Tablets: Sought by Nobody, Hyped by Everybody

Ah, the tablet computer. For over two decades now have companies tried to get the public to buy the darn things, and yet, despite all the efforts, promises, analysts, and even personal involvement by Bill Gates, they simply never took off. Recently, the tablet has seen renewed attention – but will they succeed now?

The history of the tablet computer is remarkably long, actually – longer than you would expect for a product nobody wants to have. The concept of capturing handwriting electronically goes back to a patent from 1888 (!) related to the telegraph. Several developments in this area took place after that, with the first occurrence of a pen-style input device replacing a keyboard taking place in 1956, the Stylator tablet. A more well-known tablet input device is the RAND tablet, from 1964.

That’s all well and fine, but we want to know about the first, actual tablet computer: a portable device which uses a touch screen for all its input. Enter the GRiDpad, released in 1989. The specifications are actually quite impressive:

It ran on a 386SL 20MHz processor with a 80387SX coprocessor with 20MB RAM and 40, 60, 80 or 120MB hard drive. It had a 10″ diagonal backlit VGA display with 32 gray scales. There was a built in PCMCIA card slot, an internal fax/modem card, a floppy drive port and a standard keyboard port. Operating time was about 3 hours on NiCad battery pack.

After GRiD, the market was flooded with concepts and designs for tablet computers, including the PenPoint operating system from GO, which prompted Microsoft to release Windows for Pen Computing, a set of tools for tablet PCs for Windows 3.x and later Windows 95. In 2001 came Bill Gates’ big words on tablet computing; he stated that within five years, it would be the most popular form factor for computers in America. We all know how that turned out.

In the meantime, Apple originally intended the Newton to be a tablet-style computer, but during its development, it turned into a PDA. Apple has never released a tablet computer, but the company has been working on the concept for years now, according to a very interesting article on tablet computing in The New York Times. It even produced a concept model with a PowerPC chip in 2003, but its battery was drained far too quickly.

“It couldn’t be built. The battery life wasn’t long enough, the graphics performance was not enough to do anything and the components themselves cost more than $500,” said Joshua A. Strickon, a former Apple engineer whose name can be found on many of Apple’s multitouch patents. Additional concepts kept getting shelved at Apple, because, according to another former Apple engineer, Steve Jobs kept asking, “in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom”.

Rumours are abound about Apple releasing a tablet somewhere early next year. “I can imagine something like the iPhone with a much bigger screen being a gorgeous device with great capacity, but I don’t know where I would fit that into my life,” a former Apple executive told the NYT, who declined to be named because of Apple’s secrecy policies, but who anticipates an Apple tablet next year, “Those are the debates that have been happening inside Apple for quite some time.”

It’s a very valid question to ask. Why would people want a tablet? Many often reply – people didn’t know why they needed an iPhone or an iPod either, now, did they? However, that’s not a valid reply. Both the iPod and the iPhone, while being really good products, were rather safe bets: the portable music market, as well as the mobile phone market, were already huge before the iPhone and the iPod. People knew they wanted small portable audio players long before the iPod. People knew they wanted well-designed, easy-to-use cell phones long before the iPhone.

But what about the tablet? For all intents and purposes, there is no consumer tablet market. There are specialised areas which they serve, but that’s it. I think that there might be a very good reason why this is the case – and why it may remain so for a long time to come.

Computing is about the web. The tablet, too, will be about the web. The web has changed. It’s no longer a place for mere viewing – it has become a place for participating. The modern web is about posting on your blog, making comments on websites, engaging in social communities which require data input.

On-screen keyboards are acceptable – after training – for small amounts of data input. A URL here, a text message there, maybe even a short email. But is the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard something you could use on a larger display to fulfil all your web needs?

Here’s an experiment. Grab a sheet of A4 paper, and fold it across its width, and hold it in your hands. This is roughly the size of the rumoured Apple tablet, as well as that of various other company’s efforts. Now, try holding it in one hand, and typing on the “screen” with the other. Or, try the two-thumbs approach, every now and then using an index finger to do some control gestures on the screen.

Is this something you’d want to spend 700-800E on, when a perfectly fine MacBook or netbook is probably lying next to you on the couch anyway (you are a geek, right?)?

I think Jobs’ original complaint still stands. What is a tablet good for, besides surfing the web in the bathroom?


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