Okay, SciFi Fans, What Comes After iPad?

“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1) It’s completely impossible. 2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I said it was a good idea all along.” — Arthur C. Clarke

The evolution of our science fiction technology, the dramatic visions of people who dream the future for a living, have steadily percolated into our lives. These days, we take for granted synchronous orbit communication satellites, wireless personal communications, and Dick Tracy watches. Then, we dreamed of a personal tablet, and now we have it. What could be next for Apple — and us?

In The Beginning

Our earliest, yet fairly modern vision of the human/computer interface was perhaps one of the most intriguing. That was the bridge of the starship C-57D, in the movie “Forbidden Planet.” The creative people behind that movie were thinking so far ahead that they dispensed with almost anything physical, like keyboards and controls, and abstracted to almost nothing at all. We’ll come back to that later, in full circle.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet, Image Credit: Warner Brothers

After that, there was a branching out. Some science fiction movies tried to keep things very cool and simple, as in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Other movies got more technical, or perhaps practical, and went with the aircraft carrier Combat Information Center-like bridge with lots of lights, displays, controls, etc. Lost in Space and 2001: A Space Odyssey are examples. And yet, in that latter movie we also see a compelling prototype tablet. Perhaps. There’s still some discussion today about how portable that device was, but it’s good enough to have been used as candidate prior art for legal purposes.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, Image Credit: MGM

The quintessential modern take on the human/computer interface comes from Star Trek: The Original Series. Here, we see Captain Kirk with a thick, awkward tablet on which he basically signs ship’s orders electronically. It’s not used routinely as an information device: for that we have the ship’s main computer, the bridge, and small TV display devices in the conferences rooms. Voice communication with the ship’s computer ruled.

Captain James T. Kirk's tablet

Star Trek: The Original Series, Image Credit: Paramount

Following ST:TOS, we have Star Trek:The Next Generation. Here, what we would call a modern tablet arises to supplement the ship’s mainframe. Geordi La Forge, Data and other crew members routinely carry around a rather thin mini tablet that is very close to what we have with the Apple iPad. It’s been the Holy Grail of our computational life since that series debuted in 1987, depicting life in the mid 24th century.

Geordi la Forge's tablet

Star Trek: First Contact, Image Credit: Paramount

Concurrently, in 1994, other writers and researchers created a vision for an electronic newspaper device. That kind of device was widely written about in science fiction novels, and a concept video was even produced by Knight-Ridder suggesting how such a device might work.

Knight-Ridder concept, 1994

Knight-Ridder concept tablet from 1994

What’s Next?

So here we are in 2012 with mid 24th century iPads, and the natural question to ask is, “What’s next?” In a sense, asking what comes after the personal tablet is like asking what comes after the automatic transmission. When a technology is so refined and so natural for the human experience, asking what’s after the automatic transmission is tantamount to asking what will replace the automobile. It gets that radical.

The evolution of technology has always leaned towards the elimination of large, awkward physical devices. We seek the cleanest, simplest devices and interfaces. For now, in 2012, that isn’t quite happening. The iPad 3 is a thicker, heftier device designed to manipulate four times the pixels of its predecessor and work on a power hungry LTE network. The dream of thinner and lighter had to go on hold while Apple put a monstrous battery in the iPad 3. So, clearly we have a ways to go in the evolution of the iPad. Maybe, just maybe, we have some time to burn until that technology is fully mature.

Last week, I wrote a Hidden Dimensions column about Tim Cook’s performance to date at Apple, and I said, “The Apple product line has tremendous momentum. It will be a while before Mr. Cook has to think deeply about what comes after the iPad and how it will evolve.” That’s true in the short term, but with the rate of technical development, the question is, how long is “a while”?

Death by Ringtone

Many, including myself think that the next step is to get rid of the giant battery and physical display and abstract to modern “heads up display” or HUD glasses plus voice management.

It’s interesting how that technology has changed, under pressure from our culture. Just like TV and movie heroes who have used mobile phones have set the tone for how a mobile phone should ring, condemning the ringtone to cultural oblivion, the social pressure against the geek/nerd wearing HUD glasses has forced the technology to go from wildly ornate, ugly and cumbersome headsets to something that might even be called fashionable.

HUD glasses

Technical and cultural evolution of the HUD glasses

With this technology, engineers are faced with several, perhaps competing factors. Fashion and social acceptability have to be weighed against CPU/GPU power, battery and all the electromagnetic energy around the head. Other social issues will arise, as they did for texting (and sexting) and acceptable places for use.

Despite the challenges, the HUD technical vision is so strong and enduring that Google is planning to move into that technology. It could be seen as a preemptive move to launch into the next generation technology before Apple does and perhaps make the lifetime of the conventional tablet more short-lived than we ever could have thought.

Will there come a day when grandma, clutching her Apple iPad 7, says, “that’s all I can deal with!”? and … “I don’t need anything else!” Will Apple miss the Next Big Thing under Tim Cook? Will the Next Big Thing be so alien to the culture of Apple that the company just can’t take its customers forward?

Another challenge is making products that can be purchased and used by mere human beings. Productized. Sometimes, we tend to think about implants or wireless connections to the optic nerve, but that gets very biological and intrusive. Is there another technology avenue that leaves our human dignity intact?

The Companions

Perhaps the next generation technology beyond HUD glasses isn’t the modification of our biology, but the creation of a new form of bio-technology. It’s like the discussion above of what comes after the automatic transmission. It’s not a new transmission but a new kind of car. In this case, I’m thinking about a new kind of being, robots.

With robots we can go wild. It doesn’t matter how exotic their hardware is. Robot companions can be fully geeky. They can have rather large power sources. They can can chat with us and answer questions. There’s a symbiotic relationship here that results is a marketable product instead of the Borgification of humans. I note with interest, that takes us back to the remarkable vision of Forbidden Planet and Robbie the Robot.

Picard as Borg

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Image Credit: Paramount

There is already a company that is built on the vision of robots in science fiction. Drawing from Robert Heinlein’s Door into Summer and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a company in Bedford, MA called iRobot makes personal robots, of sorts, vacuum cleaners and floor washers.

For now.

What company will best make the technical leap from computers that sit on a desktop or tablets that are held in the hand to personal robots? Will it be Apple? Will it be a company whose current expertise is robots, like iRobot? The Japanese are making huge strides in this area as are American universities. Or will it be a startup, a company that comes out of the blue and makes the next leap in technology?

I, Robot

I, Robot, Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Technical Momentum

Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology seems to develop more slowly than we predict in the short term but faster than we predict in the long term. That’s something for any CEO to ponder. Where is his/her company on the technology curve? Is he/she living in the glory of the past or on the precipice of breakthrough? In fact, without a good understanding of our technical culture, technological evolution, the dreams of the SciFi masters, and what we are capable of as a species, a modern CEO is lost.

Steve Jobs had a special talent. He was a master at knowing what we needed and when we needed it. A man like him may never come again this century. On the other hand, lesser men from other companies may strain to move into the future too quickly, failing over and over again as radical new technologies, before their times, are rejected by consumers. There’s a fine line there. Mr. Jobs knew where it was.

Whatever comes next, I can’t wait to see it. However, as is the custom of our species, there’s no guarantee that any company, now in existence, will see it coming.


My thanks to Bryan Chaffin and Jim Tanous who helped research the graphics for this article.