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Insight on tablet interface misses the mark



500x_courier8[4]An article on Gizmodo describes the current approaches to tablet design as wrong-headed and breaks them into two camps, making phones bigger and making PCs smaller. It’s actually a good read and receiving many positive comments. Unfortunately the two approaches being described don’t line up very well with what’s actually happening, and the whole thing winds up being a longing look at Microsoft’s concept project, Courier, without demonstrating a great understanding of what Courier is.

First off, I would love to see Courier become a reality. I really would. However, the video demos that Gizmodo unearthed only showed an application. Let’s call it, I don’t know, “Inkseine”. Yes, this “Inkseine” is awesome and, in this fictitious scenario, I know at least a couple of people have said they want it as the Tablet PC interface. But it’s still one application, albeit a versatile one. If that’s all it does, then Courier would be an appliance, not a computer. I could live with that, but the article’s author Jason Chen argues against such an approach in his take on the “making phones bigger,” pointing out the value of multi-tasking, interoperability, and peripherals.

“Making phones bigger” focuses on the iPad and how it’s a basically just a big iPhone. Okay, let’s forget for a moment that the iPad introduces new UI elements and layouts to take advantage of the larger size, it should be noted the iPhone OS itself is a stripped down version of Mac OS X, a desktop OS. The strip-down approach was criticized by Jon Rubinstein of Palm because kept the iPhone OS from being “lean” enough to run efficiently on a mobile processor (though that criticism seems irrelevant now thanks to chipsets like Apple’s A4 and Texas Instruments’ OMAP4).

My take was that building the iPhone OS from OS X allowed Apple to easily scale it back up as technology advances, which we’re seeing now. Apple isn’t just making the iPhone OS bigger for the iPad; they’re moving it closer to its roots in Mac OS X. That’s obvious with the iWork apps. Its music app is basically “iTunes lite”. Yes, I agree you can’t just make a big phone and call it a tablet, but I believe Apple approached the iPhone OS with upscaling in mind.

It’s also important to note that the iPhone was a fresh take on the phone interface, introducing multi-touch and accelerometer input. In many ways, it has always been a small slate tablet that can make phone calls. Scaling it up to a larger slate that can’t make phone calls isn’t a great stretch.

Now, the Android-based tablets are a different story. Android is based on the Linux kernel but not simply a flavor of Linux. It was built from the ground up as a phone OS. However, Android is also an open source OS still in its early stages of development. It can be taken in different directions, including tablets. The enTourage eDGe, a dual-screen eReader/tablet with pen input, is the closest analogue we have to Courier, and it runs a custom version of Android. Building up to Courier from a phone OS is not an impossibility.

So what about making PCs smaller? We’ve already seen that shrinking Mac OS X to phone size is possible. Shrinking Windows to tablet size should be easy by comparison. The problem is, we haven’t really seen that approach.

Windows on a Tablet PC is not a smaller version of Windows – it’s bigger. Tablet functionality has been an add-on since it was introduced in Windows XP. Overlay UIs to simplify the tablet experience add even more overhead. Tablet PCs, which should be smaller, more efficient devices, actually use more processing power than notebooks and desktops. I’ve been calling on Microsoft to strip down a version of Windows, focus the interface, and custom it for tablet input, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not going say it’s the wrong approach until I see it in action.

And if Courier is the example of what tablets should be, well, let’s not forget that Codex, the alleged forerunner of Courier, runs Windows. Can’t really hold up Courier as the paragon without acknowledging the full version of Windows underneath.

Bottom line: I agree with Jason Chen’s logic and reasoning, but I think he argues abstract points. The iPhone OS was derived from Mac OS X, so it should not be categorized solely as a phone OS. The “shrinking PC” approach can’t be ruled out because it hasn’t happened. And the example of tablet perfection being held up is built (allegedly) upon a prototype that ran the full version of Windows (and was made of two OQOs). Maybe those two paths to make a tablet are wrong, but they are paths that no one is really following.



