What the iPad and Its Ilk Could Mean for Home Computing

The iPad has no doubt kindled a spark among personal computing futurists (pun unintended but interesting), though few recognize what widespread diffusion of these platforms may mean for average consumers, especially in the home. This essay is not about the pros and cons of the iPad platform per se, nor about the mobile possibilities. Instead, it centers on the impact that rapid diffusion of easy-to-use, widget-based tablets will have on the future of in-home computing. And they will have an impact…

Learn to Take the Good with the Bad (and Occasionally Ignore the Ugly)

Yes, the iPad is relatively expensive. Yes, it is closed. Yes, it further extends Apple’s tightly-controlled ecosystem onto an ever-broadening array of usage domains. Yes, WiFi receptivity is an issue, as is the “walled garden” of sanctioned applications, the lack of support for Flash video, etc. And, yes, all of these shortcomings piss me off.

All the same, I do not regret deciding to purchase a $699 64-GB Wi-Fi-only iPad, not in the slightest. It is sleek, fast, and highly functional, and consistent with my expectations of the first-generation of Apple tablets. And just as the iPhone was a huge step forward for mobile computing, the introduction of the iPad is a huge step forward for tablet computing.

But I want to shift the conversation beyond the current narrative and focus instead on a few of the ways that consumers are likely to use this type of platform within the digital home of the not-so-distant future; emerging usage models no doubt hastened by the introduction of the iPad.

What the iPhone is to the Mobile Web, the iPad will be to the Home Web

Just as the iPhone spurred the advance of mobile computing and made mobile web use a daily activity for many Americans, the iPad will spur the advance of tablet computing and alter the way in which the Internet is engaged in the home. No, tablets will not replace the PC, be it a desktop or notebook. It will, however, change the way in which consumers use the web…and in a good way.In terms of the applications and usage scenarios most likely to be advanced, I offer the following (admittedly incomplete) list. The reader is encouraged to think beyond the gen-one iPad. Again, this is less about the iPad specifically than it is about the platform in general. I am certain this list will encourage discussion (if not outright fistfights).

  1. The tablet as a shared platform for whole-home computing. As I described to a group of Intel executives some five years ago, the digital home of the future will likely have a single server and a variety of multi-purpose thin tablets that will be used by household members to access local and web-based applications and content. Imagine a rack that charges and holds two or three of these tablets (much like gaming terminals used in your favorite pub), and an easy-to-use widget-based interface that enables a wide variety of applications. The iPad represents a meaningful step in this direction.

  2. The tablet as an entertainment remote control. There is no doubt that, properly equipped, an iPad-like web tablet would be the perfect multi-source, multi-function remote control. Demand is already there; the challenge is to make it happen, and there is no doubt several vendors will soon address this need. Companies like OpenPeak are already supplying telecom operators like Verizon and Telefonica with the “OpenTablet,” a platform that looks very much like the first-gen iPad and features a variety of entertainment and home controls. These tablets will be able to interface with, access, and shift all sorts of content and applications to other connected devices.

  3. The tablet as a home management and control platform. While the iPad is hardly an open platform (all apps must be vetted by Apple), application developers from across the home control spectrum will enable a variety of apps that exploit this platform, thus reducing the need for dedicated, brand-specific home control interfaces such as those offered by Crestron.

    Why pay an extra $500 or more for this type of “touchpanel” when this same functionality can be downloaded to an iPad? You wouldn’t, and that’s why Crestron, unlike OpenPeak whose business depends on hardware sales, has already launched an iPad app for just this purpose.

  4. A secondary TV that can be used in any part of the residence. Homeowners will no longer need to buy a second stand-alone TV for each room, instead having a couple web tablets that can access TV and online video customized to the specific user. This is an especially useful application given the fact that younger consumers watch so much online video on their PCs and, as TDG predicts, much of the video viewed on home TVs will soon come from online sources. As the price of the iPad comes down (and it will, by several hundred dollars for Christmas 2010), these platforms will become an inexpensive way to extend video viewing (and Internet access, in general) to every room of the home.

  5. A “coffee table” platform for immediate access to relevant news and weather. The simple widget-based interface of the iPad foretells of a day when consumers will not have to hassle with booting-up a PC or typing URLs in order to access content. For example, The Weather Channel widget pulls up real-time weather for your specific locale, all on-demand. No need to enter a URL or wait for a TV broadcast to get around to such details.

  6. An easy-on-the-eye platform for reading all sorts of online newspapers and magazines. iPad-like tablets offer a much simpler way to enjoy online text, offering a wide variety of widgets by which to access your favorite periodicals. Again, the consumer no longer needs to haul out and boot-up a laptop in order to read online text.

  7. A platform your grandmother could use (yes, the expression is overused but this time it really applies). Using the iPad is sinfully simple for basic applications like email communications and viewing online photos and video, the stuff that most appeals to those older consumers that have yet to buy into the PC culture. I intend to sneak an iPad into my mom’s home as a digital picture frame, and then teach her how to use it for the stuff that matters most to her. Yes, this is the same woman for whom I purchased an Apple iMac and who, though properly configured for easy use, could not bring herself to engage it. I swear this time will be different!

Ultimately, Apple’s iPad will advance the tablet PC market in the same way the iPhone advanced the mobile phone market: both in terms of functionality and mainstream appeal. Thanks to Apple’s entry into this market space, the value proposition for web tablets will rapidly become less about the hardware and more about the applications it enables – precisely as it should be.

As I have said on several occasions, vendors and service providers must cease talking to consumers about “the technology” and show them what it will do…as individual human beings. After that, consumers will be much more likely to buy into the vision espoused by tech leviathans.

Yes, it will take several years before mainstream consumers buy into this vision, but let there be no doubt that the introduction of Apple’s iPad—an easy-to-use, app-driven platform with loads of useful home applications—will be the first step toward a revolution in in-home computing.

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