What Should a Slate Tablet Look Like Today? Revisited

A while back I wrote a post What Should a Slate Tablet Look Like Today?. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the post in light of Apple’s iPad launch this week.

Looking back at that post, here is what I listed as my primary requirements:

  1. A form factor similar to the Kindle DX (maybe a larger screen, but similar thickness);
  2. A real back-lit screen – maybe with the ability to turn off back light to conserve power. Without backlight, should look as good as Kindle;
  3. Ink input – and maybe touch;
  4. Running a full OS – a light version of Windows or a Linux distribution (I do not want just an eBook reader);
  5. Software support: Reader for PDF and Office, etc., eMail, Browser, OneNote-like app, Media support;
  6. No extras: no modem, no optical drive, minimal ports, no video out, no web cam;
  7. No HDD – maybe an SDD, maybe the OS in ROM or something;
  8. No keyboard except maybe by USB or Bluetooth;
  9. Maybe assume that most applications I need will be in Browser (cannot believe I said that lol);
  10. Price point around $500

Lets compare those requirements to the new iPad:

  1. The iPad does pretty well on this – though it appears to be quite a bit thicker than a Kindle;
  2. Meets the primary requirement here, but does not satisfy my wish to be able to turn it off and have it look like a Kindle screen (not sure this is even possible);
  3. Ok – fails on this one completely
  4. I am not sure if I consider what is on there a “full OS” – seems pretty limited to me, and is incompatible with everything but iPhone apps;
  5. Fails on this, and even fails on many browser-based apps, given the lack of Flash support (and I am pretty sure it does not support Silverlight;
  6. Seems to be on same page as me here, though I would probably have included a USB port (Apple’s love of proprietary connections strikes again);
  7. Right on here – though the $500 model’s drive is too small to be useful;
  8. Got it right again – though I think Bluetooth would have been a good idea;
  9. As I said above, support for web apps may be limited since Apple does not seem willing to support plugins like Flash or Silverlight;
  10. Bottom end model meets this, but as I said, its 16gd SSD is too small to be useful.

So the iPad meets a lot of my requirements, but without ink support, and with its lack of support for applications I need, it is definitely not what I need as an all around slate tablet. It is a cute toy, but it is just that – a toy.

Some ‘”what if” thoughts on the Apple Tablet

Just what the world needs, right? Yet another post on the rumoured, almost legendary, Apple Tablet.

What I thought I would do here is, putting my personal feelings about Apple and its products aside, talk about what the Apple Tablet would have to be in order for it to be considered (for me) a successful tablet. I have already written about my view on what a modern tablet should look like. I have also written a couple of times on why tablets have failed to sell, and on the adoption of tablets by young people.

I could also write about the new moves by Microsoft and its partners on the tablet front. Unfortunately, there is not much to talk about there. I am not going to go down the path others have and declare the new tablets shown in the keynote to be crap – they just did not show enough to really judge one way or the other, or to be very excited.

So, lets talk about Apple.

My first question about the Apple tablet is this: What is the target market? Is it primarily a consumer product? Or is it targeted at business users? Apple has a good track record, especially in the last decade, of building products for the consumer market. There is no denying that. On the other hand, Apple’s success in the business world (outside of very specific areas like graphic design, etc.) has been limited, probably because it has not been a focus for them. In either case, the question also arises as to what is the target user group in the market? In the consumer market, is the target young people or all age groups? it the target techies or “normals”?

This is an important question, as this will define the features that are important in the product. I must admit that most of my views are driven by business use scenarios. I use my tablet for work first, and for personal use second. I am also in an older age group (in Apple’s market) – I am 47. My preferred mode of interaction is with a stylus – emulating “pen and paper”. I like to scribble notes, I like to make drawings – all part of brainstorming. As i said in a previous post, this is not necessarily how younger people prefer to interact. For the most part, my kids (all in college/university) are not all that comfortable with handwriting, much preferring a keyboard of some kind.

So what are the implications of this question for the Apple tablet? Well, if you are going to produce a device to work in the business work, the fact is (for good or bad) it pretty much has to coexist and play well with the infrastructure in place. Right now, that means it has to handle MS Office documents in a meaningful way. It has to work well with Exchange Server. It has to deal gracefully with authentication in an MS world. Like Microsoft or not, that is the world as it is now, and if you want to be a business device, you have to play nicely in that world.

If it is targeted as a consumer device, this obviously becomes much less important. The consumer market is dominated by browsing, media handling, and social interaction.

A consumer oriented tablet may also be able to succeed without an ink interface. I do not think a business device can. This has hardware implications, as well. If it is not handled properly, ink and touch do not work well together (especially for us lefties). You try to write, and your hand is touching the screen, which is interpreted as a touch and nothing works well. HP has gotten around this by have two digitizers – one for touch and one for the stylus. When the stylus gets close to the screen, the touch digitizer deactivates. THis is not the only way to handle it, but it must be handled if you are going to have both touch and ink. 

