Fast Forward: There shouldn't be just one template for tablet success

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; G03

Maybe Bill Gates was right all along about tablet computing.

Seven and a half years ago, the Microsoft founder tried to forecast the future of the company's new "Tablet PC" technology. He boldly predicted that displays, batteries and storage would see such improvements that "virtually every PC user" would want one of these touch-screen devices.

But the company that finally put those ingredients together in a way that excited the mass market was not Microsoft, but Apple.

Five weeks ago, that Cupertino, Calif., firm introduced the iPad (perhaps you've heard of it?). And in the first 28 days after its April 2 launch, Apple sold 1 million of the things.

For most of that time, I've had a loaner model from Apple's public relations department at home, and it's been interesting to see how often that iPad winds up being used instead of a laptop. Between a standby battery life measured in weeks and a wakeup time measured in tenths of a second, it's just easier to grab the iPad first -- to check the weather, look up a recipe or pluck some other random factoid off the Web.

As a result, the iPad's glossy screen now bears a dense accumulation of fingerprints.

A week ago, Apple shipped a mobile-broadband-enabled version of the iPad. This "iPad with WiFi + 3G" can connect to the Internet using AT&T Wireless as well as nearby WiFi networks. The 3G iPad starts at $629 for a model advertised as offering 16 gigabytes of storage -- that's $130 more than the entry-level WiFi model.

On an $829, 64 GB model lent to me by Apple, AT&T's signal typically offered downloads of around 1.5 million bits per second, with uploads a tenth as fast. So video that would have come close to high-definition in the ABC Player application looked more like a standard-grade YouTube clip over 3G. (Some video apps may refuse to run over 3G.)

The iPad 3G's cellular radio held back its battery life, but not by much: With its screen forced to stay on while it played through a music library, the review model lasted just under 10 hours, two less than the WiFi unit.

You can pay for 3G service in two ways: $14.99 buys a usage quota of 250 megabytes, while $29.99 covers unlimited access for a month. (That's "unlimited" without an asterisk.) But although these plans are pitched as no-contract, they renew automatically unless you cancel your account.

And because Apple decided to use a smaller version of the standard SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, you can't grab any other prepaid SIM and use that instead of AT&T's.

In the month or so that I've let an iPad do part of a laptop's work, other issues have emerged. Far more sites use Adobe's Flash technology -- verboten on the iPad and the iPhone -- than I'd expected, even such multimedia-free zones as Intuit's ItsDeductible charitable-donations application. It's not the iPad's designers' fault that some companies don't know how to write Web pages, but it is an iPad user's problem.

Apple, meanwhile, doesn't seem interested in relaxing its strict and often arbitrary control of the App Store, the only authorized way to add new programs to an iPad.

Faced with the iPad's obvious success, some once-hesitant developers are sighing and saying the equivalent of "Well, that's where the money is."

But if the idea of a Microsoft- dominated market for tablet computers didn't excite everybody in 2002, the prospect of an Apple-owned market in 2010 shouldn't be too attractive either.

In that respect, the second most-important news in tablet computing in recent weeks may be Hewlett-Packard's April 28 agreement to purchase Palm.

Palm's new Pre and Pixi smartphones have had a disappointing reception in the market, but the elegant, touch-based webOS software it unveiled last year could work well in a tablet.

HP underscored that point in an investor presentation that repeatedly cited Palm technology's usefulness in "connected mobile devices," as illustrated with a picture of a tablet.

And by controlling both the hardware and software in a tablet -- what Apple does so well on the iPad -- HP could avoid the likely fate of the "slate" computer Microsoft demonstrated at January's Consumer Electronics Show.

The prototype I inspected at CES suffered the same problems as every other attempt to cram Windows into mobile devices: a cramped interface that required tapping the screen with a stylus instead of a thumb; sluggish performance; and heavy weight.

HP won't comment on reports that it has bailed out of this slate project -- not even to say that it will still bring such a thing to market. But I have to hope that they're true -- and that HP will have company from other manufacturers bringing smartphone operating systems such as Google's Android, the most successful iPhone alternative, to tablets.

Remember another Gates tablet-computing prophecy: "I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America." If that one also turns out to be true, we'd all benefit from having more than one option.

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