“Everything old becomes new again.” This has been said of hair metal, skinny jeans, Valley Girl slang, and “21 Jump Street”, but the greatest example might be found in the tools that we use. Tools are developed and loved until something better comes along and we all try to joke about how horrible old technology was, and how silly we were for using those tools. But as I keep up with the IFA trade show from afar, I’m reminded of just how cyclical technology really is.
Consider the physical keyboard. The iPhone and the iPad, two of the first meaningful computing products released without physical keyboards, kicked off a revolution in touch screen technology. Almost every consumer electronics company has released a keyboard-less tablet or phone. This trend has even started to spread to traditional computers, with Sony’s “tabletop” PC nixing the physical keyboard in favor of a huge, horizontal touch-screen monitor. Traditional computers continue to get smaller and lighter because of the expectations set by tablets.
But while there are tablets available in almost any size imaginable (Samsung alone sells a variety of 7, 7.7, 8.9, and 10.1 -inch tablets) the IFA trade show demonstrated one notable trend: the addition of a keyboard. Not only are there a number of “convertibles” that can switch between being a laptop and a tablet, but even the slates that *don’t* have a hardware keyboard attached were happy to show off their kickstands and hardware peripherals.
Apple hasn’t added one of these not-quite-keyboards to the iPad – yet – but that hasn’t sheltered the iPad from the onslaught of external keyboards. A search for “iPad keyboard” returns 12,678 results – not all of them are genuine keyboards, but a large number are. So, in essence, companies are making their traditional computers more tablet-like and their tablets more like traditional computers. The biggest difference between my MacBook Air and my iPad attached to a keyboard add-on is the fact that if I poke my Air’s screen nothing happens, and goddammit if Acer hasn’t bridged that gap and added a touch screen to an otherwise familiar laptop design.
Next, consider the stylus. We’ve already covered the resurgence of the peripheral that we all pronounced as dead, but it bears repeating here. Steve Jobs believed that “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” Following that logic, Samsung, Sony, and probably a dozen third-party manufacturers have blown it. Likewise, if a patent filed for the “iPen” materializes into a real product, Apple will have failed in Jobs’ eyes as well.
A company can go mad trying to figure out what consumers want. Despite the popularity of iPad-specific keyboard peripherals, for example, Microsoft’s Surface was met with ridicule and disbelief for including a new, more advanced keyboard. “We hate keyboards!” turned into “I love this iPad keyboard!” and then transitioned back to “We hate keyboards!” in just a few years.
Fortunately, the company that manages to perfect the technology and market it in the right way has a shot at taking control of a market that other companies have already pronounced “dead.” Apple did this with the iPad, and was responsible for a reboot of the smartphone market with the original iPhone. Apple certainly wouldn’t be the first to create a television set, but that hasn’t stopped its customers from going rabid at rumors that the so-called “Apple TV” is in development.
Sony’s “Tablet P“, a dual-screen tablet that was released earlier this year, provides a fine example. Much like Microsoft’s Courier tablet (which was never released) or Kyocera’s “Echo” smartphone, the Tablet P was the latest attempt to combine two screens into one device. “The clamshell model, although it’s very innovative, it seems that the consumers weren’t embracing it to the level that we expected,” Sony Electronics America COO and president Phil Molyneux told The Verge.
Yet a similar device, the Nintendo DS, that combined two screens – though, in fairness, only one was a touchscreen – has sold well over 150 million units worldwide. The worst part? The Nintendo DS shipped with a stylus.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]