Star Wars: The Original Connected Devices


Did you know the tablet computer was already thriving in 1991? It was conceived as a convenient and cheap way to store and transport valuable information that you might need at work, home, or on the go. Only it was called a datapad.

However, the datapad was actually a fictional device featured in the Star Wars novel “Heir to the Empire,” from science-fiction novelist Timothy Zahn. If you didn’t realize there is an entire catalog of books that goes far beyond the films, you clearly aren’t a real fan. For the record, close to 100 Star Wars novels exist.

Some of these novels might be coming to the big screen soon. The Walt Disney Co. has said it will acquire Lucasfilm Ltd., owner of the Star Wars franchise. Disney says it plans to bring more films to fruition, citing the franchise’s “virtually limitless universe of characters and stories.” And don’t forget technologies. Datapads are merely one example of a device that mirrors the reality of technological innovation.

Datapads are ubiquitous in the Star Wars universe. They act a lot like tablet computers, but in fact go far beyond what tablets are currently capable of. Unlike a $600 tablet, datapads are cheap and they’re everywhere. Used almost like paper notebooks, characters in the books have lots of them lying around. You might jot some notes in one and use a different model for entertainment. If you want to see a datapad in a Star Wars film, check out “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” In the movie, Anakin Skywalker’s mother and a few others use a datapad to watch the pod race. The image quality is a little blurry, but the race telecast is streamed live to the device.

It’s easy to envision a day when tablets will be as easy and cheap to use as the Star Wars devices. As prices go down and different form factors are introduced, you might have a whole slew of tablets around, one for every room of the house and for a variety of activities. Maybe you like an e-Ink tablet for reading and an HD tablet for viewing movies or playing games. Someday, you might be able to keep a tablet the size of a pack of gum in your purse, pulling it out to revise your grocery list. And another small tablet could serve as your personal health monitor, gathering data throughout the day from sensors on your body.

Market research seems to support the idea of lower-cost tablets in the future. Right now, Apple remains king of the tablet mountain with its iPad. But that could change. ABI Research reports the market for sub-$400 tablets should see significant growth during the next five years, equating to more than 60% of the market by 2016. With cheaper devices available, people may be free to choose more than one tablet. Additionally, smaller tablets may allow the devices to go with us more of the time. ABI Research says smaller screens will be a trend in the future because they provide increased portability.

The ability to take your tablet—or datapad—with you anywhere is a major theme in Star Wars novels. In “Heir to the Empire,” datapads are used for pretty much everything we use tablets for. Grand Admiral Thrawn, the main antagonist, uses datapads to project and study the artwork of alien species, while other characters use theirs as a Wikipedia-esque source of information in a variety of situations … often making critical discoveries at just the right moment.

But it also seems like they’re used to break up the boredom and monotony of being alone. Multiple characters seem to put them down just as another character enters the room to chat. As art imitates life, even in Star Wars, tablet-like devices fill the silence more often than they save the day.

A version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Connected World magazine. Pick up the issue to read the entire article.

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