Tablets, Slates and the Misapprehension of Mobile Computing

What’s that, you say?  A serious title?  This can’t be McBlog then, can it?

I assure you, it is.   Come along with me, children.  Mind the edible flowers and the chocolate-stirring waterfall.  No matter what you do, no gum-chewing.  Let me take you back to March 12th of last year, when the hipster geniuses in Cupertino announced the availability of the unfortunately named iPad.  (Clearly, these guys never watch TV.)

I admit to being among the Faithful that day.  I had pre-ordered the iPad and spent my tax refund to pay for it, and I was as excited to receive it as I’ve ever been for a rectangle of technology.  Lest you think me just another Mac Fan-Boy, I’m not.  The ratio of time and energy I spend on a PC compared to a Mac has got to be in the range of 100-to-1.  Macs don’t excite me (actually PCs don’t excite me much either these days, but they did once).  I don’t find OS X, the dock or the TrackPad revolutionary (or magical). Well, no one’s come close to the trackpad, but the OS is unremarkable, on a par with Win7 and Ubuntu.  It’s just a question of who’s sandbox you’d rather play in, and since Apple demands that you play not just with their sand, but only in their hardware and under their somewhat draconian licensing terms, I prefer Windows and Linux to the Mac.  Why?  I can run them on just about any Intel/AMD-based piece of shit hardware I have lying around (including a Mac, if I really want to torture myself).  I can run OS X on exactly one hardware platform and even then I find it restrictive.

Why then did my stomach feel all trembly inside when I removed the aforementioned iPad from the box and turned it on?  Was it the need to sync yet another Apple device with the dreaded iTunes abortionware on my PC?  Oh God no, although I admit to feeling a sense of reckless abandon every time I click on that damn icon.  Will it start this time?  Let’s watch my CPU spike and my disk I/O churn for next several minutes for no apparent reason!  Whee!

No.  It was the form factor.  It was the iPad’s video quality.  It was a usable touch-screen keyboard (well, I thought so at the time anyway; we were all virgins once…).

You see, when it comes to consumer electronics, ergonomics and hardware design, there’s Apple and then there’s everyone else.  Having used a Fujitsu tablet with XP Tablet Edition some years ago and finding it horrible, yet knowing the form factor was a killer feature, I was hoping Apple could – with its maniacal and somewhat fascist control of both hardware and software – do something that the PC marketplace never could.   And I was right.  An hour into using the device I was certain of its viability, bad name and all.  If you want the trains to run on time, find a Nazi.

Never mind that I knew that Apple would release a new iPad every year with exactly one additional feature (a camera this year, perhaps an SD slot or – gasp – a USB port next year, all for the low, low upgrade price of whatever a new iPad 2/3 will cost).  Personally, I couldn’t give a damn about dual camera video chats.  I have Skype for that (like any civilized person) and I do it from my desk using a $39 Logitech webcam just as God intended.  Here finally was a device that I could bring to a meeting for note-taking, email checking and playing Angry Birds while I waited for everyone else to show up (which happens more often than I care to admit; what happened to manners people?  Business etiquitte?  If the friggin’ meeting starts at 10am, be there at 10am!  We don’t want to have to repeat everything discussed in the first 10 minutes just for you).  I could never see myself upgrading to a new iPad, just as I don’t ever intend to upgrade my 80GB iPod.  Every song I’ll ever want to listen to is on that damn thing, not to mention a whole mess of songs I never wanted to hear in the first place, and it’s barely half-full.

The true OMG moment for me came some months later, when a colleague asked me to try using VMWare’s virtual desktop on the iPad via Wyse’s quite excellent PocketCloud app.  Sitting at home, I fired up a full desktop on my iPad.  I had access to all my apps, with full functionality and PC performance.  Bang on killer app for physicians and nurses.  Full stream ahead.

If Apple exists for any reason, it’s to keep PC manufacturers honest.  Following the iPad’s launch, at CES, there were more than fifty tablets, slates and other non-iPad labelled devices demoed.  At the HIMSS conference this year, the story was the same from a clinical device perspective (not to mention that every vendor booth had a “Sign-up-to-win-an-iPad” contest).

