Martyn Day gets excited about the new breed of tablet PCs on offer

12 May 2010

IT revolutions are few and far between but the new breed of tablet PCs offer a new form factor plus a new human/machine interface. Martyn Day gets more than a bit excited about his new Apple iPad as he waves goodbye to the keyboard

I am currently sat in Chicago waiting for a plane home after being stranded by an eruption of a volcano whose name nobody can pronounce. The resultant weeks of delay have helped me refine my road-warrior IT set-up and thoroughly test out the iPad that I bought on launch day in San Francisco. With a ten hour battery life, word processing, email, spreadsheets, photos, music and videos and more, it does about 80% of what I need from a laptop, but more elegantly and in a super-thin package. The iPad is indeed a beautiful thing, useful and actually cheap.

While there has been more than a bit of hype surrounding the iPad, I have to admit that the machine goes way beyond my expectations. At computer graphics and web browsing it’s quite simply the fastest machine I own, yet it only has a 1GHz processor. It’s a demonstration of what can be done with custom silicon optimised for a lightweight operating system and the engineering of this thing is exemplary. All of this power is literally at your fingertips and there is enough juice in the machine to last a transatlantic flight with two hours to spare. It’s a device you want to use and is instantly responsive. It also attracts people like a small fluffy puppy, so if your ideal speed date is with a geek, buy an iPad.

There are limitations, of course. It cannot multi-task, it doesn’t have a document filing system and there is no support for Flash. The most annoying thing however is the speed at which the screen looks like it has been smeared with goose fat.

The next OS update will fix multi-tasking and the file issue, but Flash isn’t going to happen anytime soon and you’ll need to develop borderline obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to hand cleanliness.

For those of you who have always surfed the technology wave, I am sure you would remember the first attempt at the tablet market. These Windows-based machines ran a barely altered operating system on low power processors and totally failed to gain any traction in the mobile market.

I remember running Vectorworks on one machine and the battery was dead within the hour. Simply put, the hardware guys had developed the wrong solution for the right idea. Windows wasn’t designed to be used with a stylus and the whole combination crashed and burned never to realise the dreams of the developers.

We had to wait a decade before the industry could get it right, but Apple isn’t the only company to be hitting this market. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft demonstrated the HP Slate ahead of the iPad launch. The HP machine is rumoured to have a battery life of five hours but may also benefit from running a variant of Windows with the familiar Windows applications, which the iPad can’t. However, in development terms, this is early days and for Apple the Apps are in the works, especially considering the company has sold over one million iPads in the first month.

The only certainty in all this is that this time around the Tablet PC is here to stay and having used one for a month I am sure it will revolutionise both how we work with computers and where we use them.

Engineering tablets

So will tablets impact the engineering space? Most certainly. The first design-related application was Sketchbook Pro from Autodesk, which enhanced its iPhone conceptual design application for the iPad. It doesn’t take too great a leap to see how these devices will work well for view and markup of engineering drawings, or as an interface for project browsing. There are times when a laptop is too cumbersome or just not necessary. Here a graphics tablet with touch capability will be a better-suited technology solution.

Apple has the benefit that both Dassault Systèmes and Autodesk had already developed applications for the iPhone, for sketching and viewing 3D models. A port to the iPad is straightforward. It’s what happens next that will be interesting.

Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk told me that the iPad opens all sorts of possibilities for development, for instance an application that can view DWF or DWG files, or further enhancements to its conceptual design tools.

If the CAD software is being run in the cloud, all you need is an Internet browser and a broadband connection and suddenly your tablet is running high-end 3D CAD over the Web

To help enhance the accuracy of drawing there are already styli available for the iPhone and iPad - fingers are great but with the size of my ‘porky pies’, they are no mouse replacements for CAD.

Another intriguing opportunity comes with SaaS, or Cloud-based CAD. If the CAD software is being run in the cloud, all you need is an Internet browser and a broadband connection and suddenly your tablet is running high-end 3D CAD over the Web. This is a very real opportunity, with the main downside being the size of the screen. The Apple iPad’s 9.1” screen is ideal for viewing content but it’s too small for everyday CAD work. So ideally I’d like a 19” iPad please! I admit it would lose some of its portability but it would be a worthwhile trade off.

Conclusion

After first faltering, it looks like the tablet is finally going to deliver the goods. The machines that will follow the initial iPad will drive this new market segment to dominate personal computing. With software developers excited about the new potential and currently evaluating how they can port their engineering tools, I’d predict that within the next two years tablet PCs will be commonplace in engineering firms and used for a diverse range of applications, from conference calls and field work to conceptual design. Get your fingers ready.

Martyn Day is consulting editor of DEVELOP3D.
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