Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad

19 Jan 2013

Lenovo recently announced a 27” touchscreen “table tablet”. This has been the subject of much mirth on Daring Fireball and similar places. While the device certainly has it’s problems, I think it’s a mistake to write it (and, by extension, the whole form factor) off entirely. To explain why, I’m first going to dig into the past.

In 1991, Mark Weiser, a computer scientist at the famous Xerox PARC laboratory, wrote a paper titled The Computer for the 21st Century. It contains a compelling and comprehensive vision of how computing would develop over the next couple of decades (the ones we’ve just had), and I plan to revisit these predictions in a future post. However, for today, I want to concentrate on just one small aspect; form factor. Weiser divides computing devices that users typically interact with into three broad categories (emphasis added):

My colleagues and I have built what we call tabs, pads and boards: inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes, foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine), and yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board.

If we look at the computing devices of today, they fit into the first two categories very well1. The increasingly commonplace smartphone falls squarely into the tab camp, and tablets such as the iPad are clearly (as the name suggests) pads. However, when we get to the third category - boards - examples are harder to find. Interactive whiteboards are fairly common in meeting rooms and classrooms, but they tend to be used for fairly limited, specialised tasks (when they’re not being relegated to merely expensive slide projectors or TVs). They have neither the pervasiveness or generality of our modern day tabs or pads.

So, was Weiser wrong? Is the third category redundant, or at least minor in comparison to the other two? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think the industry simply hasn’t cracked it yet. This is not for want of trying. For example, before Microsoft used the name “Surface” for its iPad/Ultrabook/ZX Spectrum competitor, it referred to a board-sized, horizontal computing device that covers exactly the use cases Weiser discusses. In particular, it was designed for sharing - the display is big enough for several people to comfortably see, and the interface handles not only multiple touch points for an individual user, but multi-touch interaction for multiple users simultaneously. Lenovo’s touch screen behemoth is another stab at the same idea.

The situation seems comparable to the development of tablet computing. For a decade, Microsoft and others2 tried time and again to produce a tablet for the mass market, and every attempt was a failure3. The form factor took off with the launch of the iPad, which broke the deadlock by being so much better in areas that mattered (usability, battery life, price) that it offered real value over the status quo. I believe boards are due a similar breakthrough. It won’t necessarily come from Apple, but I’d be amazed if they’re not working on one. It would certainly be more interesting than a TV.

  1. In terms of form factor, which is what I’m discussing here. In other respects, particularly personalisation, our current devices and use patterns are significantly different from Weiser’s ideas. [back]

  2. Including Apple, if you consider the Newton to be a pad rather than a tab. [back]

  3. Specifically, Tablet PCs prior to the iPad never made an impact in the mass market. They’ve been, and continue to be, reasonably successful in certain niche markets. [back]

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