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Apple reclaims leadership in tablet computing

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Apple stood up and reclaimed the defacto number 1 position of the tablet generation yesterday. They got the price point absolutely spot on (in US dollars at least). So spot on that Michael Dell's proud display of the Dell 5-inch mini-tablet at Davos the next day is now laughable at double the price.

For years we've lived with tablets that cost about the same or more than laptops. Interesting devices - the Microsoft Origami specification, the Microsoft Tablet specification - just too expensive to be practical as a sofa-ware, or potato-couch-ware device.

The brutally short history of tablet computing

For years, in my opinion, there have been two defining tablet computers:

Unsurprisingly I have both devices (amongst a plethora of touchscreen devices). Well, I actually have 4 Newtons, including the esoteric Newton eMate. And they demonstrate the state of the art for their time - or perhaps bleeding edge concepts.

Wishing for a revised Newton

I used to dream of a re-imaging of the Newton, but I suspect the enmity between John Sculley and Steve Jobs made such a device politically impossible (Jobs famously denigrating the Newton as the "scribbly little thing"). So I turned my attention to the Microsoft concepts. I loved the Origami concept, but the pricing was simply unacceptable.

The Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 came so close. It just needed some modern horse power. One of those in the same sliding thumb keyboard format with an X-Scale or similar processor could have done absolute wonders in that form factor. With an added bonus of being an open and hackable platform.

I had a semi-serious flirtation with the touch screen range of Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook B series. From the 8.7 inch B-110, to my deep personal attachment to the B-2154, but the inevitable conclusion was that touchscreens and laptop clamshells don't work together in a non-table environment.

Apple made a fresh potential promise with the Macbook Air. Remove the keyboard, and that could have been the most beautiful tablet ever. But again, its the price barrier.

The Amazon Kindle looks decent, but unclear what it's capabilities are apart from displaying Amazon purchased ebooks. As a general (albeit transient) computing device, it seems woefully inadequate. And it's most redeeming feature of an online store basically useless for the UK market.

The iPhone reawakened the promise of the Newton, but O2's domination of cutting edge devices and monopolistic contract prices made the idea of owning a mini-tablet device just preposterous. Plus, for me, the iPhone is too small a device to be usable in a casual tablet form. Comfortably-sized text is essential, and that needs room.

The picture frame trinket

There is a strong market for transient computing devices. One of the Christmas gifts I gave my family in 2008 was a 7 inch electronic picture frame.

I distinctly recall a Bill Gates' forward-looking prediction about uploading pictures to a picture frame, and I thought that it was plain silly. Why would anyone waste computer cycles on a stupid picture frame? Just print out the picture and stick it in a proper wooden frame.

Over Christmas 2009 I realised how short-sighted that viewpoint was. Mom loved the picture frame, still using it a year later to cycle round batches of pictures she had imported over the year. My Flickr pictures, pictures from the extended family, pictures of friends, pictures she took over the course of the year. Each one provoking memories and observations.

What was a stupid waste of computer cycles became a talking point, a starting point of conversations about forgotten people, new stories. A better way to bond. Given that I spent three weeks a year with my parents, those three weeks are so precious - a simple picture frame made a positive difference. It added more value beyond being a minor novelty trinket.

Things make sense

Yesterday Apple made a brand new start to the tablet era. They got the price point spot on at under 500 US dollars. They got the size about right at 1024x768 at 9.7 inches. They got the use cases right - of a casual couch-based device, an information grazing device, a reference device. A device that's comfortable being more offline than online. A device that encourages a better relaxation posture than sitting in an office chair with hands chained to the mouse or keyboard.

It also makes sense to base the platform on the iPhone and scale it upwards, rather than take a full operating system and scale it downwards. The Newton was a from-scratch OS, built with revolutionary ideas. Microsoft's similar attempt with Windows CE died because CE sucked badly, and Windows XP never downscaled so became too bulky to power a casual device.

Re-connecting with history

I'm thankful that Steve Jobs has sufficiently exorcised the demons of the past and looked way beyond the Newton. I love the Newton - as retro-technology it is still, almost 20 years later, such a wonderful piece of hardware. And I believe the iPad to be the justified successor to that remarkable device; not content to be standing in the shadows of the giant Newton, but standing unashamedly in the sunlight as a well thought-out and modern implementation of the tablet concept.

Assuredly, I have issues about Apple's sharecropping model for their Apps store. I'm seriously contemplating overlooking those, or perhaps more logically embrace HTML 5 as the open alternative development platform.

I want an iPad.

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