All the rumor mongering surrounding Apple's expected upcoming release of a humongous-screened iPod misses the point. A search of the USPTO database reveals that Apple isn't even the leader in Webpad patents. Hey, doesn't anyone remember the Windows-based Tablet frenzy, circa 2002? So the big deal this time is that Apple will legitimize the platform, particularly for business users. Indeed, I believe mobile Webpads could edge out netbooks--and even debuzz smartphones somewhat--and become the big alt.platform story of 2010.
OK, first let's get the name speculation out of the way. Everyone's all atwitter about "iSlate" and "TabletMac" as the possible contenders; these were uncovered by MacRumors. (See screengrabs below of the trademark information, which I obtained off of the U.S Patent and Trademark Office's TESS trademark database.)
MacRumors posits that Slate Computing LLC, which is listed as the owner of the iSlate mark, is actually a dummy Apple corporation. Hence the speculation that iSlate will be the name of the tablet, whose announcement is now widely assumed to be imminent, though there are no facts extant on this score. (Personally, I'm voting for "Humongous iPod" as the name, or better yet, "GinormousPod." That's what it's going to be, right?)
Anyway, the purpose of this post, in keeping with the business technology emphasis of this Web site -- a point of key differentiation now and throughout 2010, by the way -- is that, while iSlate/iPad/GinormousPod will be a consumer game-changer, I submit that it'll also have significant enterprise applications.
Firstly, it will legitimize the Tablet PC, which was the subject of a mostly abortive push by Microsoft and a passel of hardware partners -- including Toshiba, HP, Acer, NEC, Fujitsu, and Siemens. The tablets hit the market in November, 2002, upon the release of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. (Here's a link to an article, Putting Pen to Screen On Tablet PCs, I wrote at the time for the October, 2002 issue of IEEE Spectrum [pdf download].)
You might argue that Windows tablets have indeed found a home, precisely in the biz tech applications about which I appear so concerned. You'd be correct, kind of. I think it's fair to say that purpose-built tablets are widely used in verticals -- we've all signed the pen-based thingies carried around by the UPS and FedEx delivery folks.
Apple's use of the touch screen and soft keypad have obviated those issues. (Much as I think soft keypads suck, the iPhone has proved that people can and will use them to do real work, aka sending emails.)
One of the most cogent comments regarding such usuability features emerged in a Slashdot thread on the iSlate. A commenter noted that Apple's big contribution to any technology isn't so much the technology itself, but rather well-designed user interfaces. This really rings true, and is why Apple is likely to succeed in tablets where the 2002 Windows crew failed.
Thus I believe the release of Apple's iSlate/iPad/GinormousPod will reenergize the market for business tablets. The likes of Toshiba, Fujitsu, and HP -- which could all justifiably claim they never left those markets -- will reemerge with a vengeance. (Here's HP's Tablet PC link.)
Indeed, the big story of 2010 could be that Webpads will relegate Netbooks to the consumer space. Consider, for example, that mobile CRM, which has advanced at a slow-to-moderate clip on smartphones, could explode once tablets are in the hands of business users. (I can imagine that salesfolks forced to enter the client calls in near-real time will not be amused.)
A final point on Apple as a refiner-versus-inventor. If you search of patents and patent applications for portable tablets, you turn up a bunch of other companies, but no Apple. This makes sense. Since most tablet technology is prior art, Apple's iSlate/iPad/GinormousPod is more in the way of a trade secret than a patent-protected product. Hey, given the continued success of the iPhone and iPod against all comers, maybe Apple doesn't even care who tries to copy it.
OK, so here are two interesting design patents for portable tablets. The first is from Quanta Computer out of Taiwan. It's for the rather big-iPod-tablet-like D543,979, awarded in 2007. (Note that design patents don't lock up the rights to technology; they're just for a presentation.)
The second is a 2008 patent for a clunkier looking design from Samsung. This one, patent number7,414,680, has the odd title " Liquid crystal display and tablet computer having the same." (That's how the patent reads.) The apparent meaning is that the display and tablet are part of the same thing--i.e., the tablet. So this one could potentially have some licensing implications.
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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.