The Tablet Behind the Curtain.

In the fall of 2003, the freshmen of Grove City College received Compaq Evo N620c laptops. It was the first computer I owned, the first laptop anyone in my family owned, and a brilliant little computer. The screen was beautiful. The build, sturdy. The memory, speed, storage, portability, and connectivity were top of the line. In less than a year, however, I would be unhappy with my machine.

Students arriving in the fall of 2004 received the HP Compaq TC1100. The 11oo was the first tablet I had ever seen in person, and was inferior to my laptop in every way. It had a slower processor, a smaller screen, and a flimsy, cramped keyboard. It was not a workhorse. Want to compress a video, play Day of Defeat, or view two windows side-by-side? This was not the computer for you. It had, however, one massive advantage: a pen-enabled touchscreen. I love touch screens.

For context, consider this: while in high school, I purchased a Sony Clié PEG S320. The S320 was smaller than an iPod Touch, had a black-and-white (really, black-and-green) screen, and 8mb of built-in memory. It cost $200, but it was a marvelous machine. I could take notes, read e-books, play games, and generally organize and amuse myself at all times.

When I outgrew (full disclosure: broke) the S320, I doubled down and purchased a Dell Axim X5 Advanced for about $300. The Axim was the S320′s evil twin. Dell’s offering was powerful where Sony’s was lacking, bright and glaring rather than matte and muted, chunky not svelte. It still fit in my pocket, but I never forgot it was there. Its girth was forgivable, though; for hiding within its brickish exterior were powerful specs: a 400mhz processor, 64mb of RAM + 48mb of ROM, Compact Flash and Secure Digital expansion slots, a 16-bit color screen. I added a wireless CF card. I could now access the Internet from anywhere that broadcast a signal — my bed, the residence halls, the student union. I watched movies, listened to music, checked my email, and waxed nostalgic with emulated NES games like Tetris, Contra, and Super Mario Bros.

This, again, is where I was in 2004 when the 1100 appeared in every dewy-eyed freshman’s backpack. It did everything my Axim did, but it did them bigger and better. Integrated wireless, full screen movies, handwritten, electronically stored notes in class — think of the possibilities. I was majoring in economics. We blossoming economists drew a lot of charts in those classes. That meant traditional computers weren’t much help.  Or consider watching a movie in bed: why struggle with the extra weight of a keyboard, and who needs those additional inches of screen when the picture is hovering a mere arm’s-length away? I had a wireless mouse and keyboard, secondary monitor, and external hard drive already. The tablet didn’t need to do everything; it only needed to allow those productivity-enhancing peripherals to seamlessly connect and work their magic.

Alas, I never did manage to convince anyone to switch with me, and it’s probably for the best. Neither the 1100 nor the Axim put the new paradigm at the forefront of their approach. For Microsoft, tablets and PDAs were computers just like desktops and laptops. The touch capability was bolted on. A revolutionary idea unrecognized and poorly executed.

Which is why I eagerly await the now all but certain announcement that Apple has manufactured the world’s first tablet conceived and built with a touch operating system in mind. I won’t be able to afford one immediately, but I see its place in my house already. That PC I have in the family room? Gone. Banished to some office somewhere to consort with the printer and extra hard drives. When friends come over and need to look up their fantasy team stats, I’ll hand them the tablet. We’ll pass it around like the dusty photo albums of yore. The tactile experience will be immediately familiar and intuitive. When we want to watch a video together, we’ll huddle up; or, maybe, I’ll press a button, and the video will stream straight to my Apple TV. The now-connected tablet I hold suddenly emerges encostumed as a controller for flicking photos, pinching-and-zooming, tilting, gyrating, and manipulating the television screen. Games, videos, and applications alike succumb to its voodoo spell.

My whole (short) life, I was looking for that pocketable machine that would let me stay organized, entertained, and connected. I needed a phone that could play music, browse the Internet, and store notes. The Clié was nice, but the technology hadn’t come even close to being ready. The Axim had competitors that offered to be that device, but the user interfaces were poor, the mobile Internet was a joke, and, to be honest, I had no way to afford the monthly data bill anyway. The iPhone, however, was just right. I say with the utmost sincerity, the iPhone obliterated the reigning cellphone / PDA paradigm. It had the best Internet browser by an order of magnitude, the best interface, the best build quality, and the best music and video player. Other phones and PDAs were now competing for scraps. External keyboard? Exchange support? A different network? Those were the only — meager — advantages.

I waited. After two years, when the time was right, I bought the third version of the iPhone. It has been and is everything that I dreamed of when I bought that Palm-powered Clié nearly a decade ago. The iPhone is king. (To the industry’s credit, competitors are slowly emerging. When my contract with AT&T ends in 18 months, the landscape may be different enough that buying something that isn’t an iPhone won’t be the dumbest decision I’ll ever make. But all the credit goes to Apple. The pace and direction are entirely their doing.)

That is why I can’t wait to see the tablet computer Apple is hiding behind the curtain. The 1100 tantalized me with the possibilities this form factor allows. The iPhone showed me what Apple is capable of achieving and how a touch OS ought to work.

I’m saving up, Apple. I’ll see you in two years.

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