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Dec. 1, 2011: Digital Business

What's Next with Tablet PCs and Multi-Touch Technology?

Tomorrow in technology is like trying to imagine infinity. It's really difficult to grasp the fact that there is no end to it. But, it is fascinating, nonetheless, and, with the recent success of Apple's iPad and iPad 2 tablets, the interest in multi-touch technology has exploded.

Within the last two years, millions of people have decided that a keyboard is less important to them on a computer than is the ability to directly touch the information or images they see on the screen. Furthermore, the place you consume information, if you own a tablet PC, has moved from being something which was largely done at a desk to an activity which occurs when watching TV, drinking coffee in a cafe or sitting in a meeting.

Tablet PCs might appear as though they are about to vanquish the keyboard and the machines we become so attached to over the last 20 years, namely our desktop PCs and laptops. The marketers of tablet PCs would have us believe that we can do anything with them from painting the Mona Lisa to writing 'War and Peace' to playing Mozart symphonies.

But, let's not be too hasty. Tablet PCs have their limitations. In their current form, they are very good for enabling you to consume information, but not so good at helping you to create information. I mean, have you ever tried painting with just your finger on an iPad? You probably last painted like that when you were two years old. That's hardly progressing humankind. It's also quicker to type an email with a keyboard than it is to use one or two digits. You could, of course, attach a special keyboard to your iPad, but why not just buy a laptop?

Tablet PCs don't yet match an individuals' existing talent which makes them slightly less than what you would hope for than the hype suggests, which was a very good point made by Guillaume Largiller, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of Stantum.

I was fortunate enough this week to interview him. He is a man who is at the forefront of multi-touch technology. He gave me some fascinating insights into how tablet PCs will develop from their current form in the very near future.

Guillaume continued on his theme that the iPad, although very good, was limited in its scope for being really useful for content creation.

"The problem is that, although the multi-touch screen on an iPad is good, it can only deal with touch from your fingers. It does not recognise an input from, say, a stylus. Also, if you rest the heel of your hand on the screen, it does not handle that very well either", said Largiller.

Guillaume's point was that if you want to draw, most people have learnt to draw using a pencil so their fine motor skills are tuned to using a pencil on paper rather than their finger on a screen. Artists will naturally rest their hand on the paper they are drawing upon. Current tablet PCs demand that you learn to draw in a different way which makes for a worse experience than the one you already know.

Guillaume continued, "The next development from Stantum is screen technology which handles input from your fingers and a stylus while recognising that you are resting your hand on the screen".

This opens up a market for Largiller and multi-touch technology which has been testing tablet PCs and their capabilities, namely the further education market, which uses existing technology extensively already in the classrooms.

"The further education market has been serviced by computer manufacturers for years now. But, their main offering has just been to continue offering cheaper and cheaper laptops and desktop PCs. They are still providing the same technology, essentially, as they were in the '80s", stated Largiller.

It's a good point. Technology in education appears to have not contributed as much as was hoped for and the if reports like this one from the BBC are true, technology is thought of something which is dull and turns pupils off.

Largiller continued, "Computers and tablets are not adapted for the education market. It's too complicated and it is just another thing to learn in education rather than being something which allows students to use their existing talents".

And, the further education market is looking closely at tablet PC technology. iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets are good but teachers and practitioners don't want their students to be distracted by Angry Birds or Facebook in the classroom. A dedicated device is needed. A device which matches their talent.

Largiller told me that Stantum has been working with a major manufacturer on a new product which incorporates their new multi-touch technology. It will be announced in early 2012 and ready to ship towards the end of the year.It will address the needs of the further education market and will help individuals create content as well as consume using methods which they know well already, such as drawing with a pencil.

You can see why Stantum is excited by the further education market. In China alone, by 2013 there will be 300 million students. Considering that the whole of the US population was just over 307 million in 2009, the market opportunities are immense. South Korea has built one of the world's fastest internet infrastructures and has moved all of their public services, including education, onto the 'cloud'. All of their paper textbooks will have been replaced with digital versions within the next five years.

The demand for the next generation of tablet PCs is coming not from where you might have traditionally believed. The countries, including South Korea and China, where they are installing high speed mobile internet capabilities are Russian, Brazil and India, according to Largiller. Their infrastructure and emphasis on further education make these ripe for Stantum to target. The USA and Europe are stuck with a relatively old internet infrastructure which inhibits our ability to adopt high speed wireless networks.

Software companies are beginning to develop new applications to meet the demands of the creating content through tablet PCs. Take, for instance, Adobe, who is massive in the world of content creation tools for the web. Their 'Adobe Creative Cloud' is aimed squarely at this market. It's a cloud-based, creative suite of applications which shows just how seriously content creation on tablets is being taken.

But, I asked, Largiller, when did he foresee the end of paper in the classroom? He suggested that replacement of paper would not be for at least ten years. Paper is still a relatively cheap material and it will take some time for the new generation of multi-touch tablets to take hold around the world. Students using the first generation of educational tablets would be using paper alongside their tablet. Textbooks and traditional laptops will be rapidly replaced by the first wave of these tablets.

Furthermore, when 15 inch screens are available for tablet PCs, he sees an acceleration in paperless classrooms. Fifteen inch screens are important because this is roughly the size of an A4 piece of paper to which many of us around the world have become familiar. This second generation would be the one which will replace paper in the classroom entirely, according to Largiller.

I suggested to Largiller that the challenge of recharging these new tablets would always slow down the adoption of the technology. He replied that the next area of investment would be combining the screen technology of eReaders like the Amazon Kindle, which only uses power when a page is refreshed, with the touch screen technology of his multi-touch screens, which use power continuously because of their light emitting screens. This would increase the time between charges enormously.

So, the future, when it comes to multi-touch tablet PCs, is going to be much sooner than might have expected. Stantum is bringing out technology soon which looks set to take this format to a much bigger number of people who will be able to create on a tablet PC rather than just consume information. I will be watching with interest.

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