Friday, January 29, 2010

The Android Tablet

While Apple has introduced the iPad tablet computer, MSI has quietly been developing an alternate based on the Android platform. Here's a taste:

Here are some comparisons:
The MSI has a camera; the iPad does not.
The MSI supports Flash; the iPad does not
The screens are nearly identical in size
The MSI is based on NVidia's Tegra chip; the iPad on the A4. The processors are comparable in horsepower
The MSI will cost as much as the cheapest iPad
The MSI will ship in about 5 months; the iPad; about 3 months
The MSI is an Android (Linux) device; the iPad runs on a proprietary OS
The MSI will multitask; the iPad does not
However, MSI native apps will not support pinching and zoom gestures like the iPad
The MSI has several physical buttons on the chassis.
The MSI will support 1080p HD video; the iPad 720p

MSI says the specifications are "flexible". It's not yet revealed what connectivity there will be... WiFi or Broadband. We just don't know. We also do not know how the devices will compare with storage and memory. But it is nice to see somebody who can develop a product without overhyping it. Apparently I'm not the only one who is already weary of the "magic".

Now that's just plain silly.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


According to the criteria Steve Jobs set out in his announcement of the iPad, the device has no reason for being.

In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. They're going to have to be far better at doing some really important things. Better than the laptop, better than the smartphone.

What kind of tasks? Well, things like browsing the web. That's a pretty tall order. Something that's better at browsing the web than a laptop? OK. Doing email. Enjoying and sharing photographs. Video. Watching videos. Enjoying your music collection. Playing games. Reading ebooks.

If there's going to be a third category of device, it's going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone. Otherwise, it has no reason for being. Now, some people have thought that that's a netbook. The problem is, netbooks aren't better at anything. They're slow, they run low-quality displays, and they run clunky old PC software. So they're not better than a laptop at anything, they're just cheaper. They're just cheap laptops, and we don't think that they're a third category of device.

But we think we've got something that is. And we'd like to show it to you today for the first time. And we call it the iPad.
-- Steve Jobs
OK, so there's Apple's design goal in a nutshell. But first let's be aware that we're NOT talking about a "new category of device". We're talking about a tablet computer, which has been around for years and years. Just because Steve Jobs wants to engage in shameless self-promotion on-stage doesn't make it actually new and different. This is just a tablet computer whose keyboard comes extra, and which runs what amounts to a single-tasking operating system. That said, how well did they hit their design goals? Steve Jobs listed six specific tasks that the iPad had to be far better at (not "as good as", not "good enough") to have a reason for being. Let's look at each task and see whether the iPad is an improvement over the PC, the laptop, and the smartphone. "WIN" denotes that the iPad is the best there is at the task; "FAIL" does NOT mean it's terrible... just that it's not better, much less "far better".

1. Browsing the web. A lot of commentators have had little orgasms over the fact that you can see the "whole page" when browsing the web. Well, for starters, you can't. You just see a portrait orientation rather than a landscape. This is something, incidentally, that your PC can do quite easily. You can even buy swivel mounts for your LCD monitor to facilitate it. Beyond that, Apple missed the boat. They didn't even define the problem properly. The next wave of devices don't need to be good at browsing the web, they need to be good at using it. Web apps. Google Docs. Microsoft Office Live, etc. What good is your portrait view of a page if your fake keyboard is taking up half of it? How well can you use that keyboard when the screen is laid flat so you can type with both hands, or you're trying to type with one hand while holding the device with the other. If it's tilted so you can see what's left of the screen, then the device is at an odd angle, making typing awkward. (UPDATE: And here's the kicker... even if you're just browsing it doesn't do Flash content. Who uses Flash? YouTube... Hulu... all those nifty online games...)

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

2. Doing email. All of the keyboard issues that exist for browsing the web are issues for email, five-fold. Elsewhere in his presentation Jobs says that using the "almost life-size" keyboard is a dream to type on. Unless by "dream" he means "nightmare" he is, to put it charitably, exaggerating. Even if the orientation issues were solved, you don't get tactile feedback from a touchscreen. Email absolutely requires a decent keyboard, and the iPad doesn't have it. What the iPad does have is portability. But if you're working in email, this does not by any stretch of the imagination, beat a laptop with a real keyboard. It doesn't even beat a hybrid tablet which has all of the iPad's portability plus a fold-out keyboard.