The other fundamental question about the Apple tablet (for me) is the OS. What Apple’s plans here? I see four possibilities here:

  1. A variation of the iPhone OS
  2. OSX as is (not likely)
  3. OSX tailored for the tablet
  4. A completely new OS (also not likely)

While I have very successfully and happily used windows (XP, Vista, and 7) on tablets, I have no doubt that a new approach could make things much better – face it, computer interaction has not evolved in a fundamental way since the mid 90s (maybe the mid 80s).

I am hoping that the answer is 3. I really do not want to see the Apple Tablet end up as an iPhone on steroids. I have said before that the tablet could benefit from a completely new interaction paradigm, and it will be interesting to see what Apple can do in that area. Unlike many others, I do not see the iPhone as the ultimate achievement in UI design. It is good as far as it goes, but it certainly does not scale to larger application design.

As much as I dislike Apple, I am definitely eager to see what they can do in this area.

So what is the key to success for the Apple Tablet? Obviously, anything Apple releases will have a certain amount of success within the apple fan base. But is that enough to sustain a tablet product line?

Looking back on the iPhone, when it was launched it enjoyed tremendous success because it was new, cool, and different. That would not have been enough for sustained success, however, without the massive number of applications that have been created for it, with a clean, simple distribution model and low costs. I would argue that the long term success of the iPhone is more due to the App Store than to the device itself.

Similarly, look at the Windows vs Mac battle. If ever there was an opportunity for the Mac to steal market share from Windows than during the Vista fiasco. And while Apple did gain market during this time, it really should have gained more. Why didn’t it? The biggest barrier to most Windows users migrating to Mac (especially corporate users and IT departments) is the lack of application support on the Mac. No matter how much I might like OSX and the Mac hardware, it is no good to me if the applications I need personally or or professionally are not supported.

So the key to long term success of the Apple tablet is application support. It needs to support enough of the applications and environments people use everyday, and it needs an active, dynamic developer community driving excitement like the iPhone has. This has been a fundamental point of failure for the Windows-based tablets – almost no support at all from application developers (even the ones inside Microsoft itself!).

Lets hope Apple does it right – because without some injection of new thinking, I believe the tablet device will die off.

Excellent discussion on Apple (and other) Tablets…

Check out Microsoft’s Slate: Exactly Unlike Apple’s Upcoming Tablet – though the post is self is really kind of biased (but hey, it is on a blog called theAppleBlog after all), there is some really good discussion going on in some of the coments (after the first few Apple fanboy entries). And the discussion is really what all of this Web 2.0 stuff really is all about, right?

The Wonder Of Apple’s Tablet – washingtonpost.com

The Wonder Of Apple’s Tablet – washingtonpost.com

Well, well, well….yet another “hype” article for the rumoured (though probably real in some form) Apple Tablet. I must admit, that I am of two minds on the the Apple Tablet (what ever it is will be called). On the one hand, I am very interested in seeing what Apple does with the idea. Will it be a real tablet, or will it just be a big iPhone? Will it run the iPhone OS or a real operating system?

I am mostly concerned simply because it comes from Apple. I personally find Apple to be one of the most troubling companies on the planet. Their closed systems and closed attitude towards the rest of the computing world bother me. Even worse are Apple fans. I dread to see the Apple Tablet merely on the grounds that 6 months later all of Apple fandom will be declaring loudly “how brilliant Steve Jobs is – he invented the Tablet!”.

Back to the article in the Washington Post. The author rightfully asks the question “Why would anyone want a tablet computer?” I personally love them. I have been using them for years (remember this for next Christmas kids – APPLE DID/WILL NOT INVENT THE TABLET PC). I have written several other posts about why I like them, and where I would like them to go in the future. Right now I have two Tablets – one is a slate model which I love. The other is the convertible Tablet given out to attendees at Microsoft PDC . This one has a great multi-touch interface running Windows 7. Its only weakness is pour handwriting support due to interference between touch capabilities and handwriting. In the house we also have two HP Touchsmart convertible tablets. These both support multi-touch and handwriting extremely well, and are well priced at just under $1000 (in Canada).

(Note here that MS already has a multitouch interface that supports gestures, handwriting, and runs a real OS, so is useful beyond just being another gadget.)

Now for the stupidest statement in the Washington Post article (possibly the stupidest tech statement made this year):

“The truth is that most of us don’t understand the allure of a tablet computer because they’ve all sucked up until now.”

