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The road to the iPad mini

For all the naysayers screaming ‘gimmick’ and ‘fad’, it’s clear that the tablet is now a major computing form factor, and that it’s here to stay. The iPad continues to be ludicrously successful, and that success is now being shared by Google, Samsung, Acer and Asus; among others. Microsoft clearly knows the score – hence the launch of its own Surface tablet in October – and with new Kindle Fire models on the horizon, plus a rumoured 7in iPad mini, competition in the sector can only heat up. All this comes at a time when the PC, even in its sleekest, most desirable Ultrabook form, is struggling to shift units. How did a device that was once little more than a joke get so big? How did it go from a zero to a hero overnight?

Tablet Pre-History

Well, it didn’t. The tablet is a success story over forty years in the making, and one that needed a whole set of stars to align before it actually made sense. You can trace its inception back to Alan Kay’s Dynabook back in 1968: a proto-tablet with both stylus and keyboard controls, developed at the legendary Xerox Parc, and aimed at giving children access to digital media, accessible programming tools and education. The Dynabook never made it to market, but it and other research projects, such as the NoteTaker device prototyped in the 1970s at MIT, helped lay the groundwork for a whole range of devices that did, including the PDA and the original Microsoft Tablet PC.

The first commercial tablet was the GRiDPad, a touchscreen tablet designed by the GRiD Systems Corporation and first manufactured by Samsung in 1989. Based on an 8086-architecture NEC V20 processor, and sporting a 10in 640 x 400 monochrome LCD screen, it was a stylus controlled computer that was used primarily for stocktaking and logistics, and – suitably ruggedised - found favour for many years in the US military.

Interestingly, one of the names behind the GRiDPad was Jeff Hawking, who went on to co-found Palm Computing and design the original Palm Pilot. More than any device, it was the Palm that set down some of the early rules for touchscreen computing, and it was in the PDA that many of the seeds for today’s tablets were sown. At a time when Wi-Fi was a luxury and high-speed mobile communications were unknown, Palm’s devices defined how stylus interfaces could work, and made mobile email and Internet a reality.

Yet the most influential device wasn’t Palm’s but Apple’s. The Newton, first introduced in 1993, was a stylus driven device with a 5in 320 x 240 resolution monochrome screen designed not just to act as a mobile companion, but as a device that could reinvent portable computing. Despite several revisions the Newton was never the revolutionary success Apple intended it to be. Some mocked its lack of speed and its sometimes dubious handwriting recognition, and it was always too expensive for mass consumption. However, in its later 6in and keyboard-dockable versions you can see the roots of today’s 7in tablets, and indeed the iPad itself.

By the turn of the century the PDA had begun its evolution into the smartphone, but by then the tablet had taken its next big step. At the Comdex expo in autumn 2000 Microsoft used Bill Gates’ annual keynote to announce the tablet PC. This was a full PC running a tablet-specific version of Windows XP. With Microsoft keen on a pen and ‘rich ink’ paradigm, it was stylus controlled, with text entered using a combination of an on-screen keyboard and handwriting recognition. The Tablet PC came bundled with a set of tools and applications to make ink useful within Windows, and packs were added to Microsoft Office to boost ink functionality there. While Microsoft showed off its own prototype, Compaq, Fujitsu, HP, Acer and Toshiba would all adopt the format over the next few years.

Microsoft believed in the Tablet PC. “The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone’s office,” Gates told his Comdex audience. “The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I’m already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits, and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold.”

Looking back, we now meet Gates’ words with ridicule, but at the time the Tablet PC seemed revolutionary. And, despite what many suggest, it was not a total failure. It never took off in the boardroom or the home, but it still found use in some corporate scenarios, and manufacturers of ruggedised PCs would take the form factor to industries and mobile workforces where pen input was more useful or reliable than a keyboard. But did the Tablet PC reach the heights that Gates and co imagined? No. By 2005 Tablet PCs made up less than 1.5 per cent of all notebook PCs sold, and less than one per cent of all PCs of any type.

Why? Well, in retrospect we can see that there were problems with the concept, but also problems with the execution. While the PDA or – in Microsoft parlance, Pocket PC - was seen as a mobile companion, Microsoft saw the tablet PC as your main computer; an alternative to a desktop or laptop. It could be docked while at the desk or carried around all day, and it needed to be both portable and powerful enough to do both jobs. The result was an uneasy compromise. The tablet PC was both too heavy and battery-hungry to make a great portable device, but not powerful enough to make a great PC. Windows XP was never the ideal tablet OS, either. Most of all, the Tablet PC never successfully answered the question ‘”Why?” It was an expensive investment and one that never found its killer app.

Nor did Microsoft’s hardware partners help. Instead of refining Microsoft’s vision, they hedged their bets by focussing on the convertible form factor, with a more conventional keyboard/touchpad module that could twist into place behind the screen for tablet use. This made commercial tablets even heavier and less appealing than Microsoft’s original concept device.

Project Origami

Microsoft went back to the drawing board, but it wasn’t done with the tablet yet. In mid-2006 hype began building behind ‘Project Origami’ a new form factor concept that would find substance as the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).

