Apple iPad: The End of Tablets As We Know Them?

By Jonathan Spira on 3 April 2010
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The launch of the Apple iPad today has many proclaiming this moment to be akin to the information revolution sparked by Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical movable type.  As an author of multiple books and articles, I agree that the advent of the iPad is significant, but not in the way most people are viewing it.

Look at an important (and related) parallel: the move from analog to digital photography. Similar to the eBook reader, where the opening salvos were launched by Sony in 1990 (the Sony Data Discman) and 1991 (the Sony Bookman), photography’s electronic age was also launched by Sony (back in 1981) with a product that never hit the market, the Mavica (MAgnetic VIdeo CAmera). (Three years later, Canon introduced the first commercially-available electronic camera, the RC-701, at the Los Angeles Olympics.)

Pundits at the time proclaimed the end of photography without stopping to look at both the definition of photography (“light picture”) and the opportunities that electronic and eventually digital photography would give the medium.

Today, more photographs than ever are taken and high-quality, high-resolution casual snapshots can be shared from one’s mobile phone in seconds.

Change is inevitable. I’m quite certain that scroll makers were rather upset when the codex appeared in ancient Rome but the advantages of portability, compactness, sturdiness, ease of use, and lower cost were able to ensure the success of the codex format for centuries to come. Buggy whip makers were none too thrilled with the invention of the horseless carriage centuries later.

But back to the eBook world, where the Amazon Kindle is the current market leader. A single-purpose device that is beloved by many, the Kindle is also illustrative of phenomenon where single-purpose devices create an initial market (other examples include personal digital assistants (PDAs) prior to smartphones as well as mobile phones sans cameras) and then step aside for improved, multi-purpose devices.

The Kindle has paved the way for future eBook readers, both in terms of developing market awareness and entirely new relationships between book publishers and book sellers, but it is ill-equipped to serve as anything except an eBook reader. This is why Amazon, keenly aware of the resistance of people to carry more than one device, has started to introduce Kindle software for smartphones and personal computers in addition to the standalone Kindle reader.

The road to tablet computing is a bit longer, however.

The history of tablet computing goes back to the 1950s and 1960s with the Styalator, the Rand Tablet, and Alan Kay’s Dynabook concept. The first commercially viable tablet was the GridPad (1989), which was followed by several other tablet-like devices including the Apple Newton (1991). Despite the participation of almost every major computer maker in this space in recent years (including AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft, among others), consumer acceptance has been limited as has been market success (which has been confined to specific niche markets such as health care and insurance).

Every computer maker that has since introduced a tablet has proclaimed it to be a turning point in the market, just as Apple is doing now with the iPad. But in Apple’s case, given widespread availability of Wi-Fi and 3G wireless technologies, content agreements with newspaper, magazine, and book publishers, and a much improved user interface, the launch of the iPad may be just the push the market needs.

However, the iPad is far from perfect.

It’s thinner and lighter than a netbook or laptop but at 680 g (the same weight as some netbooks), it’s still heavier than a Kindle (the larger Kindle weighs 535 g, the smaller 290 g).

The iPad has significant limitations, of course, including no support for multitasking, no physical keyboard, a non-replaceable battery, and non-expandable memory. Unlike netbooks and laptops, the iPad has no Webcam and no USB ports.

If the iPad is ultimately perceived as yet another device to carry around (like the Kindle), it will be met with limited success in the market. However, if it starts to look like a replacement for bulkier computers that people carry around today for e-mail, Web surfing, book reading, game playing, music, and more, it may very well be the modern-day equivalent of the 1991 Kodak DCS-100 digital camera, which was the first digital SLR on the market and which eventually changed everything.

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm. He is also the co-author of The History of Photography, named “a best book of the year” by the New York Times.

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