Conclusion: FAIL

3. Watching Videos. Just what I need... to hold the damned movie in my hand or to prop it up on something. At least a laptop's screen angle is continuously adjustable. And then we're listening to it through what? Those crappy built-in speakers? Or are we chained to out headphones? Sorry, but the laptop and the PC both beat out the iPad for video. In addition to digital content, they allow me to watch DVDs and Blu-Ray, hands free, and hear them through some decent speakers.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

4. Enjoying your music collection. Just yesterday a friend related to me how his wife had replaced her iPod with an iPod Nano because the classic iPod was too big for working out. Imagine how thrilled she'd be lugging this around. Which highlights a couple of interesting observations. The first is that though Apple wants you to compare this machine to PCs, laptops, and smartphones; by bringing up this issue they're competing with other devices such as their own iPod line and other MP3 devices. And the fact of the matter is, that there are times... a lot of times... when combining all functionality into a single device simply isn't desirable. It's just a bad, bad move to declare that this device must do the task better when that clearly isn't possible.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

5. Playing games. What can I say? Having attempted to play some "games" on the iPhone and iPod Touch, I'd point out that they're pretty good at playing some pretty simple games. But hardcore gamers who are into first-person shooters or driving games are going to have a lot of fun making fun of the iPad. With the exception of screen size this form factor offers no advantage over a smartphone. Compared to a PC it's a disaster.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

6. Reading ebooks. This is pretty much identical to my experience with reading eBooks on a PC, Notebook, or tablet, except for portability. And since portability is raised again, I will re-iterate my oft-stated stance that the ideal ebook reader fits in a pocket. The iPad won't even fit in a pocketbook. A satchel, yes. A "man-bag", yes. But I'm not getting a man-bag to lug around this piece of kit to do the same thing I can do today with a PalmTX which fits in my shirt pocket. The one and only advantage it poses over the PC with regard to this task is portability, and there's too little of that. Other folks, who like oversized readers like the Kindle will take exception about the size issue, but will still lambast the iPad for using a harsh LCD screen instead of ePaper.

Conclusion: NO WIN, NO FAIL

(Update: to these six tasks we should add one that Jobs mentions deeper in the presentation: sharing photos. This is the digital era. People who share do it with Flickr. If you want to share photos casually, you want a device you can carry easily on your person or in your purse, just as you would do with your wallet-size photos. You certainly don't say, "Hold on while I go get my cafeteria tray." Conclusion: FAIL)

So having examined the tasks Jobs listed, it doesn't have a "win" in a single category. I'd have to conclude that by Steve Jobs' own criteria this device has no reason for existing. Therefore you have no reason to buy one. But let's not sit still while Jobs bad-mouths his own lackluster product (tic). Surely there's something to recommend it.

There are two things this device at which this device excels: being cool and pretending to be innovative without actually innovating. To those I'd ad that it is exceptionally portable for a device of its size.

Let's look one more time at portability. This has Wi-Fi and 3G. That's nice. It has 10 hours of battery life according to Jobs, which means about 6 or 7 hours according to me (A bit less if you're actually using it to do any of the cool stuff demoed, especially listen to music or watch movies). And it is thin and light. An excellent business use would be to display contracts which require a signature, or filling out medical questionnaires. In other words, the very same things we've been doing for years on tablets, which is to be expected because it IS a tablet PC. That being the case, it's worth looking at the OS. Apple's chosen to scale up the iPhone interface for this device. OK, except that you won't be doing much multitasking with it if you don't have a windowing OS. The WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) interface has been taking a lot of flak lately, but I personally keep a number of windows open, not just to switch between them, but for status, moving data about, etc. In contrast, the iPad gives you one thing on the screen at a time. You do that, you switch to something else. So those data manipulation tasks on your PC... you're probably not going to be using this device for that, because it's bloody bad at it.

Depending on the sensitivity of the multitouch interface, it may be quite good as an artist's pad... it's just the right size for that. I'd have to see it used as such before coming to the conclusion, though, as "accuracy" is pretty much a foreign concept to multitouch displays. The iPhone's is horrendous. We're talking about an interface designed to process gestures made by one or more remarkably fat human fingers whereas serious graphic artists require the accuracy of a digitizing pad and a stylus. Many artists already use other tablet PCs. But the potential is there.

What is certain is that as long as people have the promise of "gold in them thar hills" (those hills being located in the Apple App Store), they will find new things to do with this device.

All in all, if Jobs thinks he just introduced a new class of device, he's a sad, tired, deluded old man with a failing memory. If he's introducing a new lightweight tablet PC, then I think he has a contender.