Originally a collaboration between Microsoft, Samsung and Intel, the UMPC was a kind of halfway house between a PC and a tablet, dominated by a 5in to 7in screen and running Windows Vista. The original UMPC, the Samsung Q1, had a 7in 800 x 480 resolution screen and was roughly the size of a hardback book. The spec was similar to a low-end PC, with an Intel Celeron M processor running at 900MHz and integrated Intel 915GM graphics, plus 512MB of RAM. Most notably, the Q1 featured a bewildering choice of controls, with an analogue stick, an customisable D-Pad, an innovative split onscreen keyboard, a stylus and voice controls.

Samsung wasn’t alone in embracing the UMPC. Sony launched its own version, the Sony Vaio UX1XN, with the 4.5in screen sliding up to reveal a physical keyboard. Smaller names, like Ubiquio and OQO, delivered their own distinctive spins on the formula. However, all UMPCs suffered from the same big issues. They were overpriced, underpowered and crippled by poor battery life (as low as ninety minutes in some cases). Windows Vista struggled to run effectively on modest hardware, and was a poor fit for stylus usage. While Microsoft’s early videos suggested that UMPCs were up to playing Halo, the use of integrated graphics made gaming a non-starter. Most of all, nobody could quite grasp the use. Once again, Microsoft had helped create a form factor that nobody actually seemed to want.

This didn’t stop Microsoft trying, and as late as 2010 the company was still pushing the tablet PC, this time in the guise of the Slate. By then, however, things had moved on without the Redmond giant.

It’s not that the iPad appeared sui-generis. Since 2007, Intel and Nokia, among others, had been pushing the idea of the Mobile Internet Device; a device larger than a smartphone but smaller than a tablet PC that could be used for email, web browsing and media playback. The French manufacturer, Archos, had enjoyed some success with its Media Tablets, with 5in to 7in devices like the Archos 605, Archos 5 and Archos 7 that delivered big-screen media playback, email and Internet access through a customised variant of Linux. When it was finally announced in January 2010, the iPad was over-hyped by one half of the press as the saviour of personal computing, while the other half derided it as being nothing more than a super-sized iPod touch.

Ironically, then, it was the success of the iPod touch – not to mention the iPhone – that paved the way for the iPad’s success. Before the iPod touch and iPhone, Steve Jobs had derided tablets. According to a former Apple sales executive, David Sobotta, he felt the market was too small to be worth chasing, and that the form factor was all wrong. In Sobotta’s words, Jobs felt that “Apple was more interested in defining markets than trying to catch other companies that were busy trying to create a market for questionable products.”

The success of the iPod touch and iPhone, not to mention the growing availability and shrinking prices of capacitive LCD screens, solid-state storage and mobile processors, changed that. iOS devices had got consumers used to the concepts and benefits of touchscreen computing, and created the demand for something similar on a larger scale. The iPhone and iPod touch had given Apple a huge ecosystem of apps and developers, and the clout to bring the world’s largest media corporations – all desperate for a more-easily monetised alternative to the Web – on board.

Arguably, Apple succeeded where Microsoft failed because it got the concept and the execution right. The iPad wasn’t built on PC technology, but on the lighter, more thermally and battery efficient technology being used in mobile phones (a choice not available to Microsoft at the time of the Tablet PC). The iPad wasn’t designed to be the main computer, but to work with a PC or Mac. The iPad ran an operating system that made sense on a tablet, not just a PC, and at launch it had content and apps that made the most of the new form factor. What’s more, the iPad had imressive battery life, an excellent screen, and it looked and felt great.

Everything else stems from there. Tablets are beginning to diverge from the iPad template, with Asus in particular showing a willingness to play with the form factor, but outside the tech community there’s still a wide perception that there’s the iPad, and then there’s the clones. The success of rivals, particularly Google’s Nexus 7, will change that, but Apple dominates this market for a reason, and won’t be easily unseated.

The Future

Still, nothing is impossible in the world of tech, and we’re still only at another stage of the tablet’s evolution. Where next? Clearly, the road ahead has two divergent paths. On the one hand, there’s a market for tablets that can handle productivity as well as media consumption. What the iPad started, Asus has pushed further with its Transformer line of keyboard-docking tablets, while Microsoft is taking a similar tack with its Surface designs. These products look set to usurp the place of netbooks and even low-end laptops. Potentially, even Intel’s beloved Ultrabooks could be in the firing line.

On the other hand, there’s also a demand for smaller, more easily portable tablets that can be used for email, web browsing and media consumption at home, in the office and on the move. 7in tablets can be lighter and cheaper, and the more compact form factor is perfect for the average user who doesn’t need to use a tablet to work. In a sense, a product like the Nexus 7 makes a viable alternative to the tablet, handheld console, netbook and eBook reader in one device. In the US, the Kindle Fire has already demonstrated that there are opportunities in this market, and sales of the Nexus 7 have proved it. Expect a cutthroat battle in this sector, made all the more interesting by rumours that Apple plans to join it with an iPad mini in September.

Will the tablet one day kill the laptop and desktop PC? Possibly, but it seems unlikely. While there’s always a market for devices to consume content, there’s also a market for devices that create it, and the laptop and desktop PC remain the most effective tools to do that. Yet there’s a significant chance that the tablet could become the dominant form factor, just as Bill Gates – of all people - once predicted.