Ok, the author just revealed himself to either be a moron, woefully uninformed, or just completely lacking in objectivity (perhaps stemming from the Crunchpad association). There are a number of very good tablets out there (and have been for a number of years). Any of the tablets from Motion Computing are great, though they are not consumer oriented (I have been using an LE1600 personally for 4+ years). The HP tablets have been consistently good. I have also heard great things about Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Dell tablets. The one complaint I have about all of them (except maybe the HP Touchsmart) is that the prices are way too high, but that is improving.

I will say I really want more out of a Tablet, as I said in a previous post. But that does not mean that all of the existing devices suck. Such a broad generalization, is well, just stupid.

Here is another statement from the article:

We’ll be living in a future with Minority Report, Star Trek, and Avatar interactive technology

it is interesting to note that the user interface in Minority Report was actually inspired by another non-Apple device – the Microsoft Surface.

The last quote I will take from this article is

Part of it is that Apple has a sterling record with consumer-oriented products.

Well, seems to me that Apple has failed a few more times than the author mentions. Seems the Mac Book Air didn’t do so well. Going back much further, anyone remember Steve Job’s Newton? Going back even further, Apple could be the dominant desktop OS right now if not for Job’s immeasurable ego back in the 80s (has that changed at all?).

My big concern here is how much of the consumer community reads and believes unsubstantiated drivel like this, and so dismisses anything non-Apple without even looking at it.   

A big part of the blame for this has to go to Microsoft, as well, and their atrocious marketing department. Tablet PCs have been around since 2002, and yet I still get stopped everywhere I travel by folks asking what my tablet is. How is that for getting the word out on one of your coolest technologies? It does not help that the press does not like to write about anything Microsoft because it is not “cool” to support MS.

So please folks, remember this – multi-touch, gesture-based computing is real and available today, and it is not from Apple. In addition, it runs an OS that lets you use everything you have been used to using, and does not lock you in to buying everything you ever want through Apple. And, you can even replace your own battery, unlike most Apple devices 🙂

PS – More hype for the “Apple saves the tablet” community is here. Also there is an older article Why Have Tablets Flopped? Here Are Five Reasons referenced. Of the five reasons quoted, only one is valid – price. Note also that the only pictures they use are of the Newton – the only real failure of the bunch. It is really sad that all of the media writing about tablets seems to have drunk the Apple Koolaid.

Free Upgrade to Windows 7!

I really have to laugh at the anti-Microsoft crowd, Mac fans, and open source crowd who argue that MS should argue that everyone who has Windows Vista should be given a free upgrade to Windows 7. They argue that because Vista was supposedly crap that they should be given the next version free.

Leaving aside the fact that most of the people who have complained so loudly about Vista are either uninformed users, journalists and others who make their living bashing anything MS (or the people who read them), or get all of thier information from Mac commercials, there is simply no argument for being given the next version free.

Say you went out and bought a car. A couple of years later, the manufacturer relases a new version of your car. How would your dealer react if you went in and asked for a free upgrade to the newer version of the car? Think you would have much luck with that?

How about your laptop – think you should get free upgrades to that every couple of years? How about your TV? Or cell phone? Or anything else in your life?

Unfortunately, no one sees software the same way that they see more tangible, physical items like cars and computers, even though the software frequently costs significantly more in R&D that the hardware does.

So go ahead – ask MS for a free upgrade. Just make sure you do the same to your car dealer, computer dealer, and be prepared to have all of your customers expect the same from you!

Guardian: “Microsoft beats Apple to the Tablet”. Really?

I hate to point this out, but contrary to what the Apple fanboys would have you believe, Microsoft beat Apple to the Tablet 7 years ago lol – they just f***ed up the marketing (as always).

As always, Apple loses the time-to-market battle, but will no doubt win the fanboy opinion battle. A few months a from now, the notoriously anti-Microsoft media will be proclaiming how brilliant Apple is for “inventing” the Tablet. 

Guardian: “Microsoft beats Apple to the Tablet”. Really? « Sharing the truth one thread at a time

Why consumers won’t buy tablets – CNN.com

 Why consumers won’t buy tablets – CNN.com

Ok – so this guy really doesn’t get it (not surprising – there are few tech columnists out there who grasp anything that is not already mainstream). Then, hardly anyone else gets it, either. The one things he does have right in the whole article is that tablets are too expensive – but this is, of course, driven by the fact that they have never caught on enough to drive the prices down.

However, he also makes the statement “…you need a keyboard for doing real work…” This is entirely, utterly incorrect. The problem is, you do need a keyboard to do any real work only if you insist on working the same way you do on a device that has a keyboard.

