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

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personal learning and creativity. It can make you into a universal student, an expert navigator, a 24/7 social networker, or a walking video/podcasting studio.

But today’s tablet PCs aren’t really portable enough to take everywhere. Most of them are laptop-sized and weigh several pounds at a minimum. And the iPhone, as smart as it is, is still just a phone. The small size of its screen limits the amount of data that you can see or manipulate at any one time.

We need something in between: a device that is small and light enough to take anywhere, but has a screen big enough to let you edit a complex video, watch a high-definition movie, view a whole book or magazine page, or paint on a virtual canvas—and, ideally, use multiple applications at once.

Right now, that sweet spot is still empty. It’s as if there’s a black hole there, exerting a huge gravitational pull on our imaginations. And that’s the hole where consumers hope the Apple iSlate will fit.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a brief closing detour into the world of that key cultural touchstone, Star Trek. On the U.S.S. Enterprise, there are only three kinds of computing devices. On the big end of the size scale, there’s the ship’s computer, which has a huge, immobile core hidden somewhere deep inside the vessel, and which interacts with crew members primarily through spoken conversation. On the other end, there are the mobile devices: tricorders—scientific sensing-recording devices used mainly on away missions—and PADDs or “personal access display devices,” used aboard ship as portable reading devices or clipboards. Captain Picard’s desk, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was usually cluttered with several of these gadgets.

You don’t see anything in between these extremes: no desktops PCs, no laptops. I think that’s because the Star Trek writers were on to something important—a truth that’s only now becoming evident in real life. (Chalk up one more accurate prediction to Roddenberry and company.) It’s that big, important number-crunching jobs like aiming the photon torpedoes or predicting the weather on Titan are best assigned to invisible, far-away computing resources: the ship’s computer, or what we call “the cloud” in today’s world. More personal communications tasks, like reading the crew manifest or composing an e-mail to Starfleet or editing a photo from your shore leave on Rigel, take far less computing power and can be handled locally, on mobile devices.

In our world, the number of jobs that can’t be accomplished in one of these two ways—in other words, the number of tasks where you truly need a desktop or a laptop PC—is rapidly dwindling. I’ve been an iPhone convert since the beginning because I see the device as a step toward the universal mobile computing device—part tricorder, part PADD—that I think most people will be carrying around (and using as their main computer) a decade or two from now. Unless all of the prognosticators are wrong, the iSlate will be even closer to this vision.

At this point, of course, it’s easy to project almost any hope or dream you want onto the rumored Apple project. As John Murrell pointed out at SiliconValley.com this week, the Apple tablet is “still unseen and therefore perfect,” while other entries in the tablet category—such as the Windows 7-powered Hewlett-Packard slate that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show on Wednesday—must contend with the harsh light of reality. But we only have to wait a few more weeks to find out what the future really looks like to Apple.

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

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