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.


Is RSS Dead?

A few months Steve Gillmor posted an article called Rest In Peace, RSS. He has this notion that the real-time web will take over and supersede RSS. If there’s one thing that I can be sure of, it’s that RSS is never going to go away. The biggest problem is that websites like Twitter and FriendFeed are single companies, but RSS is a protocol. A protocol is a general set of rules and RSS isn’t controlled by a single entity. The big question is, what happens if Twitter or FriendFeed fails? They are seemingly becoming large companies, but they aren’t public companies and rely on private investment. Unless they start becoming cash cows within the next few years, they’ll be thrust out of existence and a thing of the past.

This isn’t to say the entire idea of the real-time web is completely defeated. There are new technologies like Google Wave that emerging, but they’re still in a testing phase. There is no telling whether it will catch on or not. Although the problem of a single point of failure arises again. Twitter has been down a lot, but it most likely doesn’t affect 99% of the people in the world with internet access. If people start piling onto a single service, it creates a problem. This probably has even reared it’s ugly head in the enterprise as companies increasingly move their applications to the “cloud”.  The recent outage at Google shows that no matter how large a company is and how large it’s infrastructure is, there are still failures.

Of course failures will still happen on separate systems, but it’s a contained failure. If I get all my news through Twitter and then Twitter goes down, so does all my news. RSS allows for separation and if one feed goes down, it’s not an apocalypse. I have to admit that I’m now somewhat of a hypocrite though. I use NetNewsWire on the Mac for my news feeds. The new version syncs with Google Reader. I believe Google Reader has it’s own service that goes out and crawls the feeds and puts them in the reader. So instead of pulling directly from the site, there is an abstraction. I wish it pulled the feeds directly, but NetNewsWire is a great client and even if the feeds can’t update, I still have a nice list I can view on my computer of all the feeds I’m subscribed to and go there separately if need be.

Another problem Steve mentioned was information overload. He doesn’t want to parse through all the information. The problem is that the real-time web will eventually get like that. If you follow too many people on Twitter you’ll be getting updates faster than you can read them. I have about 50 feeds in my RSS reader and I currently follow 113 people on Twitter. I’m fortunate that many of them don’t post a lot otherwise I would probably have to stop following them. Newspapers have spoiled us in a way. They have editors that filter through a lot of news and gives us what they think is the best. Going onto the web, your friends and you are the only filter. The world is a large place and if you try to view all the raw news, your brain would explode.

Real-time and RSS both have their separate places. In my mind they serve different purposes and one will not be taking another over. I’ve always loved the fast pace of innovation in technology, but some technologies are so pervasive and deeply rooted in society that they’ll never leave. RSS is one of those technologies and it is not dying nor will it ever be dead.

PS: Just to note, there’s a button in your browser to subscribe to my RSS feed.

Shared Hosting

While working on the site for The Recorder (Central’s newspaper) I’ve had to deal with what we were going to do for hosting. CCSU currently runs all club websites on a Microsoft IIS server. There isn’t even database access so we’re left with either static pages or crazy ASP flat file systems. Neither of these was what The Recorder wanted. Their current system was ASP and seemed as if it was on the brink of collapse.

After a quick check of prices we came down to GoDaddy. I use GoDaddy for all my domain names, but I never thought of having sites hosted there. None of my personal projects were “mission critical” so I thank ZoomCities for hosting them for free on a fast VPS. I can’t put a major site on a free hosting provider though. I wasn’t involved in budget discussions, but they settled on the 24 month Unlimited plan. It’s $13.49/month or $323.76 for the whole shebang. Obviously there are limitations to that. There are physical hardware limitations, but one thing I can’t get over is the speed.

Since it is an “Unlimited” plan I bet a lot of people host a lot of illegal files and are sucking the bandwidth of the shared server, but it seems overly ridiculous. Look at these statistics that compare ping time with my site (dweitz.net) and the recorder site.

