For the past two years I’ve been waiting for Picard; not Godot, Picard. From the first time I saw a friend of ours running around with her very first Amazon Kindle e-reader, all I could think of were those moments in “Star Trek: the Next Generation” when Captain Jean-Luc Picard would stand around tapping on that piece of plastic the size of a notepad and getting a galaxy of information at his fingertips. It seems that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of how information would be accessed on the starships of the 23rd century was actually only three decades away and not hundreds of years at all.
It seems to me that technology builds one layer upon another and it isn’t until the time is right that a revolutionary innovation can get its wings and take flight.
I remember working for Microsoft during the late 1990s when they introduced the first “PocketPC” units for us to test in-house. They seemed an interesting enough device but for two big drawbacks. Here was a palm-sized computing device that had everything today’s “smart phones” have but without the actual PHONE. And while it had the capability to give us “information everywhere” access through wireless networking technology, the reach of those wireless networks was limited to locations that actually offered wifi connectivity through conventional hardware and that was a far more limited world than the one that we live in today.
While the obvious addition of the phone to these hand-held computers produced our “smart phones”, it was the advent of the ability to access data and the Internet through the now all-pervasive cellular networks that really set the stage for the coming revolution; the “Next Generation” of data and entertainment appliances.
The electronic readers ar e great for downloading and reading books. Many of these devices feature black text on a white background, just like real books, and have similar form factors to slightly oversized paperbacks. Amazon boasts that sales of their Kindle e-reader device have been brisk but will only say that “millions” of units have been sold.
The Kindle allows users to download and purchase books directly from Amazon via wireless networking (if available) or through a computer based app that can move books to the Kindle after purchase.
The Kindle interface is delightfully simple and intuitive, even for those who are not all that tech savvy. Sony and a handful of other manufacturers quickly followed suit with work-alike devices but these e-readers shared one thing in common — they all attempted to emulate the form and function of real books with the added facility of easily adding new content over networks or by attaching them to computers.
I’m sure when they released it, the good folks at Apple thought the iPad would be a novelty item that would sell modest quantities to affluent gadget seekers who didn’t want to stare at the tiny screen of their iPhone or take the time to boot up that big Mac Book. While there was a great deal of buzz over this “big brother” to the iPhone and iPod Touch, I’m sure that even Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple were surprised to see sales of the iPad pass three million units sold in just the first three months after it’s launch.
Unlike the Kindle and other e-reader devices, the iPad took the “reader” concept and broadened it significantly. People don’t just read books — they read the Internet these days. Everything from newspapers online to blogging websites to Facebook to “news and views” sites like Life As A Human have all become part of the daily fare of many people.
The world wide web serves up a dazzling assortment of reading material from poetry and short fiction to the latest news and insightful editorializing on social issues and more. Apple’s iPad offered quick and easy access to the whole Internet, not just material available for download and purchase from vendors of electronic books. Catching up with your Facebook friends at breakfast got a WHOLE lot easier with the iPad. The iPad’s touch-screen technology means that you can sip your coffee and surf the web at the same time!
Enter the Android
In October of 2008, Google entered the mobile phone marked with its new operating system, Android, designed for a new generation of mobile phones.
Android promised to be open-source and offer a variety of functions natively in the operating system. It featured support for a variety of form factors and handsets, touch screen support including multi-touch capability (pinch-zoom, etc.), support for Java and other Internet technologies, support for a variety of audio and video media types including streaming media, and much more. In short, Google’s Android promised to bring all the power of the Internet to your cellular handset and the dawn of the 3G era (which brought broadband Internet over cellular signals) had begun.
Since it’s release less than two years ago, Android has now evolved into a 2.2 version that supports a greatly expanded set of features. Its growth and popularity in the cellular phone market has made it the fastest growing platform for phones as of April 2010. In fact, Android sales have surpassed those of Apple’s iPhone and are now taking aim at the traditional market leader, RIM’s Blackberry.
Thankfully, Google has built a framework for Android that is open enough and flexible enough to support a variety of different cell phone handset styles from different manufacturers. It is this same flexibility that will soon open up an explosive new market for this new operating system.
Today’s generation of “smart phones” that allow us to browse the Web, do our email, share with our friends on Facebook, play our favorite music and video, and much more on our cell phones are just the beginning of what Android can do. Much more is just around the corner.
It’s a Pad, Pad, Pad, Pad world!
So far, Apple has had this new iPad market all to itself. But having seen the potential for this new “tablet” market, literally dozens of companies are now poised to released new devices just in time for the holidays.
