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Opinion

iPad - keep taking the tablets
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 16th April 2010
Copyright Quocirca © 2010
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Popular science fiction from TV shows like Blake's 7 or Star Trek to movies such as Minority Report is littered with examples of fantastically intuitive user interfaces, and yet as the technologies emerge, the way we like to input to computing devices seems strangely conservative. The history of computing input mechanisms begs several questions:

  • Why did pen computing fail to take off in the mid 1980s with Pencept or the early 1990s with Go Corporation?
  • Why did voice controlled computing fail to take off in the 1980s? (I used my first voice recognition system on an Apple II in 1980)
  • Why did the Tablet PC fail to take off in the early 2000s?

Each may have had its own political, social or commercial limitations, but from a technical sense they were all hampered by applications - not necessarily a lack of them, but their focus and reliance on the legacy of Christopher Latham Sholes - the ‘qwerty' keyboard.

Alternative keyboards have been developed and different layouts tried; some for languages with far more characters; some with alternative layouts for ergonomic reasons, and some quirky multi-touch keyboards with only a handful of keys. However it's fair to say that nothing has massively changed the way people type into computer-like devices until the soaring popularity of the mobile phone, and the desire to send text messages by tapping repeatedly on only a number keypad and the use of predictive texting.

Beyond typing there have been successful alternative input devices in relatively niche applications areas. These include pen-based devices, the Anoto range being a current example, as well as voice enabled applications such as those from Vocollect, and voice recognition systems from companies such as Nuance. Tablets and handhelds have operated successfully in certain industries with devices from Symbol (now Motorola), Psion Teklogix, and companies like Motion computing with its rugged tablet devices used in healthcare and construction.

These devices tend work well in specific industry verticals, or use-cases where the device specific development effort and integration required can be recouped. The input mechanisms are not complex, but neither are they suitable for all occasions or purposes, and so application specific use makes it easier to justify the development commitment.

The evolution of mobile phones into mobile computers has led to greater ubiquity of the embedding of new mechanisms for collecting data ‘input'; touch screens, accelerometers tracking movement, GPS location tracking and direction from compasses.

That Apple's iPhone embedded these technical features would not be interesting on its own, in fact some had been around in other mobile devices - Clarks ‘Trackers' shoes even had a compass embedded in them 40 years ago! Function is not enough alone, it must have a purpose - i.e. make a useful contribution to an application. Apple had to encourage developers to write apps that took advantage of the new features, and yes, wean off some of the dependence on the keyboard.

The use of these features and the popularity of the iPhone and the App Store has led to a shift in application developer thinking - the keyboard is no longer the only way - and this will have a profound effect on other device types, in particular, for device family connections, the iPad. This may, or may not make the iPad a success as the Star Trek ‘tricorder' (universal handheld data access device) for professionals or e-book/e-player for media hungry gadget fans, but it will lead to more creative application input thinking from developers. This in turn will stimulate the tablet market as a whole - there are plenty of vendors waiting to capitalise on Apple's marketing hype - and have spin-off benefits for the other non-keyboard oriented devices.

Applications have become mobile and moved free of the desk, and now they have a great potential to become more free of the keyboard as well.

For more thoughts on stimulating the mobile applications market, download Quocirca's free paper regarding Mobile Application Momentum.

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Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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