Apple iPad: We've reached Star Trek-nology

Summary:After 44 Years, the PADD in the guise of Apple's iPad is added to the pantheon of "Treknology" that was first envisioned in Gene Roddenberry's STAR TREK.

Special Report: Apple iPad

After 44 Years, the PADD in the guise of Apple's iPad is added to the pantheon of "Treknology" that was first envisioned in Gene Roddenberry's STAR TREK.

<cue Alexander Courage music> Tablets. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of Apple Computer Corporation, its never-ending mission to open brave new markets, to seek out new loyal customers and new patent infringing lawsuits, to boldy generate profit that no consumer electronics company has generated before... WHOOOOSH!

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Let's face it, those of us placing an order for an iPad tomorrow may have all kinds of excuses to justify to our spousal units for why we think we need the device, but in reality we are only doing it for one reason: We're nerds and have an obsession with wanting to be part of a living Star Trek episode.

Apple's use of Star Trek in their print, Internet and television advertising is no co-incidence.

The name "iPad" itself evokes the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) which is the term used for the gadget that was first introduced in the original series in 1966 and was coined in 1987 on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show's first TV revival.

Also Read: Advances in TREKnology (05/09)

Pervasive tablet computing, first introduced on Star Trek and seen in many other Sci-Fi TV series and movies since, has been a dream for those of us wanting a
portable computer with a human-friendly touchscreen user interface.

While Apple is to be given ample credit in what will probably be the popularizing of the Slate/Tablet form factor, there have been many attempts by lots of individuals and companies to make the PADD a reality.

The first academic attempt at writing the functional specifications for the PADD was pioneered by technologist Alan Kay in 1968, and was published in a paper by Xerox Palo Alto Research Laboratories (PARC) in 1972.

This theoretical device, called the "Dynabook" was originally intended to be deployed as an educational device for "children of all ages" with a target cost of $100.00. While this magical number and price threshold has yet to be reached, this theme of low-cost computing for the masses has continued to this very day with the OLPC project founded by Nicholas Negroponte and which Kay serves as an advisory board member.

Also Read: Can We Finally Realize Alan Kay's "Dynabook" for $100? (11/08)

The Dynabook and PADD remained purely within the realm of science fiction until the mass production of microprocessors, in which early pen-based computers such as the Pencept were used for handwriting recognition applications. But the Pencept and early products like it were not portable devices.

The first true "Tablet" computing device was the GRiDPad, released in 1990 by GRiD Systems, an early pioneer in laptop computers. GRiD was acquired by Tandy, the parent corporation of Radio Shack, which later released the Zoomer, one of the first PDA devices, and had the distinction of being created by Jeff Hawkins, who would later go on to found Palm Computing and then HandSpring with his partner Donna Dubinsky.

The Palm/Handspring devices became extremely successful, but they were not true PADD-like devices. Instead, they firmly established the PDA device category which would later on become what we know today as Smartphones.

Several other companies during the 1990s attempted to mass market pen and tablet-based systems but failed to popularize them, such as Go Corporation, Momenta and Wang. Apple Computer itself also launched its first attempt at this time to release something close to the PADD in terms of actual form factor and with a similar CPU architecture to the iPad -- the Newton MessagePad, in 1993.

The Newton was developed and released during the time in which Steve Jobs was "exiled" from the company and was deemed to be a huge commercial failure, due to its high cost and difficult and highly proprietary development platform which hampered the amount of 3rd-party applications which were created for the device.

Jobs himself killed the product in 1998 shortly after returning to the company as interim CEO in late 1996, and for over a decade it was thought that Apple would never return to this form factor ever again.

Since the failure of the Newton, the Tablet or PADD form-factor has always come under intense scrutiny, as no manufacturer or company has been able to make the concept stick.

In the last decade, Microsoft along with its OEM partners attempted several Tablet PCs using Windows XP and Windows Vista, but the devices were large and heavy and gave off a lot of heat.

HP's Slate, which also runs on the full-blown Windows 7 OS is expected to compete aggressively with iPad in terms of price and features, and solves the weight/size/heat issues of its fore-bearers, but its ensuing success (or lack thereof, depending on who you talk to) remains to be seen.

In addition to the HP Slate, Microsoft has also introduced the Courier concept, but so far no concrete plans to produce the device, release design specifications or the platform it would run on have been announced.

While the iPad's commercial success isn't guaranteed, it seems likely that based on its iPhone DNA and huge application ecosystem that it has probably one of the best chances of becoming the device that finally validates the Tablet form factor.

At the end of the day, and even after all of Apple's hard work, we have Gene Roddenberry and his visionary designers from Star Trek to thank for the inspiration for this technological marvel -- the PADD.

Is the iPad the ultimate realization of Star Trek's portable computing vision? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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