Out-of-Pocket Computing for Fun and Profit

Apple's iPad and its forthcoming competitors could lead to a complete rethinking of operating systems and application platforms; today we use desktops and notebooks that amount to scaled-down workstations, but the future may be one of scaled-up tablets.

Portability is in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps it's in the beholder's pocket. Portability, connectivity and suitability to task are paramount considerations when sorting mobile gadgets from essential tools, whether those devices are used for business or personal tasks.

For all of its versatility, an MP3 player like the iPod is a gadget, while the iPad's form factor allows it to serve as a tool. Smartphones are somewhere in between; no matter how many features RIM crams into a Torch, its primary function is to serve as a phone. A smartphone that can't place or receive calls is a gadget, albeit one with potential.

I prefer to think of Apple's iPad as a "slate," but it's a good thing that the iPad and its forthcoming competitors, such as the Samsung Galaxy, are reclaiming the designation of "tablet" from the ignominy associated with the tablet PC experiments of the last few years. No matter what you call them, there's a growing consensus that devices like the iPad represent the cutting edge of mobility, and they could well supplant the netbook in just a few years.

I'm on board this train because netbooks are too much like notebook computers for my taste. I don't schlep a notebook PC everywhere I go, but I could see myself taking a tablet from home to work and back again. Unless you're so frail that hospitalization is a daily risk, tablets simply don't require schlepping.

The problem with the concept of the netbook is that devices of that class run the same operating systems that drive notebooks, desktops and workstations; it's a versatile platform, but it's one that comes with a terribly large footprint. On the other hand, tablets like the iPad are taking their cues from the world of the smartphone, and their designs are based on an operating system with a much smaller footprint. This allows their creators to let portability drive the discussion, at the cost of flexibility.

For many reasons, I'm fine with that trade-off because tablets are built around the basics of networking and productivity, with e-mail and Web browsing as core features. Much of the creative effort that went into desktop applications a few years ago has been diverted into development for smartphones and tablets, and this is a win for almost everyone concerned. If we have, in fact, seen the market for desktop applications peak, it doesn't necessarily spell the end of the desktop. Instead, I suspect we're going to see low-end desktops evolve "up" from the tablet designs of today, instead of "down" from what has been the classic workstation profile.

The hard part of this evolution might be asking users to replace their mice with trackpads or similar touch-based devices. I have to confess that, even after using trackpads for about a decade, there are still some tasks that I find easier to do with a mouse, especially when I'm rearranging text for an article like this one. But it's certainly possible that mice might someday become a specialty tool, along the lines of media-editing tools like Contour Designs' ShuttlePro.

No matter how the details play out, the genie is out of the bottle: Touch-based devices, whether smartphones or tablets of whatever ilk, are going to be with us for a while because of their simplicity and ease of use. The question is how we retrofit existing applications and user behaviors to match the emerging computing environment.

Enterprise IT seems to be on the train with me, as a completely anecdotal case demonstrates: My youngest brother, who sells advertising for travel magazines, was issued an iPad for his work shortly after the 3G model became available. Conventional wisdom tells us that the iPhone paved the way for the iPad by giving IT managers a chance to become comfortable with the software platform and the concept of the App Store. And because I can't come up with a better explanation, I'm going to go along with the crowd on this one.