Tablet Fever: How Apple Could Go Where No Computer Maker Has Gone Before

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highly accurate voice recognition—but tablet PCs have had none of these to date. On the output/display side, pen and gesture-based interfaces allow users to interact with data in all sorts of interesting new ways, yet Microsoft never fully explored these possibilities, settling instead for an operating system (Windows) that had been designed for use with a mouse. Above all, there’s the cost issue: most tablet PCs have been priced in the same league with premium laptops, which is a real show-stopper, given that most tablets are less powerful and harder to use than standard PCs.

Second, there is now strong proof that the input/output problems plaguing tablets in the past can be solved. That proof is the iPhone. The phone’s virtual keyboard works well, at least for entering short stretches of text such as search keywords, Tweets, or brief e-mails. The device supports high-accuracy voice recognition, as apps from companies like Google and Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo demonstrate. And most importantly, Apple has finally figured out what touchscreens are really good for. The iPhone OS was designed from the ground up to support now-familiar gestures like flicking with one finger to move content around the screen or spreading and pinching with two fingers to zoom in or out on a photo or web page. Apple’s Cocoa Touch application programming interface makes it easy for developers to build apps around such gestures.

These developers have built so many amazing iPhone apps (with some of the coolest ones coming, ironically, from Microsoft—witness Photosynth and Seadragon) that you can’t help salivating over what they might create if they had more screen real estate to work with. (An iSlate with a 10.5-inch screen would have seven times as much touchable surface area as the iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen, according to calculations by Apple news site iLounge.) As Blickenstorfer opined to the New York Times, “The sole reason for the renewed interest [in tablet computing] is that with the iPhone, Apple has shown that touch can work elegantly, effortlessly and beautifully.”

But I believe there’s also a third force at work here, separate from all of the specific workings of tablet interfaces. The astonishing versatility of the iPhone—which is a cell phone, a media player, a Web terminal, an e-mail and instant messaging device, a camera, a GPS navigator, an e-reader, an audio recorder, a game pad, a remote control, a drawing pad, and much more—has awakened consumers to the idea that a computer that goes out into the world with you can be much more powerful than a computer that just sits on your lap or on your desk, even if it doesn’t pack quite as many gigahertz of processing speed or megabits per second of connectivity.

The big picture is that the applications of computing have gone way beyond basic number-crunching to encompass everyday communications—including both data presentation (e.g., YouTube) and data capture and manipulation (e.g., camera phones). A device that you can take with you everywhere, and that can both supply you with content on demand and help you create and publish new content, can be a huge boon to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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