Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tablets, Netbooks, and the next big thing

As my regular readers know, I'm somewhat of a tablet skeptic. For the most part I enjoy being a part of this industry, but I actually resented, to a certain extent, the fact that I had to buy a tablet to keep my skills honed. I don't see mine as being something that's going to do much except be a test bed for my own work.

And having owned a tablet now for a week, and bringing it into work every day, buying apps for it, trying my best to make it work, I don't see any reason to change my mind at this point. What's my overall verdict?

A tablet, in 2011 at least, is a device that does a subset of what a full computer does, and doesn't do any of them well, but looks cool doing it.

Now, to be fair, there are some minor advantages a tablet has over, say, a Netbook, but they're not exactly enough - for me - to overcome the disadvantages in general use. A tablet doesn't need to be opened up to be used, which means you can, in theory, carry it around with you while you work, making it always available. In practice, however, a 10" tablet is simply too large to be comfortably carried around all the time, and a smaller tablet is too small to be significantly more useful than a phone.

This portability makes tablets useful for some applications, but not many. I mentioned in an earlier post that I think they'd be great to replace the clumsy PCs in most doctors offices. Doctors and nurses usually, these days, spend a while with a patient entering symptoms into a PC using a user interface that looks like something out of the 1990s and certainly has no flow to it. A tablet would be something a nurse or doctor could carry around with them, entering information in a fairly smooth fashion.  And there are plenty of other industries where I can see this working.

What I don't see as working is the intended audience of the iPad and Honeycomb devices, essentially ordinary people who want to use the web, write emails, and play games, without carrying around a laptop. These are people who would clearly find a Netbook a more versatile and friendly device. A Netbook can run any applications that a desktop can, but the device is much more portable. And most modern applications require more than a finger to operate usefully. You want to be able to type, for example, if you're writing an email. Why would a keyboardless touchscreen be anything but a liability in the modern world?

So why are tablets taking off? And why are Netbook sales falling?

Well, I think the latter is misleading. Netbook sales may be falling, but they're still extremely high. People like Netbooks. And outside of Apple, I don't think many people see tablets as a replacement for Netbooks.

Tablets are selling well because they look awesome. They may not do anything well, but there's a slickness to what they do that's extremely enticing. I'm not finding many people who heavily use tablets after they buy them, but I see a lot of people who generally like the things, especially if they don't have one yet.

That said...

The tablet isn't the first time this concept has been tried. The iPad can trace its lineage, albeit indirectly, to the Apple Newton. The Newton was the first PDA. Newton begat the Palm Pilot which was arguably the first useful PDA. Microsoft, meanwhile, came up with the Tablet PC, and the modern "Tablet" is, in many ways, a hybrid of the two concepts, with the benefits of technologies taken from modern touchscreen phones.

Now, there are some things to note about all of the above. The first is that it's clear that the tablet is simply the latest incarnation of an evolving platform. It's not the first time that platform has been successful, but the temporary success of a platform doesn't mean it's going to last. People want a more portable, personal, computer, while arguably the PC has been going in the other direction over the years with PCs becoming more like the minicomputers and mainframes of old, multiuser behemoths designed to be administered by people who aren't the users of the machines themselves.

The second is to note Microsoft's interest in the platform. Microsoft really wants to produce a successful tablet platform, and my experience of Windows 8 suggests that they may be extremely close to that. One thing is absolutely true: Windows 8 will be installed on many, many, tablets, and users of those tablets are going to want to be able to plug the device into a proper screen and keyboard because that's what "legacy" Windows apps need. By rejecting the concept of supporting existing apps, the Android and iOS based tablets don't force manufacturers to think in terms of a "dockable tablet", and while some - notably ASUS - have tried to do this, the docks essentially run tablet applications rather than apps that would make use of the environment.

While at first glance, the notion of a dual facing tablet, one that has a touchscreen user-interface for "on the road" access to data, and a keyboard interface for productivity, may seem like a kludge, the reality is such an environment may be ideal.

As such, I think Windows 8 will have a massive impact, and may create a generation of touchscreen computers that actually do bring us into a post PC world.

I'd like to hope that Google and other groups such as Canonical (the makers of Ubuntu) will also be a part of this post PC world, but thus far neither have really shown they're looking forward to it. Google, I think, is still orienting itself towards the cloud, and hoping that people see tablets, phones, and PCs as interfaces to the cloud rather than devices that run applications and store data in their own right. The cloud has a major problem with it, which is the requirement to be hooked up to the Internet, and I think as such Google's plans may simply not fit reality for the next decade.

Canonical wants to create a post-desktop Ubuntu, but is having severe problems designing a UI that works. Their latest incarnations of "Unity", the next generation Ubuntu user interface, have thus far been unpopular, working poorly on the desktop and being completely unsuitable for tablet use. I'm sure the problems will be fixed in time, but it's still a shame we're at this point.

The industry is going to be very interesting in the next few years. But unless you have a pressing need to understand the technology, I would not recommend you buy a tablet today.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that a Netbook is a more 'real-world' useful piece of kit compared to Tablets. Running modern software requires the extensive use of keyboard shortcuts. But I can understand wanting a Tablet would be cool for playing games such as Angry Birds...