postheadericon TECH TALK: The Truth About Tablets

The truth surrounding the recent inclusion of the word “iPad” into our computing lexicon is that the “tablet” as a computing device has been long in the making, and that tablets have a long history as a producible gadget - dating back to the Apple Newton of 1993.

The Newton was a game changer for personal computing, as it was the first device that freed the user from the confines of mouse, a keyboard, and a hierarchal file system where knowing the name of a file meant everything. The Newton also introduced the concept of a stylus (pen-like device) that when pressed on the pressure-sensitive screen, allowed you to draw, drag and drop.

While the Newton never really took off as a product (outside of the small group of ubergeeks that shelled out $1000 USD for one), a competing product from Palm Inc. did. The PalmPilot, introduced in 1996, had a retail price of just a few hundred dollars, ran on two AAA batteries, and synced your calendar, contacts, and address book with your Windows 3.1 PC. The first generation Palms had a monochrome screen and a tiny bit of RAM to hold your precious. But later, with the Palm III and a series of follow-ons, color screens were introduced, RAM increased, and the Palm operating system began to resemble something akin to what we see on every smart phone today: a mini windows-like operating system with internet connectivity.

These PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) where the mainstay for mobile professionals for almost a decade until the rise of the smart phone killed them all off: everyone switched to mobile phones that had all those PDA features built in and more: WiFi, cameras, music & video players, and of course the ability to make a call.

And while all that was taking place in the tech world, Microsoft had it’s own plan brewing for a “tablet PC.” But in this case the tablet released back in the early 2000’s was not the size of a PDA (approximately 4”x7”), but laptop size and weight. The MS tablet PC differed from a traditional laptop by adding a touchscreen, some with stylus and some with just finger touch, and some with keyboards and some without, but none with a phone built in.

PaceBlade is the company that made the tablet PC popular amongst all industrial sectors, while the tablet PC never really caught on fire with the general public. For example, DHL and others use Blade tablets to capture customer signatures and to record and track inventory. All important innovations yes, but flat out boring to any normal human being.

It wasn’t until just this year that Apple’s iPad recharged consumer interest in owning a tablet device other then their smart phone. Apple’s iPad is about 7.5 inches wide by 9.5 inches long (about the size of a small paper notebook) and has a screen that rivals any netbooks. There is no keyboard other then the software kind onboard, and you use your fingers and accompanying gestures to control all aspects of the device (no stylus to eventually loose).

It’s brilliance in design can be counted in numbers sold: about ½ million in just a few months. At $500+ USD per unit, and with numbers that now rival iPod sales, this makes the iPad a winner for Apple - and a revolution in the making for consumers. The upcoming western holiday season will see competing vendors introducing tablets of their own: Samsung with the Galaxy Tab, BlackBerry (RIM) with the PlayBook, and HP with the Slate.

All of these tablets have several things in common: they all do most things that you do on your computer today, as well as most things that you do on your mobile today, except to make traditional phone calls. But with the announcement of Line2, just one of the over ½ billion applications available for Apple devices, you can now use an iPad just like a mobile phone, only you can’t fit the thing in your pocket.

So what we have today are tablets that are bigger then phones, but as small as a netbook, that do a little less then “real” computers, but have the promise to turn everything in the personal computer industry upside down. And surprisingly, India is poised to do just that - by introducing a state-subsidized tablet for just Nrs. 2,500. You read that right, for about $35 USD, India is claiming it will vanquish MIT’s One Laptop Per Child (which runs for $100 USD), with a tablet that does even more for students and homebodies alike.

Now I hear you all snickering, after all, the Tata Mini was supposed to be less then $1000 USD and is now selling for well over $2500 USD, but the Indian Moby Tablet, even if it eventually sells for Rs. 3000 will be some achievement, and will surely change the way all students interact with computers. Heck, the Indian tablet is dressed out with USB ports, video conferencing capabilities, and can also be solar charged. It runs on Google’s Android (just like many of your phones do) and plays Adobe Flash content (read YouTube), which currently the iPad does not.

So the truth about tablets is this: we are all going to see a lot more of them in the months to come, and there are indications that they may become as cheap as those PDAs many of us once had (and that are now decomposing in a drawer somewhere). And even more exciting is that these new devices may become inexpensive enough to actually bring computing down to the poorer parts of the planet, to include our own poverty parking lot here in Nepal.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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