Why Tablets Will Fail (If We Don’t Fix Them)

(Note: This was partially written a few months ago. Times have changed a bit, but tablets are still terrible in my opinion. I have to pat myself on the back for guessing that the Xoom and BB Tablet would fail, although it WAS a fairly safe bet.)

If look at the pipelines of major technology companies, you will see one item on all of them, tablets. Granted, it’s probably a good idea right now because tablets seem to be the hot new toy. Many tech columnists are saying that it’s the future of computers. Though they also acknowledge there will always be that segment that needs high performance. The problem with tablets right now is they don’t deliver on their promises. Tablets are supposed to be lightweight, portable, and most of all, easy to use. Since the dawn of computing there has always been a push to make it simpler. I’m going to pick on the iPad here because they have such a large part of the market and they somehow made a previously dead market come alive again.

I’m going to start with what Apple got right, app management and price. Geeks who have used Linux/Unix package management for years probably wonder why it took so long for a mainstream consumer OS to catch on. Apple did it right and you can easily download, install, and uninstall applications with a finger press or two. No install wizards where you have to choose directories (this is also a downside) and you have less chance to make mistakes. Price is where Apple also got it spot on. Normally Apple over prices all their products, lovingly called “The Apple Tax” by many, but at $499 for the base iPad model it creates a decision for consumers that use their personal computers lightly. They can decide to spend the same amount of money on an iPad or buy a cheap laptop that has a much more flexible operating system. Apple did a brilliant job marketing the iPad since many consumers with enough disposable income just buy both. As Steve Jobs had said before though, it creates an unnecessary device between laptops and desktops that consumers truly don’t need. Every other company coming out with a tablet is piggybacking on the marketing communications coming out of Apple and aren’t developing any new use cases for the tablet devices. I can’t fit the iPad in my pocket and like the iPhone or iPod, I can walk around staring at a 10″ screen instead of a 4″ screen walking into people and doors I don’t see.

Other tablets are going to fail way before the iPad for numerous reasons. The Motorola Xoom will fail because it’s too expensive and Android isn’t as mature as iOS, so customers won’t see as much value in it. The Blackberry tablet will fail because it requires a separate device to access email and have 3G access. I don’t care if it’s a wireless Bluetooth connection to a BB phone, it’s going to be hard to convince enterprise customers to buy a tablet instead of laptops. If you’re just monkeying around with email, all of BB’s phones do just fine and people have grown accustomed to that. On the flip side, say you need to type up a business proposal. Fat chance you’re going to type that on a touch screen. Also, unless you have giant hands, the 7″ still requires two hands to hold steady. Now that we cleared those competitors away, lets get back to the iPad.

The iPad’s interface may seem so intuitive, but in all honestly, it still doesn’t address some of the problems some computer illiterate face (namely a lot of the older generation). I’ve found this with a lot of people who don’t completely understand how computer interfaces tend to work. When I tap a link in Mobile Safari and it opens up a new page, the other page goes away. Now, it may seem silly…it’s still there, but I’ve seen people freak out and don’t have a clue where the page they just had open went. Also, there’s no way to restore recently closed tabs in the interface. Sure there’s history, but a lot of times I see people closing tabs to “hide” them and then they wonder where the heck they went. That’s just an example in Safari which is probably one of the most used applications on iPads. Another big problem is file saving. While there is an argument to not have a file browser, it cosmetically limits what the device can do. You can’t just save Word document from an email and then access it offline from the iPad. We still have a long road ahead of us in terms of usability and HCI, but I think the interfaces can be improved significantly, but not limit the power of the device. This is the older generation though, we have a new generation of kids who interact with cellphones before calculators.

I was talking to teacher at an event I was at and he made an interesting comment about the first graders he was teaching. They were teaching them how to use a basic calculator (those blue TI calculators that always seemed to go missing by the end of the year) and instead of just pushing the buttons with one finger, they started typing with their thumbs and were holding them up to each other and “texting” each other numbers. The next generation will even more so be able to handle the complexity of these interfaces so what would they have a use for these “simplified” interfaces? They’re being exposed to it at such a young age, they won’t have any problems with them. They’re not going to need or want a device like an iPad or tablet. They’re going to want the power and flexibility a laptop provides and as they’re getting ever slimmer with SSD technology and ever smaller processors so portability won’t even be a factor. For almost the same price and size in the future they’ll be able to have a laptop with a physical keyboard (anyone truly like a virtual keyboard…even with haptic feedback?)

I hope the market matures and we’ll see better tablets in a few years, but for now I’m going to stick with a regular laptop and desktop.