Since CES 2011, more than fifty tablet computers have been announced. This flood of new tablet products is the collective response to the iPad and its success in the market place. For over a decade, tablets have existed in one form or another. For that entire time, however, tablets failed to catch on in any meaningful way. The key reason for this failure is namely Microsoft and its partners. They built tablets like they built PCs - hardware designed to run Windows. Windows was not an operating system particularly well designed for mobile hardware, but most importantly, its interface was not designed to be touched. Taking a desktop PC operating system and shrinking it for use with a stylus just wasn't very useful.
With the introduction of the iPad last year, Apple got it right where everybody else got it wrong. The key in delivering a tablet that was actually useful, was designing an interface, from the ground up, built for touch. Coupled with advanced hardware that was thin, lightweight and very, very good at conserving battery power, Apple successfully created the first tablet appliance. Regardless of what the iPad does, or some of the things it fails to do, it's an appliance. It doesn't try to be all things to all people, and it's easy enough for even the most novice user to master. Going forward, any product competing with the iPad will need to be more appliance and less PC to have any chance at success.
Being an appliance, the iPad has its share of shortcomings. And a 10-inch screen creates an obvious set of limitations when compared to a traditional PC. These limitations can be summed up best by the notion that tablets are for consuming information and content - not creating it. All things being equal, I agree with that assertion - but all things are not equal.
Enter AirPlay. This is Apple's baked in protocol that allows iPads, iPhones, iPods and Macs to stream whatever video they're playing, wirelessly to your TV. It's very cool technology. With an Apple TV device connected to your HDTV, anyone with an iDevice or Mac can stream video (movies, TV, music videos, podcasts, YouTube, etc.), directly to your TV. Imagine playing an HD movie on your big screen, streamed from the phone on your belt. That's what AirPlay is. It's media liberated (free as in freedom, not as in beer).
There's much more to the AirPlay story, and some very important new functionality is coming soon. Video is only the first frontier of making mobile devices talk to big screens.
When considering the usefulness of a mobile device like the iPad, it's physical size is a big deal. It's incredibly portable and with portability comes very real trade-offs. The two most significant tradeoffs are screen real-estate and processing power.
For those who create content and work with lots of information for a living, a tablet computer can't possibly function as a primary computer. In order to get real work done and for anyone who creates content, screen real-estate and processing power are must-haves.
However, the notion that mobile computers like the iPad can't be used for creating content is about to be thrown out the window. Only a year after the iPad's introduction, we're about to witness the the rebirth of the tablet as a device for getting real work done. 2011 is the start of a rapid shift in computer use (Torusoft calls it the Mobile Revolution), where mass numbers of traditional PC users ditch their desktop and laptops for the iPad. Here's why:
AirPlay is going to be opened up to app developers. This means that apps running on your iPad will be able to display high resolution interfaces on big screens. It means that the tablet on your lap or on your desk is going to start driving computer monitors like our PCs do today. At the same time, processing power in the next iPad is likely going to increase by an order of magnitude. Together, these two developments pave the way for a tiny mobile computer to start powering interfaces and workspaces required for creating content.
Picture it this way: Opening the photos app on your iPad gives you a familiar touch interface designed for a 10-inch screen. With AirPlay, touching a button transfers the photos app to your TV (or PC monitor), giving you a massive workspace by comparison. While the iPad displays the photo app on your big screen, the iPad's touch screen is used to control the app. Like the photo app, imagine a web page displayed on your big screen, while the iPad's touch screen is used to control the browser.
There are endless possibilities for AirPlay, but at the end of the day, your iPad will no longer be limited to using software built for a 10-inch screen. We're going to end up with apps that offer an interface for portability and touch as well as an interface for traditional, large screens. Considering the iPad already talks to Bluetooth keyboards, communicating with a mouse is a no-brainer. Sitting down at your workspace, the iPad adapts it's software for big screens, keyboards and mice. Walking away from your workspace, the iPad adapts its software back to the 10-inch touch screen. This upcoming reality will shatter classic ideas about mobile devices vs. traditional computers. Tablets will no longer be relegated to only consuming content. They're going to become content creators.
Another story here is games. With technology like AirPlay, your iPad can serve as a game controller while the gameplay is displayed on your TV. Essentially, it's the controller as the console. Imagine a racing game where the iPad screen is a steering wheel driving a car on your TV. Imagine Monopoly where the game board is on your TV while each player's iPad is used for managing their properties, assets and transactions. Again, the possibilities are endless.
Currently, there's no confirmed date for AirPlay to be made available to app developers, but all indications are soon. The iPad 2 is likely going to be announced well before March. Rumour sites suggest iOS 4.3 will see AirPlay released to developers. Even if it isn't, it's going to be released to the wild soon and there's nothing else like it coming from other manufacturers. AirPlay can easily reinvent what a Tablet is and what's they're used for. It's a critical piece of technology that makes the iPad so much more useful, and that translates to even faster adoption.
Technologies like AirPlay are very disruptive. The entire paradigm of personal computing is starting to come apart at the seams. Apple's competitors are scrambling to catch up with the iPad of last year. Meanwhile, the tablet is about to be reinvented again and this time, millions of people - even content creators, won't need or want traditional PCs. Game consoles and the nature of computer gaming will also drastically change as developers rush to support AirPlay. The iPad is about to become a singular mobile device for consuming, creating and gaming, and few people see it coming.
2011 is the year when tablets become viable replacements for traditional computers. After nearly three decades, the personal computer, along with it's complexity and bulk is about to go the way of the dodo bird. It's about time.