  1. Joe

    02/04/2010 at 1:08 am

    Disagree about the iWork apps showing the easy ability to scale up. Those are (well, seem to be at least)custom rewritten apps from scratch that are designed to run on an ARM core, and required a ton of work, which is exactly the process that they should’ve taken on the OS itself in the first place.

  2. Jason

    02/04/2010 at 1:36 am

    Great article, I read the Gizmodo article and some of it felt wrong and this pretty much spells them out.

  3. Joel

    02/04/2010 at 2:51 am

    So Apple, Google, Microsoft and co. haven’t built the perfect tablet OS yet. As they move away from their extremes, what results is awkward and not as useful as it could be.

    The question not asked is: Is the perfect tablet OS for mobile computing the same as for a work environment or school environment? I don’t believe so.

    From my own experience, I can say that the Microsoft’s version wasn’t what I needed or wanted. I needed something that I could take with me everyday and work with the whole day (and not just two hours). I wanted something that was easy and quick to use. Windows 7 is a major improvement, but I still cringe when I need to enter something by hand. I can see that what Microsoft created is useful to many people, just not for me.

    It seems to me that all three companies are creating (or have created) system environments that meet the needs that THEY INTENDED to solve.

  4. GoodThings2Life

    02/04/2010 at 5:31 am

    I have been thinking about this the past several days…

    Speaking purely as a consumer and not a technical user, I think the only relevant correlation between the desktop and mobile experience is the ability to sync and use data. The interface on the mobile doesn’t *need* to be like the desktop, but it still needs to be friendly AND functional.

    But as a technical user, a requirement for me is that I must be able to function on the mobile device as fully as on a laptop or desktop device. If I can’t pull up Windows underneath it, and if I can’t multitask efficiently, it’s worthless to me.

  5. Dan

    02/04/2010 at 10:33 am

    I look at the scale up or scale down scenario as one of ‘use information’ vs. ‘input information.’ The iPad is not so much like a big iPhone as it is an information viewer. It seems to be targeted at ‘viewing’ information, ‘listening’ to music, and ‘reading’ books or other sources of information.

    Multitouch or touch screens seem to be targeted at screen manipulation of what is already there to be seen.

    In contrast to that scenario, I use a tablet to ‘input’ information. I use it for my daily planner like an electronic Franklin Planner. I add and check off tasks, make notes, take meeting notes, draw ideas, and create or edit Word, Excel, or Powerpoint documents. For this use, the iPad type of device fails. I cannot imagine getting through a day with that in my case as I would be back to using paper.

    The obvious ideal device is one that is both an ‘active’ digitizer for pen input, and multi-touch for viewing and/or presenting that information. That is what the Courier appears to be.

    Unfortunately, there are not many slates left with an active digitizer in a small enough package to carry regularly. I fear that the new HP Slate will be a touchscreen only device similar to the iPad. That is an unfortunate prediction…

    HP 2730P
    ex TC1100 user that liked that too much…

  6. Dave P

    02/05/2010 at 12:36 pm

    I’m reading this and replying on my OQO 02. I will readily admit it is too slow. It also needs a more efficient processor. The Via C7M eats batteries and produces too much heat. I would also like more memory and better graphics. But it’s a three year old machine. Technology has improved, some of these flaws could be corrected now.

    Given that, and running Windows 7, I find that this is what a tablet should be. First and foremost, it fits in a pocket – easily in a jacket or pants pocket and snugly in a shirt pocket (although lighter and thinner would be nicer). This, to me, is the first thing I look for. I want something in this category that is small enough that I will always have it with me but large enough to write on.

    Second, as Dan said, an active digitizer is a must. I wouldn’t mind a combo screen that also allowed touch but I can’t do without inking. As far as multitouch, I can get by with single touch and gestures.

    Third, I want a full fledged OS to run an Office suite, Adobe Acrobat, Firefox with addons, and Evernote.

    Fourth, I want 3G built in for those times when there is no Wi-Fi available.

    Fifth, as added bulk, I think a thumb keyboard with a trackstick or trackball is more useful than a second display. But either has its uses if they don’t destroy the pocketability of the device.

    I just hope someone picks up the ball before my aging OQO dies.

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