What is it that has finally caused the rise of the tablet computing device? Is it really the church of Jobs?
It’s not like this hasn’t been tried a dozen times. The first widespread example in popular culture was the big black tablets that Ensigns brought to Captain Kirk to sign in the original Star Trek series. Star Trek definitely continued developing the concept through the movies and the Next Generation. The Next Generation tablets even closely resemble the size and shape of many of the modern generation of tablets. Notably, the Next Generation tablets were even poked at with fingers (the original series had a stylus). But they were props.
The first widely used tablet computer was the Palm Pilot. Widely is a relative term here. Apple even had an aborted attempt at a tablet in the newton. Since those early attempts, everyone from Microsoft to Intel and IBM have taken shots at tablets — many of which sold in limited numbers before failing or just being ignored.
I think it has quite a bit to do with the stagnation of desktop CPU and GPU power and the lack of applications requiring more power to run. What struck me when I first started using my n900 is that the performance of the device was comparable to the desktop for many tasks. It had fast local networking that bypassed the often stupid cell networks, it had a fast CPU and GPU combination for rendering web pages and it had enough screen resolution to competently render web applications.
The iPhone and iPad similarly present users with adequate processor and graphics power to do a range of chores at roughly desktop speed. This isn’t to say you’re going to run Crysis on them (although Quake II runs well on the n900), but that the range of normal tasks (especially web browsing) run acceptably well.
It wasn’t always this way. Many early devices (like the palm) suffered with mobile web browsers that took ages to render a poor facsimile of the web page and struggled to load documents into stripped down versions of office applications. Mostly, these devices suffered from too little RAM in addition to too little power. You simply can’t load modern web pages into applications limited to a megabyte or two of RAM.
There were also tablets brought to market that were full Intel/Microsoft computers. These devices didn’t lake power or memory to be useful, but they were also not significantly smaller than the laptops being sold and thus didn’t offer a compelling enough reason to the consumer.
To answer my question, I think Steve Jobs is brilliant in his timing and I think that he and Apple both learned much from the sales of the iPod/iPhone that went into the development of the iPad… but I don’t think that he’s responsible for the sudden success of tablets — he just had the right product at the right time. In fact, that’s really the story of the recent rise of the Apple.
But the rise of the tablet is driven by technology that delivers sufficient power in a form factor that is significantly smaller than has been offered before.