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Ubiquitous Computing 2010 - Tabs, Pads, Books and Clouds

Xerox PARC Model - Tabs, Pads and Boards

Books - The Personal Computer Survives
The Cloud & Collaborative Computing

Written By: Adam Rosen
15 March 2010

The launch of the Apple iPad, and the surrounding hype and simultaneous debunking of its supernatural abilities, has been hard to ignore. Initially perceived as another device which will revolutionize the world, it has already been second-guessed and panned by many people as too little for too much, and as of this writing it hasn't even shipped yet! Every week several of my consulting clients ask me what I think of the device, and will it be successful. Now that's good brand management!

Tab, Pad and BookShort answer: yes I think it will be successful, and will find several strong market areas. However this success will be evolutionary, just as the iPod's was. The first generation iPad actually does more than I expected for the price, which is notable for an Apple product. But I think what's more significant is what the iPad represents in the history and spectrum of computing technology.

The iPad launch got me thinking about an old paper I'd once read about "Tabs, Pads, and Boards" and how small portable computers with different form factors were the direction technology was taking. Upon further review it's amazing how well this model has held up over time. The paper was written - where else - at the famous Xerox PARC research facility, birthplace of the GUI, the mouse, and much of modern computing.

Xerox PARC Model - Tabs, Pads, and Boards

In 1991 Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC wrote an article for Scientific American magazine entitled The Computer for the 21st Century, describing an envisioned concept called Ubiquitous Computing:

“Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.”

More specifically:

"Ubiquitous computers will also come in different sizes, each suited to a particular task. My colleagues and I have built what we call tabs, pads and boards: inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes, foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine), and yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board."

This concept of small, portable computing devices - ubicomp - resonated with me, and I filed the information away for future reference. At the time Apple was transitioning from 68k to PowerPC based Macs and dialup modems reigned supreme. But in the ensuing two decades technology marched on and this vision has begun to take shape in reality.

In the article, Weiser wrote:

"Tabs are the smallest components of embodied virtuality. Because they are interconnected, tabs will expand on the usefulness of existing inch-scale computers such as the pocket calculator and the pocket organizer. Tabs will also take on functions that no computer performs today. For example [...] badges can identify themselves to receivers placed throughout a building, thus making it possible to keep track of the people or objects to which they are attached."

Xerox Tab
PARC Prototype Tab
Apple iPhone

The Tab has evolved via the convergence of the PDA, the cell phone, the RFID badge and other discreet devices into today's small handheld computers - more commonly called smartphones. The smartphone is personal, portable, stores data, interacts with "the cloud", reports on locations, etc.. The Treo, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices all crossed this threshold earlier in the decade, with the Apple iPhone (the Prodigal Son of Tabs) then following with major user interface improvements and an application development environment that have transformed the industry.

The iPhone (and smartphones in general) are at an exciting point in their development; we're past the initial "isn't this cool" stage and are developing new unforeseen applications upon which we rely daily. The Tab has arrived, and is in fact entrenched.


Weiser continued:

"The next step up in size is the pad, something of a cross between a sheet of paper and current laptop and palmtop computers. [...] Pads differ from conventional portable computers in one crucial way. Whereas portable computers go everywhere with their owners, the pad that must be carried from place to place is a failure. Pads are intended to be "scrap computers" (analogous to scrap paper) that can be grabbed and used anywhere; they have no individualized identity or importance."

Xerox Pad
PARC Prototype Pad
Apple iPad

Pads, or their more common term, tablet computers, have been around serving niche markets for over a decade but have struggled to find an identity. Most have been pen-based devices (also envisioned by Xerox), with touch screens becoming more popular as the technology has improved. The price point has not made them "scrap computers" and many are carried from place to place, but the concept of a more limited shared network resource, instead of a portable personal computer, is clear.

The Apple iPad marks the clearest emergence yet of the Pad as a component of ubiquitous computing - a cross between a full computer and a handheld smartphone, with a user interface already familiar to users of both devices. Among the hype and discussion about this new device I can already see several areas where this could be a very useful form factor; for example:

-a multimedia, internet enabled textbook reader (no stack of books to carry, complete your assignments online)
-a portal to online news and entertainment content, with a very readable screen size (unlike smartphones)
-a medical imaging playback device, enabling doctors and medical staff to access scans wherever needed

The Pad is not yet entrenched but may well soon be - over 50 devices in this form factor are planned for launch this year!

