Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes often begins his TV segments on American life with a question. He and I aren’t of the same generation, but I can’t help invoking a little Rooneyism on the hottest consumer electronics craze.

Where did all these tablet computers suddenly come from?

I asked myself this after looking at our photo essay of the latest and greatest gadgetry from the Consumer Electronics Show, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to Las Vegas annually. Based on what my colleague Chad Vander Veen saw there in January, touchscreen technology, it seems, has finally become mainstream.

The public’s enthusiasm for the Apple iPad, and what soon will become a flood of imitators, is sure to profoundly change how government does business internally and how services are delivered to citizens. Here are two quick points.

First, I wonder if a touchscreen tablet computer will someday — maybe in the next 10 years — become the primary workstation for rank-and-file government employees. Perhaps an iPad-like device will be plugged into a zero client at the office or from home, affording government agencies a cheaper, more flexible and more mobile platform than what’s used today. Such advantages, of course, would come with their own problems: As it stands today, most government agencies would be ill-equipped to lock down the mobile devices of a big work force.

Second, I have a hunch that electronics companies have found in the iPad a form factor that will resonate with the public over the long term. The device is small enough to comfortably carry, but big enough for tasks like reading books and word processing that some users find cumbersome on a smartphone. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that iPads are the device for the next decade. Governments must build the capacity to deliver services on them. There really will be no other choice.

In isolated instances, governments already are putting touchscreen computers in the hands of city council members and building inspectors, and installing them in police cars and public libraries. The public sector today views these implementations as experimental. But the day is coming, sooner rather than later, when a tablet computer will be in a majority of American homes, and in a majority of government cubicles.

Get ready. You don’t want your government agency to be left asking the question, “Why weren’t we prepared when tablets replaced the PC?”

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor