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The iPad and other portable tablet computers: a milestone in the evolution of computing or another technological neanderthal?

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With the much-anticipated (and delayed) Australian launch of the iPad only four days away, David Moore looks to the past and considers whether there will be any real-world value in this new technology. Will it mark an evolutionary threshold in computing or will it be assigned to the technology basement of probably-shouldn’t-have-beens?

My second job in the computer industry was in mobile computing. That was in around 1987.

I’ll refrain from the traditional comparisons on the performance of these machines to today’s washing machines and such.

My point is that the revolution we are experiencing right now, in the form of HP slate PCs, iPads, ASUS tablets and such, has been a long time coming. It wasn’t new when I was in it two decades ago. However, it was significantly more costly and not readily affordable by the general public, but it certainly wasn’t new.

Back then, larger companies were using this technology to manage orders, deliveries and servicing of equipment ‘in the field’.

One of the main problems they faced was screen real estate. Another issue was that mobile computers were capable of displaying little more than the average calculator, with the main point of difference being that they could display letters of the alphabet. No graphics, no colour, nothing.

The manufacturers of these primitive portable computers realised early on that, at the very least, people using these things needed bigger screens. So, it wasn’t long before I encountered my first tablet-like computer in around 1990. It was a Symbol/MSI brand device and called a “Pen Computer”.

It was rubbish on so many levels. It was too big to put in your pocket, too small to be a device you could use for any length of time, too small for your laptop bag but too big for your man-bag, the pen didn’t work and so on. It was an ‘in-between’ device in a world of polar opposites.

Since then I’ve seen maybe four or five attempts by various players to breath life into the tablet-like market, such as “web pads” in 1999, “Tablet PC” in 2000 and Ultra-Mobile PC in 2006/2007, to name a few. All have failed. The poles remained.

The hype has come and gone and here we are 20-odd years later and still the in-between devices keep popping up. I don’t like hype. I’m the kind of person who specifically avoids television shows labeled as ‘must see’. No I mustn’t. Tell me why I must? Shouting and insisting are not good reasons.

When it comes to the survival of the fittest, these in-between devices won’t cut the mustard.

Maybe from a natural selection perspective they keep re-appearing because they do have a place in the world. My experience feeds my cynicism and I doubt that this is in fact the case.

Humans have been defying natural selection for centuries so why should our technology be any different? Our species doesn’t learn from history. Some boffin sees a gap in the market and has to fill it, when they should really be sitting back and asking why such a glaring cavern remains a void? Have they ever considered that maybe we aren’t meant to go there?

I appreciate mankind’s spirit of adventure and desire to discover the unknown. I just think there are bigger fish to fry, or save, depending on your perspective.

I also love gadgets and technology, but successful devices need a purpose and they have to execute their designed task well. It is not good enough that you can play the games you’ve already got on a slightly larger screen or have fun watching your cat use the touch-screen.

Maybe with public transport being so crap these days the time has come for in-between devices to distract from people killing each other on trains and buses? Maybe, but would Darwin agree?

I’d love for his new phase of in-between tablet-like device popularity to be successful if for nothing more than to prevent them arriving at landfills early.

For my money I am waiting for a compelling reason to own one. Stay tuned, I’ll let you know if I hear of one.

David Moore has 25 years experience in the computer industry and is now Principle PC Hater at ihatemypc.com.au.

Photo: nDevilTV

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