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March 31, 2010

Will industrial tablets benefit from the iPad?

On April 3rd, the Apple iPad tablet will be available in Apple stores. According to various reports, almost 300,000 iPads have been ordered before the device even became available. The hype is enormous, with experts falling all over themselves proclaiming why the iPad will succeed or fail.

Fact is, at this point no one knows how the iPad will be received. Apple apparently felt comfortable enough with the tablet form factor to create the device and stake a good part of its reputation on it. Since the iPad is really a scaled-up iPhone rather than a pared-down MacBook, the question will be whether the iPhone experience indeed scales up to offer something the little iPhone just couldn't, or whether the larger form factor actually works against it as people may be more likely to compare it to a standard PC.

One thing is for sure: the iPad will put the tablet into the harsh light of public scrutiny again. This, of course, isn't new. The original IBM ThinkPad of the early 1990s was a tablet, and then, just as now, the tablet/pad concept was sold as something millions were already familiar with: Scribble on a notepad or relax in a comfy chair with a tablet computer that feels like a book or print magazine. The major difference between then and now, apart from almost two decades of technological advancement, is that back then handwriting recognition was seen as the key to unlocking the tablet's potential.

Unfortunately, handwriting recognition never quite worked out (though, with some training and given a chance, the software actually works very well), and current tablet efforts do not push recognition at all. Instead, the emphasis is on an attractive, elegant user interface with all the effortless swiping, pinching, bouncing and tapping that made the iPhone such a hit.

Will the iPad benefit industrial tablets by bringing more attention to the tablet form factor? It's quite possible, but there are some pitfalls. The obvious one is that the iPad will set a standard of user expectations (effortless multi-touch, elegant UI, etc.) that Windows-based tablets will probably have a hard time to meet. Another is that Apple's effortless, elegant user interface requires a flawless implementation of projected capacitive touch technology, something that may work much better on a small consumer device than a large vertical market device that users may want to operate with gloves on.

It's probably reasonable to assume that the iPad will raise expectations as to how tablets should operate. And raised expectations always mean that older technology will be viewed as lacking. So if users are driven to vertical market tablets just to find that they do not live up to expectations, the rejection and dissatisfaction will be more severe. Which means the overall impact of the iPad's publicity could be negative if vertical market tablets do not offer the same general improvements that the iPad brought to the consumer market.

What's the implication? For that we need to take a look at prevailing digitizer and touch technologies.

Almost since the very start of pen computing, Wacom's inductive technology has dominated the digitizer market with its precise, sleek pens that do not need a battery. The pen functionality of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which was launched in 2002, was clearly designed for the Wacom pen, and the technology, for the most part, works very well. The primary problem with active pen solutions, though, is that you're dead in the water if you lose the pen, and despite tethering, spares, etc., it's just a matter of time until a pen gets lost.

Which is why resistive touch technology is being used as an alternative to inductive, and often in conjunction with it (so that the computer automatically switches from one to the either when according to certain rules). The problem with resistive touch is that it is not very precise, not well suited for inking and recognition, and very prone to misinterpretation. After all, the digitizer must figure out how much pressure represents a "touch" and also differentiate between an intended touch (like from a stylus) and an unintended one (like the pressure of the palm of your hand). Resistive touch doesn't work very well with Windows and its tiny check boxes and scrollers, though legions of Windows CE/Windows Mobile users have learned to live with it.

The respective shortcomings of inductive and resistive digitizer technologies led Apple to use projected capacitive touch, where a) it's either a touch or not a touch (no shades of gray depending on pressure), and b) multi-touch is possible. Combine that with Apple's interface magic and you have the elegant, effortless and seductive iPhone. Bingo, the perfect solution for tablets.

Or is it? Over the past year we've seen multi-touch functionality added to a lot of tablets and notebooks. I've tried several of them, and none worked very well. Those systems would have a few demo showcase functions, but capacitive touch and multi-touch really did not make the systems easier to use, and they were just another feature rather than the main mode of operation (which is what makes the iPhone such a hit). So simply "having multi-touch" is not enough. It may even work against a product.

This morning I came across a press release from Xplore Technologies, one of the earliest supporters and providers of vertical market tablet computers, where its president, Mark Holleran, lauds the launch of the iPhone as a great opportunity for the tablet form factor. Holleran points out the ease of use of tablets and views the launch of the iPad as a sign that "the tablet PC industry is poised for wider acceptance and accelerated growth."

I do think Holleran is on to something, but even if the iPad is a rousing success, it'll still be a challenge to translate the iPad/iPhone user experience into an equally satisfying solution for vertical market tablets.

Posted by conradb212 at March 31, 2010 04:38 PM