Why do tablet computers matter?

I wouldn't be all that surprised if, in ten years time, we all look back at Tablet computers and wonder what all the fuss was about. We do it with a lot of important technology - some of it is as transient as it is critical. It is my belief that tablet computers such as the iPad (or really even the iPhone or iPod Touch) and it's growing crop of competitors will prove to be the most important development in personal computing of the last couple of decades whether the tablets themselves stick around or not. The thing that has driven consumer technology since the dawn of time is it's practicality. There are a hundred technological revolutions going on at any one time, many of them are technically astounding but never really go anywhere. The reason? They don't actually benefit me and you day to day. They lack that practicality and relevance in our daily experience that makes us pick them up, and six months later realise that we can never put them down again.

The best example of recent years for me is the cellphone (or mobile phone if you're a fellow Brit). We all had phones, the concepts of telephony were as old as the hills and twice as popular; however the advance of wireless technology meant we could have one in our pockets... eventually. Everyone I think has seen the original briefcase style cellphones, unwieldy, cumbersome, heavy and mostly pointless. A few people could derive a benefit from them if their jobs were made easier by that level of availability but John Doe down the road would not sacrifice that level of convenience just so that his mother could complain at him while he was grocery shopping from across the state.

But then it happened. Phones started to fit in your pocket and your handbag (or man-bag, or whatever you have) and suddenly they are a practical day-to-day device that actually facilitates something inherent to the human condition. Something we all have a primal need to do and though it may frustrate and confound us it is absolutely necessary: communication with our social support networks. Sure, they call you at stupid times and send you the latest barely posthumous celebrity jokes by text message at 2am but the sheer convenience of being connected to someone when you want or need to be connected is the technological equivalent of evolving selective telepathy.

So what do Tablet PCs do that compares to this? Well I feel it's a little more subtle. Tablet PCs dont give us portable media consumption, roaming internet access or any such thing for which they are sold. These things are readily available in the smartphone and laptop/netbook markets and the tablets are debatably only a refinement and not an important step in this technical progression. The method of those refinements will prove to be the key.

The tablet computer is educating and informing the methods by which we interact with the raw stuff that is computing power. It doesn't matter if you're watching a movie or browsing the internet, the mode of interaction is changing. Interfaces, application design, feedback, data organisation, data presentation; the whole layer between the user and the hard logic of the hardware is having to be reconsidered and refined. We can't just build tools and educate the user on their operation, the tools have to be informed to react intuitively to the user. There are limitations that lead to better design, to being presented with only the relevant information for a task, excellent performance of narrow focuses.

We can already see this creeping back into the wider computing world. Mac OS X Lion has numerous interface improvements based entirely on the iPad's navigation and ease of use. Chrome OS eschews local storage and converts your hardware into a very thin 'Cloud Gateway' aimed very directly at a particular type of user and cut down to meet their needs specifically rather than the all-encompassing remit of Windows, OS X or Linux. It is revolutionary, but it is also incremental and subtle. The way we use computers, the point and click, drag and drop, infinitely configurable OS shell is dying and being replaced and most importantly it's not about the technical achievement or the statistics. It's about us.

This is the legacy of the Tablet PC, and it will outlive it's mother platform.