Two months ago, I knew nothing about and had little interest in my wife’s iPad. She did her daily reading on the infernal machine—as I called it—while I rustled my newspapers and read out things she had not come across in her fathomless finger-sliding universe.
Then, I found a use for it. I could creep onto my throne in the bathroom and silently check email while the family slept.
Then, I found the rear camera came in handy while talking to parents on the other side of the world and following my skittish two-year-old around the house.
Then I found it easy to take photos, import old photos into one single album, add new ones and swipe them, smoothly and easily, to Facebook or email.
Then, the killer app. I, who never play computer games, discovered that Angry Birds was a good way to end the day.
So, okay, I confess, I do find the iPad far more useful than my laptop, and I can see why the era of tablets might—eventually—supplant the era of laptops and PCs (PC shipments will grow to 400 million in 2013, a jump of 10%, says Gartner, a market researcher; the iPad is pushing hard with sales of more than 15 million in the last quarter).
Steve Jobs once called the iPad “magical”, and its rise has appeared that.
But I can also see that the iPad is doomed.
It is but a transition on the road to ubiquitous computing, an era when computers will unobtrusively pervade our lives. I give the iPad three years, at best, before many of its functions disperse into computers that quietly meld into what we wear—including clothes, spectacles, bangles.
Earlier this week, Forrester, a market researcher, predicted that the wearable computing wars are about to begin.
“Wearable devices, or ‘wearables’ for short, have enormous potential for uses in health and fitness, navigation, social networking, commerce, and media. Imagine video games that happen in real space,” Forrester’s Sarah Rotman Epps says in a recent blog post. “Or glasses that remind you of your colleague’s name that you really should know. Or paying for a coffee at Starbucks with your watch instead of your phone. Wearables will transform our lives in numerous ways, trivial and substantial, that we are just starting to imagine.”
Increasingly borne as they will be on the ’Internet of things’, in which real-world objects, such as cars and refrigerators connect to the Web, and the desire for increased convenience, wearable computers are already here.
I intend to buy one of them, a Nike FuelBand, as a gift for my fitness-obsessed brother-in-law. The FuelBand is a computer masquerading as a sleek bracelet. Inside its smooth surface is an accelerometer, a computer that senses movement (accelerometers are the tiny engines that drive the touch and tilt functions in an iPhone).
The FuelBand has received some good reviews but it is a primitive wearable. For instance, it can record all your daily activity—running, walking, lifting weights, even having sex—and convert this into steps or miles walked and calories burned. It has glitches. One reviewer said it overcounted calories burned by double and counted 50 steps while he drove a car.
Or maybe I should consider the WIMM One, an Android-powered wristband. It stores all its data in the cloud and can be tethered to your smartphone (to receive calls and texts). You can use it as a wi-fi enabled computer that can use yet-to-be-developed “micro apps”, and, yes, tell the time.
Wearable computers are in many stages of development, in many shapes and uses. There are shoes, such as the Adidas Adizero F50, that track your workout data; the AiRScouter, a heads-up display that projects images directly on to your retina, an advanced version of the heads-up displays in fighter planes, including those flown by the Indian Air Force (the Sukhoi-30 and the indigenous Tejas); and Motorola’s range of wearable, hands-free computers for factory workers.
But the biggest buzz came earlier this month when Google admitted that its skunk works was perfecting augmented reality glasses, spectacles with the power of a smartphone. You could make audio and video calls, schedule meetings, take photos, get directions. Controlled by your voice, the interface hovers before your eyes. Spectacle maker Oakley says it is working on similar glasses, claiming a 15-year headstart over Google.
But all this hardware, as Epps points out, will be useless without software. The big names are well positioned to mainstream wearables.
“Apple has the most polished marketing, channel, and brand. Google has an open platform and gives licence to dabble. Microsoft has the best depth sensor yet,” she says. “Amazon has information on more than 100 million products and their buyers. Facebook has a Rolodex — and facial recognition — for 800 million people.”
So, buy that iPad if you must. Just prepare for its death.
Samar Halarnkar is consulting editor, the Hindustan Times and Mint. He is currently a visiting lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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