The future arrives with every tick of the clock. Some ticks of the clock, however, are more important than others. So it was Wednesday when the future arrived in the form of the Apple tablet computer.
The iPad (a name already subject to much speculation and snickering) is mostly what we expected. It's slim, slick, connected and features a virtual keyboard. Despite some apparent shortcomings (it doesn't have a built-in camera!?!), it looks like a solid first step into a slate-computing future that movies seem to have been promising us for decades.
I was a tablet skeptic, a disbeliever that the segment would ever get beyond clunky convertible laptops and unsatisfying interfaces that left people asking: Why wouldn't I just use a regular laptop with its trackpad and keyboard?
And they were right. Why wouldn't you? So nobody did and, despite the best efforts of Microsoft an its hardware partners, the tablet-style computers that did come out didn't catch on with a wide audience.
My whole mind on the subject did a 180 about a week after I'd been living with my iPhone 3GS. Suddenly I wasn't using my laptop around the house. I was sending e-mail, doing Web searches, controlling the remote iTunes collection connected to my stereo, reading the New York Times and Bloomberg, playing games, watching YouTube and buying stuff, all on my petite "phone." Then it hit me. This would be even better for so many things — other than making voice calls — if it was a little bigger.
That was my moment of tablet conversion. It happened on my sofa in the living room as I was catching up with the day's news. Or was it when I was looking up player stats while watching the U.S. Open tennis tournament on TV?
Three things are coming together here: the rise of the gestural interface — best exemplified by the iPhone, the indispensable nature of the Internet to everyday life and the ubiquity of high-speed wireless networks.
This just wouldn't be an important moment if it weren't for Apple's interface expertise. They have made interacting with devices seem more natural, more human. It's feels second nature to swipe, pinch, tap and touch on an iPhone. That's no small trick.
A handy object that responds to your every caress is a seductive proposition. And that's one reason why the Apple iPad will succeed where others have failed.
My All Tech colleague Eyder Peralta argues that the larger form factor will turn what is a pleasing user experience in the iPhone into a clumsy user experience in the iPad. I don't buy it. The iPhone succeeds best as a media portal and Internet access point, stengths that will only be enhanced by an increase in size.
Society today is built around constantly consuming information from the Internet, and occasionally feeding information back into it. We shop, connect with friends, get directions, check the weather and laugh at dumber-than-dumb Internet memes. The Internet is the public commons, the central market and private living room for visiting with friends, all at once.
A small tablet based on the iPhone-interaction model should make it easier to visit these virtual spaces where we now live so much of our lives.
But what about a keyboard? Don't I need a keyboard to type up notes from the big office meeting, or latest opus for my blog on the virtues of tatoos in hidden places? You can't seriously expect me to use a virtual keyboard? The thing would have to levitate to be useful.
On the keyboard, I admit, we'll just have to wait and see if it works in practice. My own feeling is that I can do 90 percent of what I need to do without actually typing on a full keyboard. I can't say whether that other 10 percent will render the iPad pointless.
Ultimately, I think the iPad will succeed because it's another step toward the future of computing. It's handy, it's always connected to the Internet and the Apple-developed interface should feel natural.