Later, he says “…a Netbook like a $200 Acer Aspire One offers a better bet: it has a real keyboard, its own storage, and you can take it on the road and do real work on it, like a notebook computer or a Netbook.” Other than the keyboard statement, this is utter rubbish. A tablet has comparable storage to a laptop. And as for taking it on the road and doing real work – a tablet works better in a meeting room, on an airplane (where there is rarely room to open your laptop anymore), and my table gives me 7-9 hours of battery life. And if you are using the table as a tablet, the keyboard becomes irrelevant.

Later, he says “…you’ll probably be able to plug a keyboard into any of these yet-to-be-released tablets…” – get with it, I have been using tablets with support for USB and/or Bluetooth keyboards since 2002, and they are the same keyboards you use with your desktop, so nothing special to buy.

Working on a tablet is a different user experience, and requires a different way of working – a way of working which seems more natural if you are used to working with paper and pen. In order for a tablet to be effective, one has to get used to working with handwriting again, and get away from on-screen typing, and also away from converting handwriting to text all the time.

I learned this way back when Tablet PCs first came out (I have been using a tablet pretty much continuously since 2002). When I got my first tablet, I soon realized that I  could not use it the same way I did a “normal” computer. So, I tried a little experiment. I got rid of all of my computers except the tablet. For six months, I used the tablet exclusively. Honestly, it was really, really painful at first. Then, I gradually learned to do things in ways which made sense on the tablet – and many of these new approaches were much more natural than working with a keyboard and mouse. What did I learn? Here are a few examples:

  • Handwriting is a slow way to create large documents – typing is much faster (even for me)
  • Creating large documents with a pen may be slow, but marking up someone else’s document is great
  • It is more effective to leave most of your handwriting as handwriting
  • Dictating documents and presentations was quite effective (even more so on my later tablets than on my first)
  • When dictating documents, you have to stop think of correcting and formatting as you go (a BAD habit to begin with). Just dump your ideas out as fast as possible, knowing that you are going to go back and edit and format later.
  • Brainstorming tools are great

I also use the Tablet to read ebooks (in standard formats, rather than proprietary formats) so I do not have to blow several hundred dollars on a Kindle that does nothing but display ebooks.

Think back to the days before we used computers for everything. When you were working on a document, would you typically start at a typewriter? Or would you start with a notebook, or a pad of paper, collecting notes and ideas, creating outlines, and even writing drafts? Then you would take all of that and create the final document.

Think of the tablet the same way. using tools which are tablet-aware (such as Microsoft OneNote, MindJet Mind Manager, and others), use the tablet as you would you pad of paper. Make notes, scribble ideas, brainstorm, create outlines. Even better, you can even clip notes form online sources and collect them together as part of the process. Then after you have done all of your intellectual work, you can do the final stage – typing up the results.

Note that I admit that there are something for which a keyboard is needed. Creating and editing any significant documents requires a keyboard. Does that mean I consider my tablet “just an accessory” to my main computer? Not at all. Most of the tablets available today are convertible, and hence have a keyboard available – giving you the best of both worlds. In my case, I use a slate table – but I also have a stand for it, and a Bluetooth keyboard (I can use my tablet on its stand at my desk, with a wireless keyboard, mouse, and network – then grab it, go to a meeting – come back and set it down and I am good to go).

About the only reason I have other computers is that I spend a considerable amount of my time doing development, and my tablet does not have the computing power, memory, or screen size to be an effective development machine.

The biggest barrier to acceptance of the Tablet PC form factor in the consumer market is indeed price (and price to power ratio). In addition, as I have said before, the Tablet PC has been marketing cluster$!&% by Microsoft from day one. This is a shame, because with a good marketing campaign, and a little bit of evangelism, tablets really cold become a dominant form factor.

PS – Others with no clue:

http://www.readwriteweb.com/enterprise/2009/08/tablets-are-toys-not-mainstream-machines.php

Here they claim “It’s because you can’t work on a tablet. You can’t get things done without a decent working keyboard”. I beg to differ, and might even go so far as to say the author is full of crap.

These are the same kinds of people who said consumers would never want computers in their homes, and that nobody wanted a GUI interface.

PPS – I am also in the process of looking for a Tablet for my daughter, who is starting university in September. I a looking strongly at the HP TouchSmart TX2 series – they seem to be pretty well configured and priced reasonably in the $1000 (Canadian) range. More than a NetBook for sure, but not much more than a comparably configured laptop.

Apple Marketing and Political Mud-slinging

I was wathing one of Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials last night, and noticed how much Apple’s marketing campaign resembles the mindless mud-slinging which permeates the political campaign process. I cannot remember the last time any of these commercials actually mentioned anything good about the Mac, or even mentioned anything about the Mac’s capabilities.

I am sorry, but saying “you should buy my product because XYZ sucks” is a pretty lazy marketing campaign – especially from an organization that pretends to be innovative.