Make It So: What Star Trek Tells Us About How to Make Tablets

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The venerable sci-fi show didn't just foresee the rise of tablet computing -- it also predicted the popularity of small tablets, too.

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From the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad back in 2010, onlookers couldn't help noticing its similarities to a certain television prop. Both devices even shared a common name. The object in question? Star Trek's PADD, a handheld computer operated by touch that characters would use to consume and share information. Sounds pretty similar to the iPad we know and love today, right?

But the sci-fi series may have done more than foreshadow tablet computing as a general activity. Star Trek was also a testing ground for tablets of a very specific size. And now, we're finding that the show might have been prescient about that, too. 

As convenient as it's likely been for Apple's sales, the iPad/PADD comparison doesn't exactly hold up under scrutiny. Here's where it falls apart: the iPad is one of the largest tablets you can buy right now. Measured diagonally, it has a screen size of 9.7 inches. Compare that to the very first PADD that debuted on Captain Picard's Enterprise: a 4x6-inch tablet that was thin and light enough to be gripped between a thumb and forefinger. Characters were always tossing PADDs on desks, palming them with one hand, and generally doing things you can't do with an iPad. Larger PADDs did eventually come along later on the show, but none was as iconic as the first. For all the public excitement about having recreated Star Trek in real life, the analogy is actually less than complete.

But wait a minute. A 4x6-inch tablet, when you do the math, has a diagonal measurement of 7.2 inches -- almost precisely the screen size of most non-Apple tablets available today. And wouldn't you know it, but in recent months, the public's appetite for 7-inch tablets has grown dramatically in comparison to the 10-inch iPad. You've got Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7, both of which have been selling well. Google had to suspend orders of its tablet because the company couldn't keep up. Popular tech commentators like Slate's Farhad Manjoo are beginning to make the case for 7-inchers. And even the Apple rumor mill is perpetually churning with expectations that Cupertino will launch a 7.85-inch iPad of its own.

The mini iPad rumors are perhaps the strongest evidence for how far 7-inchers have come. Back when Steve Jobs revealed the original iPad, he famously claimed that anything smaller would be dead on arrival. Until the iPad came out, and for at least the first couple years afterward, he was right. No other company had managed to successfully field a small tablet. Remember this? Or this? Or this? No? You're not alone.

Maybe Jobs was right about the business case for small tablets. But he was wrong about them as a concept. To the extent that a television show can prove a product's worth, Star Trek was a great representation of how 7-inch tablets, as a class of device, could take off. The show makes great pains to justify and explain a lot of its design decisions in the interest of creating a believable universe, so in the context of handheld computing, the series gave viewers consistent visual examples of typical use cases for a 7-incher. 

This raises a thorny question: If the small tablets seen on Star Trek were the original inspiration for tablet computing, what took so long for small tablets to come of age?

There are a lot of possible reasons, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But BuzzFeed's Matt Buchanan offers one way to start:

I do things with a Nexus 7 I'd never do with an iPad, case or no case. All without thinking about it. Leave it on a kitchen counter while I'm cooking or making juice, with oil and green goo splashing everywhere. Shove it into a bag with no case. Fling it onto my bed from across the room. It's the first computer I've truly never worried about breaking.

Like the PADD, the small tablets we use today can take a beating. That's the opposite of what Apple has conditioned us to do with its devices: MacBooks, iPhones, and iPads are all exquisite, finely crafted pieces of art that we think will snap if we so much as rest our elbows on them. And we've grown so accustomed to thinking of tablets as fragile, special machines that we've left no room in our imagination to think of tablets in the way that Star Trek does: as a supercharged (but completely ordinary) version of the humble index card.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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