“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.”
The therapists using AI to make therapy better
Researchers are learning more about how therapy works by examining the language therapists use with clients. It could lead to more people getting better, and staying better.
Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?
A once-thriving network of merchants selling digital content to people without internet connections is struggling under Taliban rule.
The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.
The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.
Where computing might go next
The future of computing depends in part on how we reckon with its past.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.