I have this weekend begun evaluating two ne’er-do-well challengers to the iPad’s dominance:  The RIM Playbook and the Motorola Xoom.  I have also tried out the Samsung Galaxy, and found it lacking, but my hopes are still high for the Android OS.  The RIM device I’m evaluating for the same reason the US keeps so many nukes lying around:  I want to understand it, although I hope I never have to use one.

Playbook

OK, important disclaimer:  I loathe the RIM Blackberry device.  Truly it is a toy only a CXO could love, with its Dr. Seuss user interface, proprietary email system, abhorent client and server-side syncing architecture (way to go, RIM, for making it suck equally on both platforms).   I’m obviously not alone, given the simply spectacular manner in which RIM is giving away marketshare (shades of Windows Mobile 6.x…), so I was all set to to be disappointed.

First off, the Playbook is much smaller than the iPad (just big enough to not to fit in a pocket or holster and too small to usefully render a desktop), so it would probably be more fair to compare it to a smartphone than a tablet, except of course the Playbook doesn’t make phone calls (and there’s no Skype client for it either).

The startup experience was one that would have left the Windows Update team at Microsoft green with envy.  Upon power-up and before I could see any UI, the Playbook demanded that I download an OS update to the tune of about 275MB.  Even on my very fast (12-15mbps download speed) home wifi network, this is a good 20 minute download.  To make matters worse, the first download failed (for unexplained reasons) and had to be restarted.  With restarts and install time, it was the better part of an hour before I could actually use the damn thing.

It’s All About Apps, Stupid…

Ah, the App Store.  Accessible only by abortionware, with a software developer license only Hitler could love, a non-existent filtering/sorting mechanism, a rating system straight out of the Bronze Age, and QuickTime, the App Store is still a major distinguisher for Apple.  You want fifty different fart apps?  They’re all there for you.  Along with tools for just about everyone to love.  And Apple gets its cut on every download.  Talk about printing money.

And  so now we have the Android app marketplace, the Windows Phone 7 app marketplace and, yes, the RIM App World.  Unfortunately for RIM, it’s a very, very small world, and I don’t see it getting much larger any time soon.  No Skype (as I mentioned), no PocketCloud, not much of anything but the inevitable game software.  This could change but honestly why in the world would anyone develop for it…?  Browsing App World (I can hear the marketing meetings at RIM now…App Planet?  App Realm? App Domain? ….) gave me a greasy feeling that I last remember having last when I put the AOL floppy disk (yes, floppy disk…) in my PC years and years ago and discovering that not only was there no there there, there wasn’t much of anything else either.  You could almost hear the wind gusting down empty, dusty hallways.

The one good thing – and it’s sort of a shame given the inevitable failure of this device – about the Playbook was the video.  Fast, crisp and wonderful in HD, it is only device I’ve seen that can compete with the iPad (which has excellent video because of Apple’s completely proprietary A4 graphics processor).  Really wonderful, it largely negated the smaller screen size.  I will need to load up a movie on it and see how it goes.  Oh, and the Tetris and Need For Speed games are quite good as well.  But note-taking? Yuck.  E-Mail, Calendar and Contacts, ugh.  Tethering?  As Chris Farley would have said: “Woop-de-frickin’-doo!”

In my next post, I’ll talk in a more in-depth manner about the Motolora Xoom, as it runs a better OS (Android) and may actually end up mattering in the tablet space.  Someday I will also try out a Windows 7-based tablet, at least for the 1-2 hours I can run it before the battery dies.  I will just say now that I think Microsoft has made a monumental mistake in targeting Win7 as their tablet OS, rather than the Windows Phone 7 operating system.  WP7 is actually a very, very good OS – with a superior development experience to any of its competition – and it achieves the same goal as iOS:  To get the damn OS out of the way on mobile devices.  When I want to hack, I’ll go back to my PC; when I’m on the run, just let me tap the damn icons.

More next time, until then:  Stay thirsty, my friends.

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