The State of the Slate: Today’s iPad and Tomorrow’s Tablets

The iPad created a new class of computing devices and a new way of interacting with technology. It seems like this ambitious device means something different to just about every segment of the technology world: Old Media publishers herald the device as their salvation from death at the hands of the Web. Open software advocates balk at its controlled app platform as a regression for things like rich web applications and open standards. Tech pundits label it a device which prioritizes passive consumption of content over production and collaboration. Customers complain about the $500 starting price — and then buy over 15 million of them in under a year. (This quarter, Apple is on track to sell more iPads than Macs.)

I took the plunge and bought an iPad last September to see what all the fuss was about. I have to say that I don’t think any of the popular perspectives effectively mirror my experience. Things are about to change very quickly in this new space, and I think this is the appropriate time at which to reflect on its current state and potential in the future.

The iPad is a mindfully created minimalist affair: a notebook-sized touchscreen with Internet connectivity and a native software platform which enables and encourages the creation of innovative applications. After its unveiling, tech pundits quickly labeled it as a device that sits “in between” a smartphone and a traditional computer. In terms of physical size, this is obviously true, but I don’t think it follows to conclude that size makes the iPad “greater than” a smartphone or “less than” a PC. People don’t first measure a device first by its technical specifics, but rather by how well it serves needs in their lives. Some needs necessitate a bigger or smaller device; increased mobility or raw computational power; low cost or high long-term value. There are no inherently better technologies, just ones better suited to such specific needs. With respect to slate devices, the iPad offers brand new ways to meet these needs with its vibrant display, handheld form factor, multi-touch interface, huge battery, and wireless connectivity. To put it simply, the iPad has forced me to reconsider – and allowed me to rediscover – technology’s role in my daily life.

A traditional desktop or notebook PC is a rather demanding device when I think about it: it requires that I fix my gaze at a large screen upon which multiple windows simultaneously bombard me with information. I must also anchor myself to one location as I use it, since I’ll be needing both hands to interface with its keyboard and trackpad. The expansive screen dominates the user’s attention and closes them off to much of their surroundings.

On the other end of the size spectrum, smartphones are quite the opposite in their utility. An inherently social device, it provides quick access to both broadcast updates about myself and get updates from others at a glance. The phone’s hardware features and software interfaces are just what I need to get what I need from it in order to get back to the world around me.

But slate devices like the iPad shouldn’t be thought of as a middle ground between these two extremes. While the iPad obviously is bigger than the more pocketable iPhone, on a components level it’s got everything in common but a bigger screen and battery. (At times my smartphone email signature jests, “Sent from my iPad Nano.”) And while it might be cheaper than a traditional laptop, the iPad’s touch interface actually makes it better suited to some tasks. eBook readers get all the attention in this space, but music applications on the iPad have already managed to make a more intuitive experience for running sequencers and synthesizers than was ever possible with a kludgy keyboard-and-mouse system.

In some applications, the iPad lets people use technology in a much more social, collaborative, productive manner. It has bridged the gap between the virtual and the physical in a new way – it’s never been easier to pull something up from the Internet, and then literally pass it around with others. Since nobody dominates a keyboard or mouse, anyone is free then to interact with the device without having to ask, “can I drive?” And since it’s still a handheld device, you don’t have to hunch over it and drown out the rest of the world around you. (Some have referred to the iPad as a “lean-back laptop.”) The software’s lack of a windowed UI means that only one application gets focus at a time, which in turn means the user has a more dedicated focus as well. For me, this leads to deeper experiences with both reading and writing. All of these aspects have led me to object whenever people classify the iPad as a “consumption device” or a “fancy toy.”

What about the future?

So far, discussion of slate devices and the iPad have been one and the same. Apple got to define the market segment with their innovation, and has one hell of a head start in the marketplace now. But serious competitors are about to come at the iPad from all sides, with tablet-specific versions of Android, WebOS and BlackBerry OS about to reach customers.

Apple’s meticulous integration of hardware, software, and application marketplace definitely were necessary factors in the iPad’s conception. iPad users are already accustomed to a very high-quality experience, including a large collection of applications custom-made for the device. Similarly to the smartphone market, competitors will need to carefully consider their strategies as try to differentiate themselves from Apple’s wildly successful one.

I really have no idea what most customers will care most about once Slate competition explodes. (I also have no idea what made people buy over 15 million $500-800 devices in a totally unproven space, besides perhaps Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field.) If someone manages to hit a home run with consumers, we might see them be successful before 2011 is out, but right now I’m betting that the iPad’s lead will continue for another year and a half to two years. My biggest hope is that the competition forces prices down across the board. My iPad is definitely worth its price because of its great utility, but the truth is that for all its uses, there isn’t much yet that can’t be done on a PC or smartphone, even if doing it on them is an inferior experience. At over half a grand, it’s still a stretch to make an argument for it as anything but a luxury device.

I plan to sell my current iPad in the next few months, but I’m totally undecided about its replacement. Good contenders are cropping up from seemingly every hardware company, but will they come close to the quality experience that Apple spent about half a decade perfecting before releasing a final product?

Android “Honeycomb” and the Motorola Xoom

Google developed a completely new user experience for tablet devices. The Motorola Xoom is the first device to carry this experience, and it’s quite attractive both in its software concepts and raw hardware specs. Google has also extended the Android SDK to facilitate development of applications with interfaces for both smart phones and slates. The only thing keeping me from committing to a preorder on day one is its rumored $800 price tag.

WebOS and the HP TouchPad

WebOS is the unsung hero of mobile operating systems. It’s the most usable and the most futuristic platform in its deep integration for applications written with open web standards instead of bloated proprietary native APIs. Its software and hardware, like Apple’s, is seamlessly integrated to form a cohesive end product. But since its 2009 release, WebOS has failed to succeed due to managers’ failures to partner with the right carriers and market devices effectively. The WebOS gamble literally killed Palm, inc. before being swept up by HP.

Running on their funding and partner relationships, we have another round of betting on WebOS this year, including the beautiful HP TouchPad. Most of the device specs are identical to those expected of the iPad 2, but WebOS has scaled beautifully to the slate format. If it were a mere comparison of operating systems, I’d pick it over the iPad in a heartbeat, but yet again this WebOS device’s competitive fitness will hinge on the management end. The device very closely mirrors the iPad in both hardware and software, and though I think it has superior multitasking, social sharing and notifications, I think it won’t stand out alongside the massively popular iPad brand. To make this worse, The TouchPad is coming in a WiFi version “this summer,” and 3G to come later. 3G iPad sales far outpace those of the WiFi-only unit, and by the time any TouchPad is on sale, it will likely be fighting against renewed attention to the iPad as it makes a second lap with new hardware.

While we know the iPad is already a success, the rulebook for competition in this space is totally unwritten. All the big investments in new devices are likely to mean some pronounced wins and losses, and we don’t yet know what customers will be looking for. Will it be the apps? The browsing or social experience? Niche features? The only thing that’s certain is that the whole game is about to get a lot more interesting.