Everyone from cell phone manufacturers like HTC to more traditional electronic gizmo makers like Samsung and Motorola are working overtime to get their new offerings out in time for the holidays. The list even includes less familiar names like Orange, Pocketbook and Archos. Computer makers are not to be left out either as traditional PC makers like Hewlett Packard (HP) and Acer have both announced plans for tablet releases.
In fact, this first wave of tablets coming from a host of new manufacturers and even some new models from Apple later this year looks like just the beginning of an explosion in this new form factor. ABI Research, a technology research firm, has predicted that the next five years will see the market for tablets grow from four to five million in 2010 to over 55 million by 2015.
It looks like these new devices will come in a variety of sizes and feature sets. They will be priced to accommodate a wide range of budgets too with announcements coming about devices ranging in price from about $100 CDN to over $900 CDN based on the features and form factor you desire.
Old Things Made New Again
So what’s the driving force here? Why do we all need one of these new tablets? What is that “killer app” that will finally make the tablet form factor attractive to the consumer? Well, the answer is a little complicated and involves, as these things frequently do, a convergence of circumstances that make this the right time.
The last 10 years have seen an explosion in the use of the Internet by the average consumer. People are now using their home computers for everything from reading news on the Web, to communicating with each other via email and instant messaging, to watching video (television programs and movies) and listening to music, even streaming content from both free and paid sources are becoming more prevalent.
The reduced cost of wireless technology has made it so economical to install wireless networking that many homes now have at least one wireless network operating and many public spaces are offering wireless Internet access for free or a nominal fee. We can get at the Internet wirelessly from almost anywhere now. And 3G cellular networks are extending that reach even further allowing users to stream data through the cellular towers as well. So the infrastructure for true portability is now in place.
Finally, advancements in both processing and display technology have made the form factor of the tablet or pad much more affordable. Naturally, the software market has dutifully kept up with these hardware improvements as Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and other mobile operating systems from RIM (Blackberry) and others are making their way onto tablet devices as you read this.
Star Trek on your Coffee Table
So for a couple hundred bucks you can get one of these new tablet gizmos. Why on earth would you bother? Well, consider the following scenario. Your mother-in-law drops by for tea. As you sit on the sofa chatting, you begin telling her about how terrific her granddaughter Sally was in last night’s school play. “Her costume was so cute!” you say as you reach for the tablet on your coffee table. A few taps on the touch-sensitive screen brings up the photos you took before you left for the play (these come to you wirelessly from the laptop in the den that you transferred the photos to from your camera). Your mother-in-law is delighted and says she wishes she could have seen the performance. Not to worry!
A few more taps on your tablet screen allows you to surf to the YouTube videos that other parents have uploaded of last night’s performance. Grandma raises a hand to her mouth but can’t quite cover the huge smile as she watches with tears of pride in her eyes. Just as she begins heaping praise on her oh-so-talented granddaughter, you’ve already surfed to Facebook to show her all the rave reviews by friends and family who have already seen the videos.
After a lovely visit, mother-in-law heads back home and you settle back on the couch. You pick up your tablet once more and review your subscriptions of the days online newspapers, make note of several magazine articles you bookmark to read later, make a quick check of email including one or two fast replies to friends, and download that new Michael Crichton novel you’ve been meaning to read.
You get up to get yourself a cold drink. As you pass the couch, you grab your tablet and head to the bedroom to curl up and watch a good movie streaming to your tablet from your subscription to Netflix over the Internet. Maybe in the morning, you’ll do some shopping online or continue working on that website you’ve been designing. Oh, and you really do need to check in to see what new and interesting things have been posted to your favorite blog site, Life As A Human!
The Future is Now
I remember shaking my head back in the 1980s when Captain Jean Luc Picard seemed to always be accessing everything from one of those little tablet thingies. Audio, video, text, photos, data, it all seemed to be right at his fingertips. Science fiction, to be sure.
Well, as has happened so many times in mankind’s past, the future has come upon us faster than we ever could have expected. That tablet on your coffee table can be a photo album, a television, an email station, a place to do instant messaging and Facebook networking, a place to play games, a place to find information, and a place to read books, magazines, and even newspapers.
It’s all coming very soon to a store near you. With all this new wireless stuff flying around, watch your head!
Starfleet Pad – Paramount Pictures (Fair Use)
Amazon Kindle – Ericajoy from Flickr
Apple iPad – John.Karakatsanis 2010 from Flickr
Android Tablets – Suroboy Website – 2010