Skip to Content

How Smart Watches and Phablets Fulfill a 20-Year-Old Prophecy about Ubiquitous Computing

Mark Weiser, who coined the term “ubiquitous computing,” foresaw current device trends decades ago.
March 18, 2013

“Tabs, pads, and boards.” The phrase may sound like a piece of techno-buzzy cud coughed up at a TEDx or SXSW talk, but it’s actually a precise description of current hardware trends made 22 years ago by a chief scientist at Xerox PARC. That scientist, the late Mark Weiser, was talking about his then-new concept of “ubiquitous computing”: the idea that cheap connectivity and networked devices would liberate “computing” from mainframes and desktop boxes and integrate it into people’s everyday lives. But how? What would that actually look like? Weiser sketched out three basic tiers of ubiquitous computing devices based on interactive display technology: tabs (small, wearable); pads (handheld, mobile); boards (large, fixed). 

For the past five years, the smartphone has reigned supreme by straddling the “tab” and “pad” categories. But that era seems to be waning fast. As Luke Wroblewski noted last week, sales and market share data clearly show that both smartphone and tablet sales are converging on a “phablet” form factor (think iPad mini and Samsung’s Galaxy devices). Meanwhile, the so-called “wearable” space is still sorting itself out, but the move toward phablets is making a vacuum for smartwatches (like Pebble and the hotly anticipated Apple “iWatch”) to capture mainstream consumer interest. (Even “boards” look like they might have more of a future than we thought.)

These trends seem to bear out what Weiser intuited decades ago about what people actually want from their devices. The Wikipedia summary of Weiser’s idea even breaks it down by physical scale in an eerily accurate way: tabs are centimeter scale (the Pebble watch is about 3 x 5 cm), while pads are “decimeter” scale (the iPad mini is 2 x 1.3 decimeters; the Galaxy S III is 1.3 x .7 decimeters). In the future fossil record of ubiquitous computing, will smartphones appear as a mere transitional form between the more evolved “tab” and “pad” lineages? Wherever he is now, Mark Weiser must be saying, “I told you so.”  

Keep Reading

Most Popular

It’s time to retire the term “user”

The proliferation of AI means we need a new word.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Sam Altman says helpful agents are poised to become AI’s killer function

Open AI’s CEO says we won’t need new hardware or lots more training data to get there.

An AI startup made a hyperrealistic deepfake of me that’s so good it’s scary

Synthesia's new technology is impressive but raises big questions about a world where we increasingly can’t tell what’s real.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.