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Technology CompaniesAppleWill Apple save the Tablet?

Will Apple save the Tablet?

BusinessWeek asks the question: Will Apple sell people on the Tablet concept? As I’ve blogged before, I think there’s so much Apple tablet talk going on that whatever Apple does or does not do is probably going to boost Tablet PC sales at least for awhile. However, where I think Apple is having tremendous impact is on re-invigorating the slate concept–in other words people are warming to the idea of a handheld or flat-like device that they can optionally or always use a touch keyboard with. The iPhone and iPod Touch have led the way. An Apple tablet, if it happens, will continue in this tradition. This is the part that appears to be making a lasting impression.

Here’s the thing. The original Tablet PC concept that Bill Gates introduced in 2002 was a slate Tablet PC design. Unfortunately, with the market being what it was the slate design for the broader market didn’t have the impact that many people like me expected. You could say it was price. You could say it was the lack of appropriate processors. You could say it was the lack of software. All of these things as well as others have impacted the Tablet PC market and guided it towards the convertible Tablet PC design, which has made it a better notebook, but not taken Tablet PC innovation where I think it could have gone.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been Tablet innovation, look at Motion or TabletKiosk or the NEC LitePad or what Fujitsu’s done in the financial markets or all the adjustments that have been made to the convertible Tablet designs. There are also the UMPCs and now the MIDs. Lots of innovation.

However, nothing has caught on in terms of sales like the iPhone and iPod Touch. That is what is so compelling to manufacturers this time around. That’s why they are listening and experimenting with slate designs again. That’s why just maybe we’ll see phone or media player innovations bubble up to the more general purpose computers. We’ll have to see.

I don’t think the whole story is complete without mentioning Intel’s role in this. Frankly, Intel saved the convertible Tablet PC concept with its Centrino platform. No doubt in my mind. It was an enabling technology bringing together mobility and connectedness. Many companies solidified their Tablet PC designs around Intel’s chipset I don’t think due to any untold behind the scenes pressures, but rather because it was the best engineering balance. The Centrino made a lot of sense when people were focusing on performance and trying to make a great Tablet PC a good notebook.

However, now we’ve all see the GHz speed bumps that chip designers are running into and as own mobile needs increase, we’re rebalancing what makes a good mobile computer–or computers. Up to this point the way to pull this balance off has been to do more of what Apple has been doing–by designing lightweight non-Intel devices. The iPhone and iPod Touch are examples of this.

Duplicating an engineering effort like this isn’t exactly that trivial so my guess it won’t be until Intel steps up with a close to comparable mobile platform to Apple’s that can provide similar battery life, heat budget, and performance. Put all of this together and then I think you’ll see an explosion of slate Tablet devices. So in my mind it’s not just Apple that’s re-invigorating things–although it is demonstrating the market that’s been there all alone–but it’s going to be Intel that provides the enabling hardware.

The question will be whether Microsoft plays a role in this next generation of Tablets. My guess is that with their feet firmly planted in the Tablet PC space that they won’t be running towards it too quickly. They have their markets to serve, Windows to promote, Office to spread the adoption of. These thin devices, whether they be more phone oriented, or media oriented, or book oriented, or display oriented, or photography oriented, or companion oriented, or whatever, challenge the notion of what are the most compelling features of a computing device.

We’ll have to see how this plays out. No doubt touch is now not the terrible thing some people howled about over the years. Neither are slate Tablets without fullsized keyboards. And neither are Kindle-like or iPhone-like reading devices.

The list is growing.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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