--- dweitz.net ping statistics ---
10 packets transmitted, 10 packets received, 0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 15.594/17.816/20.278/1.380 ms

--- therecorderonline.net ping statistics ---
10 packets transmitted, 10 packets received, 0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 97.226/98.067/101.293/1.112 ms

I haven’t forgotten about speed of light differences though. GoDaddy’s servers are in Scottsdale, AZ while the server I have my site hosted on is in Ashburn, VA. Those two sites are about 2,203 miles apart from each other. The speed of light is 186,000 miles/second. So that means data can travel at a theoretical limit of 186 miles per millisecond. So every 186 miles we can add 1ms difference and not fault the server. For 2,203 miles that would be a difference of 11.8ms. So for round-trip that would be 23.6ms added. So if that GoDaddy server was in Ashburn the response time would be in the area of 73.626ms round-trip minimum. That’s a difference of 58.032ms between the two. Even if you slow down the routes between here and GoDaddy it wouldn’t be enough to bridge that 58ms gap.

I can’t blame GoDaddy though. A lot of service providers oversell their shared hosting. 1&1, Bluehost, and Dreamhost just to name a few. If you want to go to a dedicated virtual server it starts at $50/month most places and that’s a basic package. You get a lot more value add with a shared hosting package. Most people are going to be stuck with shared hosting still though, unless you have enough advertising or a massive budget to pay for dedicated hardware.

I hope I get FiOS in my area soon so I can build a server and run it from my house just for the heck of it. Having a server in my kitchen was one of my childhood dreams. I had messed up dreams as a kid.

(PS: First Post of 2009, w00t!)

Classic: Learning A Programming Language

This post was originally made on January 29th, 2007 on another blog I had.

You may not be a geek, but I’m sure you have always been curious as to what all that stuff on the screen of programmer actually means. You first need to understand that programming isn’t an easy task. Also, it requires dedication and the curiosity to learn it. Here are my thoughts on learning a programming language.Like I said in the introduction, this stuff isn’t easy. You may have heard of some magical programming language that is incredibly easy to learn, but it’s just a gimmick. To give an example, there is Visual Basic. By the title, you can guess that it is fairly simple. I have news for you though, it isn’t. Back in the day, BASIC was easy to learn, but no one programs in that anymore. Visual Basic is probably one of the easiest languages to learn, but it still requires reading a couple of books to really gain some experience in it.You shouldn’t get confused between markup languages and programming languages. HTML, the angled bracket tabs that allow your browser to display everything, is a markup language. HTML is easy to learn and isn’t used to program anything. If you really want to get into making programs for the web, you need to learn a web programming language.

Web programming languages are vast in number, but there are a few quality one’s that you should take a look at if you are interested. One of them is PHP. This site is actually powered by PHP. It isn’t the best by far, but it is the most widely used one. There is also Perl and Ruby. Those three are actually called server-side languages which means that they are parsed by the server before they are displayed to the user. Client-side programming involves Javascript mostly. Since Web 2.0 busted out, Javascript has had a second coming in the form of AJAX web apps and such. There are many libraries to help you out and if you’re interested in making all that glam, buy yourself a book and learn the basics.

There is also application programming. The majority of game development now takes place with C++. This is a complex language that may take years to master, but it will certainly be rewarding in both your sense of accomplishment and your salary. There is a program or collection of programs from Microsoft called Visual Studio. These components rely on Microsoft’s .NET Framework. That’s where Visual Basic is and also Visual C++ and Visual C#. Those are the most common ones. Visual C++ is different from normal C++ though. So you can choose either one or the other. When you use C++ to develop a game for example, you usually use a graphic library. You have probably heard of DirectX, but there are also others, like Qt.

Also, if you’re interested, there is programming for micro controllers. This is what I do on my robotics team and can be a pain, but it’s fun. When you are working with them, you have to take into account the memory limitations and capabilities of the microprocessor. If you are programming for a normal computer, you are able to use floating point numbers, on a microprocessor though, you would probably fry it. Microprocessors can be found anywhere from your car to your toaster. Someone has to program them, why not you?

I hope I gave you insight into the wonderful world of programming and maybe you want to get started on a project of your own. It can be frustrating at times, but that’s when you need to try your hardest to understand it. Sometimes you really have to push yourself because the programmers who made the languages usually make them for functionality, not ease-of-use. You can find programming books in most bookstores or online at Amazon. If you don’t have much money, fire up Google and find some tutorials.