Buying a Tablet Computer?

Are you thinking of buying a tablet computer, like the Apple tablet computer (foretold) or the TechCrunch Crunchpad? Will tablet computers ever be a commercial success? SF fans have been thinking about it for quite a while, thanks to the imaginative efforts of writers to describe the features and uses of such a device. I think that tablet computers could be a commercial success; let me tell you why.

First, take a look at an early fictional version. In his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke describes something called a Newspad. In the novel, Dr. Heywood Floyd is in flight:

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications... The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient...
(Read more about Clarke's Newspad)

Clarke sets forth particular conditions under which the tablet computer is ideal: Floyd is not in his office (he has better computers there) and he is reading, not typing. However, he is interacting with the device; he scans the available stories (Clarke in fact makes a very early reference to the idea of a desktop icon) and selects what he wants. The device does not have a static load of content (like a printed book); it has an ever-changing, constantly updated load of fresh content selected by the user and downloaded effortlessly.

In real life, tablet computers were first in vogue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Building on success with computer handwriting recognition, companies like Toshiba, Compaq, IBM, Samsung and Fujitsu offered tablet computers. The earliest IBM "Thinkpad" was actually a tablet computer.

I looked at many of these systems myself, at the time; they typically used a pen-style interface for writing and picking items from the screen. I declined to make a purchase. (I was obsessed with the Apple Newton, but never bought one.) I thought about them a lot, though.

These machines were commercial failures, at least as far as the typical computer user was concerned; the last pen computer tablets made for consumers came out in 1995. Some people also use the laptops that feature turn-around tablet displays, which have come out since then. However, pure tablet computers have lived on in vertical markets, and it's useful to understand why.

First, they are used as mobile computers; you might be walking through the wards in a hospital, looking in on patients with special patient-management software. Or you might be walking through a warehouse, doing inventory control on a tablet computer with special software. These applications are used on tablet computers today and provide a profitable vertical market approach.

Look carefully at the conditions under which real-life tablet computers have been a success. First, they are mobile computer platforms; people use them outside their office or home. Second, they are using specially prepared content, content that is designed to be used interactively without very much (if any) typing.

In 1995, there wasn't much that ordinary people could do with a tablet computer. The main difference between then and now is that we were using computers to do a lot of data entry, creating documents, and tablet computers were a poor choice. That's perhaps the main reason that tablet computers failed in the PC marketplace.

But guess what? Since 1995, hundreds of millions of people have been working like crazy, creating tens of billions of pages of every kind of content imaginable, all of it carefully linked in a "point-and-click" interface. It's called the "World Wide Web".

Companies like Apple have been creating vast seas of easily downloaded content, all of it properly formatted, with careful attention paid to the easy-to-use interface.

The use of Wi-Fi makes these devices even more irresistible; you'll never be far from the live feeds that made Clarke's Newspad sound so good.

I think that there is a real possibility for consumer success this time around for tablet computers. What do you think?

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/5/2009)

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