablet into a proto-laptop. Bluetooth keyboards from Apple, Logitech and Zagg all add touch-typing capabilities. Applications like Apple's iWork, Evernote, QuickOffice HD and Slideshark can fill in the gaps for the absent Microsoft Office. With this configuration of keyboard and apps, some people are even writing novels on iPads.

But surveys of information workers who use tablets for work (86% of whom, it should be noted, used either an iPad or an Android tablet as of Q2, 2013) reveal that tablet users aren't using them the same way they use their laptops. For starters, while 60% of information workers with laptops say they use their laptops three or more hours per day, only 23% of those who have tablets use those devices that much. So laptops remain the workhorse devices for extended computing experiences.

We also asked workers to rate -- on a five-point scale, with five indicating strong agreement -- whether they would prefer to do all of their work on a tablet and get rid of their computers entirely. Only 33% agreed with this notion (with a score of 4 or 5).

Clearly, then, workers who use tablets aren't thinking of them as identical to laptops.

Nonetheless, workers believe that tablets make them more productive across a variety of tasks. A strong majority of workers who use tablets -- 70% -- agree with the statement that "having a tablet makes me more productive."

We also asked a broader universe of information workers -- not limited to tablet users -- whether they felt that tablets and smartphones were good at certain tasks: reading documents, editing documents and creating documents. We found that a slim majority thought tablets were good for reading, while a solid 40% each liked the tablet for editing and creating documents. (See figure below.)

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By comparison, workers rated smartphones much lower on all three measures: 30%, 16% and 16%, respectively.

Why do workers perceive tablets this way? The combination of screen size and hyper-portability means that tablets can be used productively in far more places than laptops, and for more robust applications than smartphones. Workers overwhelmingly limit their PC/laptop usage to their work desks, with taking it home running a distant second. But workers use tablets at nearly identical rates as smartphones in places such as non-desk locations at work, other work or client facilities, at home, in coffee shops and other public places, and while traveling. Adding computing time in new places yields additional worker productivity.

In other words, tablets are hyper-portable devices that workers perceive as productivity-enhancers. They occupy a different niche in workers' lives than PCs or smartphones.

Emerging usage models

Tablets are the locus of a great deal of computing innovation for workforces. At their best, they combine all of the benefits of smartphones (such as location tagging) with more complex, richer displays. One example is Expect Labs' MindMeld application for collaboration. Logging in to the MindMeld application, several colleagues can establish a telepresence. That isn't unique, but the MindMeld application "listens" to the conversation itself, identifying the key topics in a word-cloud style. It then surfaces content (from the Web and private databases) related to the conversation. Participants can interact with that content, which becomes a tangible deliverable of the meeting. The touch-friendly iPad offers workers a user interface that's intimate, efficient and well suited to the collaborative computing experience.

Meanwhile, some user companies are creating customized applications for their workers. Logitech, which employs a large sales force that visits thousands of retail locations, developed a tablet app that improved its business results. Workers use a tablet to take a photo of retail displays (to judge their accuracy and effectiveness) and input information on site about inventory and product trends. The app unites this information with location tagging, which generates big data and insights in the background. These analytics help Logitech identify problems with its channels and products by geography, by display type, by retailer, etc. Ultimately, sales reps' retail visits became more effective as a result of this application.

It's time to put to bed the conventional wisdom that tablets aren't good for content creation. Tablets represent a unique computing model for workers -- one that's distinct from PCs and smartphones.

J.P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving infrastructure and operations professionals.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.