Will no one slate Apple’s iSlate?

First off, let's just remind ourselves who came up with this idea

Amid the avalanche of news articles and blogs gushing over the anticipated launch of an Apple tablet computer next week -- possibly called the iSlate or iPad, or neither -- it is perhaps worth taking stock of the situation and asking whether all the hype is really justified.

The idea of a tablet or slate PC is not new. In fact, they've been around for about ten years, and it's a format that came to the mainstream thanks to a product announcement by Microsoft in 2001, when the Redmond-based firm launched a pen-enabled computer running a licensed copy of the "Windows XP Tablet PC Edition".

It was essentially a laptop-style device that featured a touchscreen with handwriting recognition, to make it easier to jot down notes, rush off a quick sketch, or whatever. Some manufacturers opted to stay with the laptop's physical keyboard, spawning a category known as "booklets", while others dropped the keyboard in favour of just a touchscreen in a device resembling a slate.

So, first off, let's just remind ourselves who brought this concept to the mainstream -- Microsoft -- before we wonder whether Apple's version will "change the world" as some commentators are suggesting.

Second, it's worth noting that, so far, such tablets have found only a limited audience. A recent Morgan Stanley report suggested that two million tablet PCs were shipped last year, compared to 34 million netbooks and 131 million notebooks.

So why hasn't the tablet PC already overtaken more conventional laptops, notebooks or, indeed, the latest netbooks? Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of disadvantages. These include the higher cost, snail-like speed of handwriting recognition compared to a keyboard, screen and hinge damage risk, less familiar ergonomics and, in most cases, a relative lack of power.

So if Apple launches a tablet-style Mac next week, will it change any of this?

There are plenty who are happy to help Apple out with a bit of hype. The Guardian ran a front-page article in its G2 section, asking: "Can Apple change the world again?"

In that article, the author, Charles Arthur, makes some excellent points, but also says: "Now, however, armed with a decent-sized screen, effortless multi-touch, sleek good looks and all those millions of apps, perhaps Apple's tablet will prove the holy grail of being the consumer favourite for watching TV and movies, reading e-books, surfing the web and playing games."

Compared to many articles, this was understated, yet it still wonders whether the iSlate will change the portable TV, e-reader, web surfing and games device markets.

Meanwhile, the technology news site Silicon.com asked: "Is Apple preparing a tablet to kill all laptops?"

Kill all laptops? However great the new iSlate, it seems inconceivable that it will replace laptops. Typing on a keyboard is still the optimal way of adding text to an email, document or even Tweet. Not only are touchscreens fragile, but their on-screen keyboards can get greasy and prove less fast and accurate than the keyboards most people are familiar with.

There's surely going to be a question over battery life. While many are saying the iSlate will revolutionise both the e-reader (digital book) and publishing industries, I'm yet to be convinced.

Charles Arthur enthuses, "The Apple tablet's reading experience is expected to be much enhanced from the current crop of handheld e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, which launched in November 2007 and costs about £300. With its monochrome screen, plasticky white buttons and limited web browsing capabilities, you'd never mistake the Kindle for an Apple product."

But there's a reason that today's e-readers tend to opt for a monochrome screen. A digital book or e-reader is designed to mimic a book. That means it needs to be both easy on the eye and have a rather long battery life: if you can read a book for days without having to think about batteries, you certainly wouldn't want to swap that experience for one in which you must recharge a battery every few hours.

Yet even the iPhone, with a far smaller screen than any predictions for the iSlate, suffers complaints about having a limited battery life under typical usage patterns.

So it's unlikely to compete head-on with dedicated e-readers, at least if it has a bright, colour screen. And it won't kill off laptops because most people still want a keyboard, and a folding keyboard happens to protect the screen from knocks and scratches, too.

Meanwhile, in a story entitled "Apple may change the world . . . again", Fast Company says: "We're in for a massive change in the world of computing as we know it." The author, Gadi Amit, suggests that, "Since Apple has rarely (or actually . . . never?) failed with market introduction of a strategic device, I will go out on a limb and say that this might change the software industry as well."

Amit is clearly forgetting about the Apple TV set-top box, and the Apple Cube, which, as Arthur points out, was a pet project of the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, that sank without trace.

But Amit says the iSlate will revolutionise the software market, just to add to the claims that it will revolutionise the publishing industry, reinvigorate portable gaming, kill the laptop market and shake up the e-reader market to boot.

Is there nothing this device is not predicted to revolutionise? Perhaps that will be its biggest challenge: trying to be all things to everyone. Is it an e-reader, a portable gaming device, a big iPhone, a form-changing laptop, or none of the above?

Whatever it turns out to be, I'm bored by the ridiculous hype already. Which is not to say that it won't still sell by the truckload, to those who would shoot themselves in the iFoot if Steve Jobs got up on stage to explain in charismatic fashion why they should.

Jason Stamper is the technology correspondent of the New Statesman and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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