In between machines

March 21, 2012

Tablet PCs are nothing new. Besides popping up in science fiction movies for decades, the real things have existed in one form or another for quite some time. So why then was the entire tech world and much of the media so excitedly agog a few weeks back when Apple unveiled its first tablet, the iPad?

Tablet PCs are nothing new. Besides popping up in science fiction movies for decades, the real things have existed in one form or another for quite some time. So why then was the entire tech world and much of the media so excitedly agog a few weeks back when Apple unveiled its first tablet, the iPad?

Well, besides the fact that every Apple press event draws such a frenzy, the iPad is a big deal because with its launch next month, Apple is entering a new computer products market. This is not something to take lightly from a company with an impressive recent track record of not only being successful with new products, but in changing the status quo for the markets it enters. (iPods not only launched the concept of mp3 players, but also spurred on the digital music revolution that has changed how music is bought, sold and recorded. The iPhone shook up the mobile phone market and spurred every manufacturer to make the leap from pocket telephones to pocket computers.)

With that in mind, it seems the launch of the iPad is the perfect time to give tablet computers a new look.

State of the industry

Apple grabbed the biggest of the headlines, but they’re certainly not the only company looking to break into the tablet computer business. Just about every existing computer manufacturer has some sort of tablet on the shelves or in the works and the market for the machines is nearing tipping points in terms of price and functionality. In short, tablet computers are almost ready to start delivering on all that potential sci-fi writers have been predicting for so long.

Prior to now, most tablet PCs were really laptop computers with an extra hinge, allowing the screen to be flipped and closed over the keyboard facing up. Sure they were often top-of-the-line laptops with all the memory and processing power available, but they were often bulky, overweight and input via the screen instead of the keyboard could be less than ideal.

The new generation of tablet machines are dedicated to their tasks, with no keyboard, but far more reliable and advanced touchscreens in terms of both sensitivity and interface design. Touchscreens are everywhere these days from phones to car dashboards to kitchen appliances, and the quality of the screens keeps increasing all the while the costs are decreasing. Meanwhile flash memory is better, bigger and more affordable, as is processing power and battery life.

This means it is now possible to not only make a tablet PC that is easy to use, reliable and responsive, but also to make them inexpensive. The iPad line starts at $499 and tops out at less than $1,000. With portability and convenience on their side, tablet PCs are ready to become a reasonable option for a number of uses. As personal media consumption devices they could be unparalleled, but they also show potential for some interesting educational and business applications.

iPad impact

Built to be a machine to bridge the supposed gap between the funneled access of smart phones and full-sized/powered desktops and laptops, Apple’s iPad is fine-tuned to be a very good media delivery device. Besides having the company’s signature minimal design esthetic, it brings with it enough muscle to handle HD video, full Web access (minus everything Flash due to Apple’s ongoing dispute/boycott of Adobe’s Web video system), even some light versions of basic office software. Known for making machines that run well, it’s no surprise Apple gave the iPad touchscreen interface enough sensitivity to make typing without a physical keyboard a workable proposition.

In designing iPad on an updated version of the company’s iPhone operating system (OS) rather than modifying their PC OS, Apple is betting tablets will be used differently (and less openly) than bigger, more powerful computers. Like the iPhone, the iPad’s App-based interface means it treats the Internet as a system of informative or entertaining tunnels with Apps for entrances, rather than as an interconnected Web of information and data.

Of course just like in the smartphone marketplace, Apple grabs the headlines, but plenty of competition is lining up to compete with the iPad on both price and more importantly functionality. Computer makers, big and small, are all busy putting together their own visions of what the tablet computer can be.

Some of the new entrants such as the JooJoo from upstart company Fusion Garage are trying to out pad the iPad, and that designed-from-the-ground-up machine looks to be a sleek media device that does the Web in full. However, other companies including HP, Dell, Verizon, MSI, ASUS and Archos are working on or have already released machines relying on existing software, with tablets pretty much evenly dividing between those running Microsoft’s Windows 7 and Google’s mobile Android OS.

Where they fit

“It is now possible to not only make a tablet PC that is easy to use, reliable and responsive, but also to make them inexpensive.”

The question of where and how tablet computers will be used has held the machines back for some time. Certain tasks, whether because of the processing and graphics power required or because of the interface requirements, will never be a good match for tablet computers. Still, many tasks including watching videos, consuming news and short bits of data entry are ideal for the quick, mobile convenience of a tablet.

The App-based OS Apple decided on is perfect for those sort of tasks and the company imagines iPad to be something of a mobile TV, eReader, futuristic newsstand, digital picture frame and social media hub. Apps make those features accessible with the touch of a finger. Other tablet computers will be doing similar things whether they have the openness of a full-scale OS or the tunnel-vision approach of a mobile OS.

So, as with any computer, the usefulness of tablets will really come down to the software that’s available. If someone creates the right program, tablet systems could have great application to the dental lab environment, and as capabilities continue to grow and prices continue to shrink, tablets are bound to get more accessible. On form alone, the single piece with no external moving parts or large openings is ideal for a manufacturing environment.

Imagine having a simple slate that moves along with the progress of a case. On it and easily accessible is all of the data related to the case, including digital scans, case plans, a step-by-step fabrication check-list, digital sign off and more. It would also likely provide a way to instantly contact the dentist from benchside via e-mail, instant messaging, VOIP call or (if the tablet is Web cam enabled) video. Data from every step in the process could be wirelessly and automatically synched into the lab’s records. In a training environment, such a system could provide instant links to online information related to the techniques required to complete every step of fabrication.

Or instead of having one tablet to travel throughout the lab, every bench station could inexpensively be equipped with a tablet that automatically detects a sensor in a case tray to provide all of the information possibly needed. Sure that software doesn’t yet exist, but tablets that could run it do, and there are plenty of other visions of how tablets could come into play for business as well as for fun.

The tablet market is just starting to get going and like the first generation of any new technology, the first generation iPad leaves a lot to be desired. It could use a Web cam and multi-tasking capability among other things, but the kinks will be worked out eventually and a machine fitting between a smartphone and a desktop might be a nice fit for plenty of computer users.

Noah Levine writes the monthly Tech Smart column on consumer electronics for Dental Lab Products. Contact him at nlevine@advanstar.com.