Thoughts from a long time tablet computer user on the iPad

I'm no stranger to the tablet computer, and in particular the slate format. I remember getting very excited about them back when Windows XP Tablet Edition was released in late 2002/early 2003, and spent the next two years reading about them on and off and trying to understand how they were being used in various disciplines. I'd only recently moved into Education, and was particularly keen on how they might be used there. They always seemed like a technology on the edge, something that would provide that extra special quality that could enhance whatever it was used for - if only we could pin that quality down.

I was lucky enough to get my first tablet in 2005, and plumped for the Motion Computing LE1600 - still in my mind one of the very best tablet computers ever made. It wasn't long before I had dumped my usual A4 notebook, moving everything into OneNote 2003, forcing myself to use the technology in order to understand it - a trait which has echoed throughout my life. In fact I chose the slate form factor (i.e. no keyboard) for the very reason that it would make me learn how to use the tablet properly, and not just treat it as an everyday laptop with a slightly dodgy keyboard.

It's now 5 years later, and I still use the same original tablet on a daily basis. I've worn out the extended battery, expanded the memory, and been through several operating systems, but it's still running strong and is pivotal to much of my work. It runs Windows 7 like a dream, not to mention Ubuntu or any other Linux you care to mention. In fact I like the tablet format so much I now own three of the things, and use them for everything from casual browsing and video watching on the sofa to managing business notes and presenting at conferences. Basically I think it's fair to say that I know the tablet experience pretty well.

So what do I make of this iPad thing then?

It's ... nothing special. I can't really believe it. All that talk of clever interfaces, more voice, gesture control, multiple cameras. There's no killer app on it at all, it seems very much like my tablets, only not quite as good in so many ways. It's lower speed, smaller screen, less memory, possibly less or more storage depending what you choose. But hang on, my tablets are 5 years old? That should make them antiques, not contemporaries. Where is the good stuff? What's going on Apple?

Battery life sounds impressive, I can't match that, though in all honesty I don't think it matters as much as people think. The really key thing about these sort of devices in my experience are docking stations, places around where you would naturally be that you can slide the thing into for added connectivity and power. I now own four docking stations in all, gathered from various places over the years (well I do have two jobs, plus I'm a part-time student and busy food blogger - I tend to be in lots of different places!). But then again, a whole month on standby? Now that is right in line with how people actually want to use their devices, as opposed to how they have to use them!

And the weight - fab, it's so light! My devices do weigh a bit, even the ones without the extended battery can be a bit of pain after a while, but then again I just tend to rest it on whatever's near to me. People are used to heavy books and the like, so I'm not totally convinced that weight is so critical. Maybe that weight saving is a good reflection on how the technology has matured in the last 5 years, but I don't think it's exactly ground breaking.

Touch screen? I avoided that on the tablet for a very good reason - if you've ever actually used one of these things for any length of time then you will know that you spend a great deal of time with part of your hand resting on the screen - that's just natural. That really messes with the interface. Microsoft have done an good job over the years tweaking and improving on the way that their tablet interfaces work, the keyboard interface in particular has come on leaps and bounds, especially with Windows 7, and the pen interface in particular has a lot going for it that newcomers to this field often miss. Ever tried to be really precise with a finger? It's just not possible. For some things, particularly fine detail work, you need a precise device - and that means a stylus of some form. Basically I doubt if Apple can match Microsoft's years of experience in this area so quickly.

But you know what - I think this thing will still sell like hot cakes. Apple still has this incredible magic, and people will just want to own one because of where it comes from, and the associations it has. But only certain people. I've argued before about niche, and I think that's as relevant as ever, that Apple is a niche supplier (albeit it a big niche) and it's only the wealthier sections of society who will pick up on this. You can forget seeing these in mainstream education, for example, private maybe. Yes Mr Fry will have one (actually, I think he already has, given his Twitter stream - lucky bugger :-), but it's not going to transform society, just the chattering classes.

So where does that leave this post? Anything useful to add?

I've always been a Google fan, so I guess I'm slightly relieved in a way that Apple haven't pulled a rabbit out of the hat, but that said I'm also disappointed that I haven't seen the product of great minds leading us into the future. I did hope that someone somewhere deep in Apple was going to produce something new that would mean something important to me, but I've not seen it yet. Maybe tomorrow will bring fresh insight.

I guess I do think deep down though that Apple have always been about big public display, about show and design, about kudos. They have the products to back them up, yes, but the style and desirability plays a big part too. Google on the other hand are all about incremental change, about serving real needs, and making the planet a better place to be without you even noticing they've done it. With the launch of the Nexus One they tried to play Apple's game, and got a bit of a kick in the teeth, which I'm sure Apple enjoyed immensely. But now perhaps the boot is going to be on the other foot. Personally I think I'll stick to Google's camp for now - I'm a watcher, not a performer, and Google's 'personality'( if I can say such a thing about a company) kind of suits me better.

Now if only Google'd bring out a tablet, that would be interesting ...

P.S. An LE1600 Motion Computing tablet can be had for as little as £200/$300 on eBay - so if you can't afford the price tag for the iPad but are keen on trying a tablet I'd recommend you go and find yourself an old classic and give it a new lease of life ...

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