This is a belated post on a topic that was heavily discussed on the web in the first quarter of 2010.

If there is one thing that defines the world of technology in 2010, it would be the rise of the Tablet computer.

My first sighting of the tablet was the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) seen in Star Trek The Next Generation(TNG). It was a device that was introduced in the Star Trek universe in the 22nd century.The PADD functioned as an information access device, subspace transmission detector and a wireless networking device. It also, amongst other things, played media files and recorded audio logs.

Of course, in the real world, there was the Apple Newton, a maligned tablet device which sparked the Personal Digital Assistant(PDA) device category which was later dominated by Palm Inc. These devices formed part of the history of pen computing, which started as early as 1888.

PADD The PADD                                   The Apple Newton

The Tablet PC was a term made popular by Microsoft in 2001 . These devices were  defined as a pen-enabled computer conforming to hardware specifications devised by Microsoft and running a licensed copy of “Windows XP Tablet PC Edition” operating system or a derivative thereof. Most of these devices were modified  laptops with a swivel touch screen which responded to stylus/pressure input (resistive touch screens). This form factor is referred to as the convertible form factor and represented a modification rather a completely fresh product category.

HP Compaq Tablet PC HP-Compaq Tablet PC

Fast forward to 2010, when the expectation meter was high for Apple Computer’s (Apple) “latest” creation. The Hewlett Packard(HP) iSlate was introduced at the Las Vegas consumer electronics show(CES) in January 2010 and a Singaporean start up , Fusion Garage were ready to launch the JooJoo. The story of JooJoo’s inception in itself makes interesting reading but that is, a story for another day.

The iPad, announced on the 27th of January with much hoopla is an interesting turn in the story of the tablet.The iPad, touted by its creators as a revolutionary, magical device is game changer of sorts.This device has reconfigured the tablet product category and has made the intentions of its creators clear. The iPad is a not a standalone device and its functionality is primarily geared towards media consumption in an already established iTunes ecosystem.The iPad needs to be synchronized with a desktop/laptop Mac or PC. Apple, overtime, has developed iTunes  into a massive online music and applications store. The concept  of downloading applications for your mobile device is not new but Apple, through its aesthetically pleasing product design, intuitive software and slick marketing has brought this idea to the non technologically savvy consumer. It’s an attractive package that just works!

Apple iPad

The iPad has raised consumer awareness of tablet computing. The iPad though, isn’t a standalone device many were hoping for. It could have been as slim as the Macbook Air without the keyboard or a machine like the Axiotron Modbook. The iPad shines when it comes to the smooth execution of the iOS (what was referred to as the Mobile Mac OSX) together with a custom user interface developed by Apple and optimized by developers for application and media consumption. The Guardian Eyewitness App is one of many examples of its stellar media consumption applications. Where it falls short is the fact that it is not an standalone device and that it lacks certain features such as multitasking(so far anyway),a built in camera for video conferencing and the lack of Adobe Flash. Apple has made a clear decision on the nature of iPad  and that is their business decision. After all, profit and market dominance are major driving forces for any company.

The tablet computer is the new frontier in computing and whilst the iPad may the most popular tablet device out there, there are alternatives, both in terms of software and hardware.

Software

  • The Android Operating System(OS) developed by Google is moving at tremendous pace and is seen as an alternative to the iOS in smartphones and in tablets.
  • MeeGo is an OS which is a fusion of both Intel’s Moblin OS and Nokia Maemo OS, both of which are variants of the Linux OS. MeeGo will be the mobile OS used in Nokia’s  high end Nseries phones and a MeeGo tablet is on the way.
  • Windows Embedded Compact 7 by Microsoft is an OS optimized for touchscreen devices and adds to their already confusing OS nomenclature.
  • Windows 7 and Windows XP are already on certain tablets in the market right now.

Hardware

  • Fusion Garage’s JooJoo is a internet centric device which uses web based applications rather than native ones.
  • Asus, the company that popularized the netbook product category are preparing the release of the Asus EeePad running on Windows Embedded Compact 7.
  • Lenovo(formerly IBM) has the IdeaPad U1 on their cards which combines a detachable screen to a laptop form factor.
  • Dell has its own set of offerings, the first of which is the Dell Streak. The Streak is a 5 inch tablet cum phone running on the Android OS.
  • Huawei, a Chinese company who provide telecommunication peripherals like 3G modems have released the S7 tablet running on the Android OS.
  • Archos are a French concern who are long time players in producing  mp3/multimedia devices business offer  tablets running on Windows XP and Windows 7.
  • Notion Ink is an Indian startup poised to release their maiden offering called the Adam running on the Android OS.
  • Viliv is a South Korean company with a few Windows 7 based tablets in their product portfolio.

The above lists are merely samplers of what is out there in the tablet computing product category. The most popular form factor appears to be the slate form factor, the iPad being the archetypal device in this category. The other form factors that exist are the convertible (as seen in the HP-Compaq tablet PCs) and the hybrid (the Lenovo IdeaPad U1) form factors. Tablet devices are sure to increase in the years to come.

The battle for the both hardware and software supremacy in the tablet computing world has just begun. Apple has fired the first salvo with a product that is both elegant and intuitive. As to how tablet computing evolves is another issue. Will the consumer favour a standalone device or one that is tethered to another Mac or PC? Apple has shown that an organized and a rich application ecosystem is key to the prolonged success of a product. Other software and hardware manufacturers appear to be heading down the same route. Perhaps the modus operandi of tablet computing has already been decided. Only time will tell.

Apple today, Google tomorrow?

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