The iPad, part computer, part e-reader, part communication platform, is Apple’s latest gadget in a long tradition of innovative devices. Among other things, it is arguably the first tablet computer that actually works for the average user.   I can almost hear the chorus of dissenting readers that will opine that the iPad is by no means the first tablet device, unique or even original. What about the tablet PC from around 2001? Or even before that, Apple’s own Newton device? What about the Kindle? Yes, I agree that there have been many attempts at creating such a device.

Early tablet computers focused mostly on portability and direct input of data using a pen and handwriting recognition software. Pen computers emerged in the 1980’s and were built around handwritten recognition. At the time, this was foreseen as an important future technology. A an example of a device based on this technology is the NestorWriter handwriting recognizer.  Initially, technology observers were enthusiastic. However, enthusiasm for the new technology quickly faded when pen computers did not sell. Pen computers were measured against the more powerful desktop PCs and most users found pen tablets difficult to use since it required the user to train the software.   In particular, handwriting recognition was criticized because of its poor performance – it did not reliably recognize the pen’s strikes and it became a hindrance since typing words with a keyboard was actually faster.

Handwriting recognition never became the “killer ap” that it was once envisioned to become.  The technology’s letdown drove pen computer companies to failure. Momenta is a good example, it closed in 1992 after much hype due to failing to sell its tablets.  By 1995, pen computing had failed in the consumer market, but it lived on in industrial environments. Companies such as WalkAbout, Xplore, and Microslate sold many pen tablets and pen slates mainly for inventory management, militaty  and other niche applications.  Muti-touch screens, such as those found in the iPhone and the iPads, offer a novel and more natural way to interact with a computer. Even software based keyboards have proven a good solution for inputting information into devices in a way that pens never did.

A significant reason why prior attempts at tablet computers failed is that there wasn’t a compelling reason to use one until recently.  The computing world of the past three decades has been, for the most part, one in which interaction with a computing device depended on the keyboard and the mouse attached to a desktop computer and, for most part, this has been sufficient. Throughout the first decade of this 21st century, a convergence of cellular radio communication and other wireless technologies, such as wi-fi, has awaken the general population to the fact that information can be had pervasively.

The first true wireless information devices were the cell phones. By the early 90’s, fiercely competitive telecoms were happy to offer data plans and access to a few websites, a watered down version of the internet,  that could be accessed through the diminutive cell phone screens. Early entrepreneurs tried to sell all kinds of services for cell phones, from ring tones to horoscopes to pornography.  But beyond novelty, none of these applications were very compelling or useful.  For most people, surfing the  watered down web available on a cell phone screen seemed a vastly inferior experience to web surfing on a home computer.

In the middle of the 00’s, specialized tablet computers  used as electronic reading devices  such as Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle, started to appear . These allowed people to read electronic text with a similar experience than a book. This was more in line with the public’s desire to “read” electronic content from a larger, book sized screen rather than the smaller screens of cell phones. The first models still depended on PCs to download the content to be then transferred into the e-readers. This required a certain level of technical sophistication that limited their use especially among the older population that is historically the biggest consumers of books.

Starting in 2007, the e-readers began to incorporate technology to beam electronic books directly into the devices via cellular or wi-fi signals. This was a turning point for the technology because it finally provided compelling reason to use these devices. Now anybody could download content easily and from anywhere, at any time.  The devices became wildly popular and people developed an almost passionate attachment to their devices. Just ask any Kindle user if they like it.

The combination of wireless communication, tablet computing and the internet has actually increased the number of books that people read each year. This is actually  a true turning point in the way humans use and obtain information quite comparable to the invention of the printing press. When in 1440 Guttenberg’s presses started churning copies of the bible and other texts, this gave the common person access to knowledge that had been the domain of a few for centuries. It actually gave a reason for people to learn how to read, since books were now available, and universities to flourish and spread the information, championing humanity into a new golden age of knowledge, starting with the Renaissance and continuing until this day.

Back to the the iPad. When first launched in January, it became the most versatile and powerful digital convergence device, particularly in the consumption of Web, multimedia and informational content. A recent ZDnet.com posting indicated that “The iPad is a non-stop source for consuming updated news feeds, is a phenomenal casual web surfing device, is great for viewing and listening to streamed media” The iPad, is a portable universal content consumption device that far surpasses previous e-Readers. With its web connectivity, books can be linked to multimedia elsewhere in the internet in an endless stream of interconnected information.

When Apple finally revealed the iPad, there had been long speculation about its features and capabilities. Even the name “iPad”, was cause for worldwide betting. Would it have a pen or stylus, as other tablet PC’s? Would it be geared towards businesses or gaming? Would it be more of an iPhone on steroids?  In its present form, the iPad is by no means perfect but it is certainly the best tablet computer, and e-reader, and communication platform so far. It neatly packages key technologies developed during last century, such as wireless communication, micro processing, multi-touch flat screens, data storage, software and the internet, in a very useable device.

Early adopters have complained about the lack of multitasking capabilities, camera, lack of VOIP, limited storage and software compatibilities issues, and more.  All these are sure to be incorporated in later generations.  The iPad materializes the futuristic ultimate communication device as envisioned by A. C Clark in his 1968 novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Clark described a device eerily similar to the iPad that he called the “Newspad”, that allowed instant access to the world’s major electronic newspapaers via a system resembling the present day internet.

“When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.”

Undoubtedly there will be others devices in years to come that will improve on the iPad’s capabilities. This device is a product of technological convergence, making it part of an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary device.   But as the first device in its class, it is a true corner stone.  The iPad makes science fiction into science fact and foreshadows a time when self updating electronic paper finally replaces the cellulosic type and information is truly available everywhere and any time.  The Newspad has arrived, nine years late, and, in many ways, it is the fulfillment of what a personal computer was always supposed to provide – personalized computing free from bulky pieces of hardware and wires that extend human capabilities to a point only dreamt by past generations.

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