On practicality and Apple Tablets


The speculation continues. I see in the comments posted on Engadget that (at least some) people are holding out hope that Apple is going to be releasing a Tablet. This time around people are guessing that it’ll be a 12″ Tablet.

I’ve given up expecting a Tablet from Apple. It’s not that I don’t think they have the perfect market–artists, highly mobile freelancers, writers, and the like. It’s just I think Apple will have its hands full during the transition to the Intel platform. I’ll give them a couple years.

I do believe that Apple is working on a Tablet or something Tablet-like. Given by the recent patent applications we’ve seen we know that Apple is at least thinking about it.

Gather a bunch of engineers and whether you want them to or not, they’ll be thinking about making a Tablet. Why? Because the technology is becoming feasible. This is the key.

Over the years several companies have tried to develop Tablets or slates, but the market timing wasn’t there. The technology wasn’t there–such as good displays or fast enough processors that could last long enough on a battery. And for what there was, the technology was still too expensive. I remember when the first slates were about to be launched in the early 1990s. There was lots of talk about $500 computers you could write on. It didn’t turn out that way. The prices were closer to $2000. Slates weren’t cheaper; they were more expensive. The economics of the hardware wasn’t there. Also, it was a lesson for all of us that smaller, lighter, and just-as-powerful are code words for more expensive. This is a fact. In 15 years it’s still true.

The difference between today and then, though, is huge–in terms of what’s practical. The display technology has much improved. We have color displays that can be viewed at many different angles. LCDs have come prime time in the last couple years. (Although we still need battery-friendly displays that work better outdoors.) We have processors (now dual core) that can churn through data quite nicely. We have WiFi that’s freed us from the long CAT5 tail.

The recipe for success is becoming more complete too. Companies are figuring out how to integrate the ease of touch with the writing precision of active digitizers. And as the Apple patent pointed out earlier attests too, some engineers are thinking about the necessity of selecting multiple points at once on a “touch” display.

And we’re also approaching one more inflection point in the hardware world–WiMAX. This is going to be huge. You can see hints of it already in the EVDO market. It changes the way you think about being connected. It gives you independence. WiFi is nice and has been a key part of the modern Tablet. However, I predict Tablets with integrated long distance wireless broadband is going to attract a new, large pool of Tablet owners.

At last year’s Intel Developer Forum (I think) Paul Otellini predicted the rapid adoption of WiMAX. I talked with some EE friends that have been working for years in the wireless communications industry and without exception they scoffed at this prediction. There objection was one of practicality. Performance would be too low and the cost would be too high. It’s better to be wired, they argued. They almost had me convinced. Until I got my own EVDO.

The first WiFi installation I used was in 1999/2000. We used several Symbol/3-COM access points. It worked well in our little startup because we didn’t have to keep moving wires around. Plus we’d all settled on notebooks rather than desktops so we enjoyed the mobility WiFi gave us. And as the office grew into other offices, we contemplated stringing CAT5 cables through the ceiling to connect the offices, but instead we used the access points. WiFi allowed us to be more flexible. These were only 10 Mb units, so we still used direct Internet connections when we needed to transfer large amounts of data, but the big advantage was we didn”t have to remain connected all the time.

It’s amazing to think how far the WiFi market has come since 1999. It’s everywhere. Almost all of my neighbors use WiFi now. They’re now inexpensive enough, fast enough, WiFi is standard in most notebooks, and it’s simple enough to install. This transition took about six years or so and only a few years since Centrino first came out.

Intel is predicting an even faster adoption of WiMAX. I bet the Tablet world will transition even faster. It makes sense. WiMAX isn’t about making the “last mile” wireless. It’s about giving you the freedom to be connected wherever there is wireless connectivity–which is spreading rapidly.

This freedom is what Tablets are all about.

Other solutions may present themselves as newer technologies, such as WiMAX and newer display technologies, come of age, but at least for now, finally, we can say Tablets are practical computers.

That being said, I’m ready for a pocket sized device that folds out into a book-sized display for reading and writing or just as easily stands up on a table ready to project 3D holographic images if desired. 🙂