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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.”  

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