Tuesday, August 23, 2011

And then there were three

We're down to three major tablet "platforms", Blackberry, Android, and iOS. HP has withdrawn its webOS tablets, and while some hope that other manufacturers may license the system from HP, it seems highly improbable that will happen. HP's decision last week left a dark cloud over the OS, and indeed, over itself. And that's a terrible end for what was a great powerhouse of innovation - or the merger of at least four powerhouses (HP, DEC, Compaq, and Palm) of innovation, at least.

How do I see this playing out? Well, here's how I see the I see the situation, as a software developer biased towards free/open source software, and someone who's been using tablets since the Nokia N800, and who dabbled with PDAs and handheld computers right the way back to the 1980s.

Let's start off with some random thoughts:
  • I'm still, frankly, staggered by the iPad's success. I didn't think it would get anywhere. It's very clearly more expensive and less useful than a Netbook. Yet it's selling as fast as Apple can make them.
  • I don't see many iPad owners actually using the things!
  • By any measure, the better non-iPad tablets in the $300-600 range are better value and more powerful than the iPad, yet they're not selling.
  • I can see how tablets would help in businesses, especially customer facing roles from sales people to doctors. Bizarrely, I'm not seeing them used there.
Given this, and I may be completely wrong about this, but I'm strongly of the opinion that people who are looking for something to solve a problem (that is, people concerned about functionality) are not, in general, buying tablets. A tablet is much more, right now, of a "want" item than a "need" item, something that looks great and desirable, but isn't something you'd have ever thought you need. And as a result, naturally, the company that's got the best reputation for "design" is cleaning up. It may seem snarky, but the only company that can probably make a successful iPad competitor right now is Dyson!

So should Google, RIM, et al, follow HP in just giving up? Well, I have no idea. Here's what I think.

First, I think there are real applications for the tablet form factor, right now, that aren't being exploited. Watching a nurse and then a doctor attempt to navigate an arcane medical recording/diagnosis system last Wednesday, it became very clear to me that cheap, network connected, tablets would have an optimal user interface for doing much the same thing, in a way that would be natural and work well.

Is anyone doing creating such applications? Probably, but it's going to be a while before such systems become commonplace. Developers have to get used to the form factor, and ironically, one thing holding us all back is the iPad. A closed system, the iPad doesn't lend itself to experimentation. The alternatives are only just starting to emerge - Honeycomb has been out for, perhaps, six months now, and the impression I get is that Google sees it as a rushed beta, not as anything they're proud of. The HP Touchpad has only really been available for a month, and the Playbook a little longer, but not by much.

Which brings me on to a second point, while the underlying concept may be decades old, a viable version is still something everyone is trying to thrash out. The iPad brought some ideas to the table, concentrating on the multitouch concepts pioneered by the iPhone, and this has lead to another concerted effort to try again.

Will the multitouch tablet succeed where the PDA, HPC, et al, failed? Well, by itself, if limited to the current players, I'm inclined to wonder if this type of device is a flash in the pan.  After all, if the majority of buyers of iPads end up not using them, then is it probable they'll buy any more, or recommend them to friends in the long run? But there's another factor that should be taken into account before writing off the form factor completely.

That factor is Microsoft's Windows 8.

The previews we've seen of Windows 8 thus far suggest Microsoft is going all-in to produce a universal version of Windows that will be as at home on a multitouch tablet as it is on a regular desktop computer. Microsoft isn't new to tablet computing, Bill Gates was using a tablet as his primary machine from the late nineties, and that computer was running Windows. A quick search on tech vendor sites usually produces a list of "Tablet PCs" which have the tablet form factor, but run a "Tablet edition" of Windows.

Despite its pioneer status, Microsoft has been conspicuously absent with the new generation of tablets. While Apple, Google, RIM, and HP ported their mobile operating systems to the tablets, there's no suggestion that Microsoft is planning to, ever, send Windows Mobile in the same direction.

What's the difference between Microsoft's approach, and Apple's? Well, Apple's iPad runs a stripped down version of OS X that is, pretty much, completely incompatible with its desktop cousin. This is by design, and Apple's view, quite rightly, is that the different user interface of the iPad means that developers need to take a different approach, they can't make crude ports of their existing tools and expect them to work.

But iOS isn't merely a different version of OS X to its desktop cousin, it's a considerably less powerful operating system and its closed. The result is that the iPad is always going to be somewhat limited, developers have to be willing to rewrite their software completely, and their software will be limited by the crude environment in which it runs.

Not so Windows 8. In the worst possible case, a user will be able to use an existing, unported, application unchanged. But developers will find it easier to make changes to their existing applications so that they work well on a Windows 8 tablet, but lose nothing in functionality.

That's a game changer because at that point the multitouch tablet ceases to be an expensive toy, limited to web browsing and the odd game, and becomes something capable of replacing a laptop computer, or even a desktop.

The question here, I guess, is do we want that? Is a tablet really a natural form factor for a computer? I guess time will tell, and we won't know until a serious effort is made to adapt software to work using a natural tablet user interface.

So... where does Google and RIM fit in this world? I'm not sure they do. Android has a lot of potential, but Google aren't likely to produce a post-beta version of their tablet UI until later this year, and the operating system is missing an enormous amount of functionality necessary for something that would be a desktop replacement.  RIM, likewise, only has a mobile operating system.

To that extent I kind of understand where HP is coming from, and kind of don't. HP had high hopes for webOS and was talking up the possibility of the high level parts of webOS running over Windows on desktop systems in the future. But if Microsoft is going in that direction anyway, adding webOS to Windows would be pointless. And as a mobile system, webOS would never be able to make it alone, any more than Android or the Blackberry operating system.

There's plenty, of course, that Microsoft can do to make a mess of things. Windows 8 may well need considerably more power than will be available in early multitouch tablets. And there's a part of me, as a big Android fan and supporter of free and open source software, that hopes the forthcoming "Icecream Sandwich" version (the version after Honeycomb) will be a success. But Google has a lot of work to do if they want to be sure they can head off Windows. At the very least, they need to reconsider the "Chromebook" project and consider integrating Android into it. Android itself needs the advanced networking and security features commonly associated with modern desktop operating systems. The development infrastructure needs massive improvements, and Google should consider helping port some of the more advanced applications to the system. I'm not convinced Google can do any of this, or moreover that they see it as necessary.

Still, we'll see. It's going to be interesting to see what RIM and Google do over the next twelve months. And also Apple, to be honest, because it looks as if they're keen to move a lot of multitouch functionality into Mac OS X, and it may well be that the iPad is replaced, eventually, by a tablet iMac.