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The middle ground—is there one or many?

Posted: 02.03.10
The three CEOs—Otellini, Huang, and Jobs—looking for the middle.

When Steve Jobs presented the iPad, he set up the premise that we have smart phones, and we have laptops, and there is a gap between them that should be filled. As he made his presentation, I thought, I just saw this presentation a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. Jen-Hsun Huang did it at CES. Huang said the exact same things, and showed tablets that would fit in the middle.

And then I thought about Intel, who also wanted to fill the perceived middle. Intel called it a mobile Internet device—MID. Intel wasn’t successful in creating that category, but a lot of interesting products were created that were neither mobile phones nor PCs. We called them gadgets, and now Intel has also adopted that term. And, some of those gadgets are tablets.

Tablets, of course, aren’t new. We first started talking about them in 1970, and the first commercial product was shown in 1989, when GRID computer introduced the pen-based GRIDpad, 12 years before the Windows XP tablet, and four years before the Newton. A whole community was built up around the notion of a touch sensitive, large-screen mobile device, but no general-purpose usage model could be found for them. They were a solution in search of a problem. They did get applied in some special applications like insurance adjusters and a few doctors tried to use them.

HP introduced a novel version with a two-axis rotating screen that would lie flat for touch operation, or swivel up for convention clamshell laptop operation. Kathleen Maher has one and still uses it. But those early tablets were really just PCs with a big touch screen. And what Jen-Hsun Huang, Steve Jobs, and Paul Otellini are searching for is something that’s neither man nor beast—a narmachine. Have they found it in the tablet?

The first concept of a tablet computer was the DynaBook, introduced by Alan Kay in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was described in his article, A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, (http://tinyurl.com/5zemqe). The DynaBook was a tablet form-factor computer long before even the laptop appeared—Kay described several ideas in that seminal piece of work that would become commonplace only decades later.

Probably not. The tablet as conceptualized by Apple is a unique device in that it doesn’t use a PC’s OS. It uses a processor found in most mobile phones with the same graphics engine as the iPhone, but some similarities are to be expected. The iPad is YAG—yet another gadget, like the Kindle, the TomTom, the PSP, the digital picture frame, etc.

I like the iPad, I hope to get one. And I won’t toss my notebook, PSP, or Kindle out. Those devices serve a purpose very effectively and I doubt that as clever and pretty as the iPad is it will be able to match my existing device—but that could just be me being stuck in habit—I’ll try to fight that and give the iPad every opportunity to prove itself.

We’ll know more this time next year as we visit coffee shops, trade shows and attend meetings. Will we see lots of people using a tablet (from the dozen or so providers who will emerge this year)? And what will we see the year after that? Are we on the cusp of a paradigm shift in usage?