The Future of Computing or Why I Can’t Wait for the Successor to the iPad

It didn’t happen overnight, but the revolution in computing is on the cusp of taking a very big step forward. The transformation in the way we access data and how we interact with machines has been rapid since the release of the first iPhone. The iPad, and competing Android and WebOS tablets, in addition to smartphones, has, to paraphrase an HP commercial, made computing personal. 

My iPad is the 16GB Wi-Fi model. So far, I have not found this amount of storage to be an issue, despite owning several USB hard drives with backups of files going back to the 286 IBM PS/1. There is plenty of room for my apps, some music, podcasts, books, and PDFs (or other “documents” that do not fit neatly into the iOS “no file” file system), and there is still enough room to add a couple of movies should I decide to take my life offline but keep 90% of the iPad experience in tact.

What surprised me is that this is exactly how I used to view my laptop.

One of my most ambitious projects over the past few years, an attempt to initially justify the purchase of the iPad, was scanning in my law school textbooks. Rather than haul a medium sized dog worth of books with me to class every day, I could put the iPad and a notebook into my backpack and hop on the train. I hadn’t had a backpack that light since elementary school. 

This was my first step to really letting the iPad work its way into my life. While I still needed the physical textbooks to create crude electronic versions, at the end of the semester I could resell the books in nearly perfect condition, (or the condition I purchased it in for used books) hit delete on the my digital copy, and be nearly where I started out, aside from the hours it took to scan 1000 page tomes.

The Pain Points

Many days of laptop-free living can change a person. The amount I was able to do on the iPad made me wish I could skip right to the fourth, seventh, or ninth generation model that will be a true tablet computer. Maybe with Star Trek-level Siri support. Right now though, there are a few weaknesses that keep me coming back to my trusty laptop.

Multi-tasking? It doesn’t exist yet outside of traditional computers. iOS has a form of it, Android has a more robust implementation, but neither one gives the user the same experience as using a laptop or desktop. Multi-tasking audio and text or pictures is great, but that’s about as far as it goes for current tablets and smartphones.

Even the first generation of Chromebooks, Google’s cloud connected netbooks, which are still really laptops, lacked something as essential to computers since the adoption of the GUI over the command line: windows.1 This has since been remedied: the new ChromeOS looks like a cross between the Windows 7 task bar and the OS X Launchpad.

Doing multi-tasking right is still a very complicated problem for mobile devices. It’s possible our definition of multi-tasking will need to change to accommodate the new class of devices.

Tablet computers are lighter both in specs and in weight.  Apple can make iOS devices seem fast because they run one app at a time and use flash memory instead of a spinning disc, and can take a few disguised shortcuts. At the moment, even netbooks are still a decent step up in terms of raw processing power. A $500 laptop is much more capable than the iPad but it will probably never feel “faster” to the user.

This will become less of an issue over time as mobile processers get more powerful, but right now every company promising multitasking is giving only what they think customers really need to get by to prevent any major performance hits.

The second problem is tougher: where to put the keyboard. Unlike the cables in the Uppleva, the keyboard is not “gone, never to be seen again.” It’s always showing up. On top of your app. Because software keyboards use the same real estate as the display there isn’t a lot of room for two windows to be opened simultaneously and a decently sized typing surface.

Yes, external keyboards can eliminate this but what about controlling the display? Reaching up to touch the screen to scroll a website or twitter app that is opened while you also type in a word processing window is clumsy at best. Apple has always used this as the reason their traditional computers don’t have touch screens, offering the Magic Trackpad as a more natural way for our arms and hands to do gestures while typing. Some have suggested “computers” will simply become large tabletop screens – your entire desk will be usable as a rotating display.

Built-in laser keyboards?  Maybe. Or a backtyping keyboard that catches on? They might be the answer someday, though underside typing may take some getting used to.

Apple has a big lead in the current tablet incarnation, but the door is open for the a company to make the next leap forward cut the distance between a tablet and a laptop in half once more.

1. While I was initially in the “why do we want full screen apps on our computers” camp regarding OS X Lion, the new implementation of spaces and gestures between desktops has won me over. iTunes, great as full screen because I’m always doing something else. iPhoto, it’s ok. Calendar? Well, that one I’d prefer the traditional windowing experience, but it’s nice to have the option, particularly with the four-fingered swipe.

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