The final device is wall sized:

Microsoft Table"Yard-size displays (boards) serve a number of purposes: in the home, video screens and bulletin boards; in the office, bulletin boards, whiteboards or flip charts. A board might also serve as an electronic bookcase from which one might download texts to a pad or tab. For the time being, however, the ability to pull out a book and place it comfortably on one's lap remains one of the many attractions of paper."

Boards are just beginning to appear on the scene; the Microsoft Table is probably the best current example. More limited versions of this technology, such as sharing your screen on a wall display or projector, or smart walls which can download data to devices over the network, already exist. Yet these are not fully collaborative devices so much as large scale input and output peripherals for computers.

That the Board has not evolved to the extent the Tab and the Pad have is likely due to several reasons. One is technological, we're just now reaching the point where smart network devices are practical and affordable. But the other I believe is due more to a shift in how we've chosen to use existing technology and the concept of "cloud computing" itself.

Books - The Personal Computer Survives

In the Xerox model the desktop (personal) computer gets superceded by Tabs, Pads and Boards. There's no need to have lots of expensive CPU power on your desk when the network can do it for you. However in practice the personal computer has not gone away.

Many of us still want full keyboards, screens, peripherals, expansion slots, etc. and the associated flexibility and expansion capability this enables. Also the initial promise of cloud computing as a complete substitute for local storage and processing has not fully proven out, though this is steadily gaining in popularity (see below).

What has happened is that the form factor has changed, with laptops or portable computers becoming more popular than desktop computers in the past decade. Today many people carry laptops and connect them in their homes or offices to a larger screen and keyboard on their desks - a small Board on which to access their data.

The technology industry is often in a rush to redesign form factors in order to create a new product to sell, but sometimes the tried and true solution is better. A tactile physical keyboard is a better writing tool than a touch screen, no matter how you jazz things up.

If the personal computer doesn't go away, we need to give it a place in the Ubiquitous Computing model. In tribute to years of naming trends - notebook, netbook, PowerBook, MacBook, etc. - I suggest we can call the portable computer the Book in the spectrum of computing devices: a pinnacle of self contained knowledge, portable, with easy networking capability.

The Cloud & Collaborative Computing

If the Board is viewed conceptually as a space for collaborative computing, rather than a physical device, I think the PARC model still holds true. The networking requirements were described in Weiser's paper as a key component for Ubiquitous Computing to work:

"Prototype tabs, pads and boards are just the beginning of ubiquitous computing. The real power of the concept comes not from any one of these devices; it emerges from the interaction of all of them. The hundreds of processors and displays are not a "user interface" like a mouse and windows, just a pleasant and effective "place" to get things done."

At that time however there was no way to make everything talk to each other:

Cloud Computing"Present technologies would require a mobile device to have three different network connections: tiny range wireless, long range wireless, and very high speed wired. A single kind of network connection that can somehow serve all three functions has yet to be invented."

That network exists today, through a combination of wired ethernet, WiFi, bluetooth and digital cellular components bridged using the TCP/IP protocol. When data is stored and shared online we describe this as being in the Cloud and have the ability to access the data from multiple locations simultaneously. We can collaborate with others on our work through such "cloud computing".

The last several decades have seen various expressions of collaborative workspaces: Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, Google Office, various Content Management Systems, etc.. We're already working together, but remotely, rather than inside a shared physical space.

My thesis in a nutshell: Collaborative Computing, facilitated though the use of the Cloud, and interfaced via Tabs, Pads and Books, is the ultimate expression of the Board as Ubiquitous Workspace. As Sun used to say in it's ads, "the network is the computer"

Apple's Convergent Position

Apple is uniquely positioned to continue surfing this growing wave - as they should be. The company has consistently built on the work done at Xerox PARC since the launch of the Lisa, and many of PARC's engineers have gone on to work for Apple. The iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Macintosh and AppleTV devices all target different interfaces in the ubiquitous computing continuum, but share one important similarity - they all run OS X.

The Macintosh clearly runs OS X, as Mac OS X. The iPhone, iPod Touch, and the iPad run the "iPhone OS" which is just a visual variant (GUI, or shell) on top of OS X for these devices. The core operating system is the same. This is also true with the AppleTV, which runs OS X at heart and talks to the displays in your living room. Now we have a common OS, with multiple user interfaces, scalable to different devices with differing resolutions, applied across a common network (the internet via your local LAN).

Interesting convergent position Apple now finds themselves in - and one that's not coincidental. In this broad model the iPad and AppleTV begin to make sense as pieces of a computing spectrum, rather than be-all products themselves. I'm excited for the ride to come!

This article was also published in the Adam's Apple column on Low End Mac

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