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.

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Taking a Chance with x.0 Releases

For the past three days, I’ve had the Snow Leopard disc that’s in the mail sitting in a pile. Generally I couldn’t care less about installing software, but for some reason I was second guessing myself. From the people I know that have Macs, they are generally split between getting the latest release and waiting for the first point release (i.e. 10.6.1). I can easily see the logic in waiting, but you hold off on getting the latest and greatest. The same dilemma will arrive in a few weeks for PC users when Windows 7 launches. I’ve been using the Release Candidate for quite a while and I find it fine with the exception of a few compatibility issues with software here and there.

I usually don’t like to get into specifics, but I think maybe holding off for a point release may have been better with Snow Leopard. Most of the problems I was having didn’t really get fixed and now I have a few more bugs to deal with.

Exchange Support

What a load of nothing Exchange support has been to me thus far. The only reason I intended on using it was to hook up my school email with my regular email in Mail. Unfortunately, I presumed the same technology was in Snow Leopard that is on the iPod/iPhone. Apple’s portable devices license a technology from Microsoft called ActiveSync which allows it to directly connect with an Exchange server. On the desktop/notebook side, they connect to Exchange using EWS or Exchange Web Services. I assume since I can access my school email through the web, they have this enabled on their servers. I could be horribly wrong and pointing the finger at Apple, but they should have just used the same technology.

WiFi Connection

Apparently a ‘cool new thing’ in Snow Leopard was that you can see all the signal strengths in the drop down menu. Whoop dee doo! The problem that I currently have after upgrading to Snow Leopard is that it likes to time out my connection. It’s not dropping connections like a few other people are complaining about, but when I try to load any web page it will time out. The funny thing is that Adium still appears to be connected for a minute or so until it eventually times out and signs off.

QuickTime X

While I generally like the improvements they did with the new QuickTime Player, I wonder why they didn’t take the time to build in WMV playback into the player. It’s like the freaking Swiss Army knife of players with Perian installed, but it still lacks support for WMV playback. I have to use a turd of a plugin called Flip4Mac WMV. It might not be the developers fault it’s a pile of crap since Apple probably has him go through plenty of hurdles. The import time of a WMV file on Leopard wasn’t that bad, but it’s currently slow as molasses in Snow Leopard. This is most likely a result of the beta version I have to run.

In general, Snow Leopard is more refined than Leopard though. Expose is a lot better, along with new version of the Finder which is a bit faster than the old version. Start up and shut down times are a bit faster. Also, Stacks on the Dock can actually dig down into other folders and the Put Back ‘feature’ in Trash has already been put to use (Only god knows why it took them so long to put this in). I haven’t had a chance to test out the HFS+ read support for Boot Camp yet or the built-in support for Cisco IPsec VPN connections. I must say this though:

I wouldn’t have purchased 10.6 if it had been the normal price. ($129 USD)

The $25 price made it a lot easier to swallow.

I Got An iPod

So for Hanukkah this year, I got an iPod Classic. After looking at the Touch, I decided to go with the Classic because it had more space and I figured I might as well get the iPhone if I wanted a touch screen.

Previously, I had an iRiver iFP 899. It worked out fairly well when I had it. It had 1GB of storage and it played songs fine. The only real qualm I had about it was the “iRiver Music Manager” that came with it. It was slow as hell and the drivers got screwed up every time I upgraded the firmware. Since it had a SSD inside, it was resilient to a few “accidents” I had. I dropped it on the ground, in a cup of water, and on other various surfaces. Thanks to the plastic case you get with it, I still don’t have a scratch on the thing.

Now back to the iPod that I just got. The one that I got was the iPod Classic 80GB Black. I like it better than the 5G version of the iPod, but the back is still very prone to scratching. Within the first 24 hours of owning it, the back already got scratched to hell. I had it in my jacket pocket, which is padded, so I really don’t know how it happened.

The interface is obviously sleek since its Apple. While it’s not particularly an amazing sight to me, all my friends are amazed by the album artwork panning across the screen on the right side. I know Apple likes to tout their cover flow feature, but I find it kind of annoying. I hate having to flip through the albums to find what I want. I either turn it on shuffle, or find the album I want by scrolling through the album list. The scroll wheel is light-years better than the little nub that I had on the iRiver player. It just took me a few minutes to get used to scrolling around quickly to find songs.

My biggest reason for buying the Classic was the space. I wanted room to store not just my music, but my movies too. I have about 12GB of music and about 50GB of movies on my external HD that I wanted to copy over. I came to the realization that all the movies are encoded with either DivX or Xvid, so I have to convert 90% of them over to the m4v which the iPod plays. It’s a minor setback though.

I have come to loving the syncing feature with the iPod also. I’m not the biggest fan of iTunes, but it gets the job done for what I have to do. It syncs up my music, videos, and podcasts quickly. I haven’t done any photos yet, but I assume the same.

All I have to say in the end is great job Apple. While not the perfect device, the iPod comes very close to achieving perfection. It single handedly started the portable music industry and has created a space for competition to brew.