The Tablet Form-Factor And The Future Of Personal Computing

For a long time, tablet computers were regarded as a decidedly niche platform. Too big to compete with personal digital assistants, and too limited in their appeal to compete with full-sized laptops and desktops, they never seemed to threaten long-term sales success. The devices looked like something from some sort of fantastic science-fiction show, and yet, the hardware never seemed to be quite adequate for intensive computing. The form-factor looked to be Microsoft’s folly, given their role in trying to promote the hardware layout from 2001 onwards, and it certainly must have rankled to see their stalwart rivals, Apple Computer, starting to succeed where others have failed.

Apple seems to have recently acquired an ability to take daring risks and come out not only unscathed, but victorious on the other end. The iPod was designed at a time when portable digital music players were ludicrously expensive for limited capacity, and with its sleek industrial design and simple user interface, it became a by-word for personal MP3 players. The iPhone, despite being technically inadequate during most of its life, along with a perpetually restrictive, repressive and underperforming operating system, has also acquired the status of a household name, and carved out a decent amount of market share. Now, it seems, it’s the turn of the iPad, a tablet conforming to a different standard to the Tablet PCs that Microsoft had promoted.

If we look at Apple’s history, this isn’t the first time that they have tried to develop a device with a tablet form-factor. Early devices built on the Apple Newton platform were known for their size, which far exceeded later PDAs, and came closer to the large screens of modern attempts at the tablet form-factor. The devices never achieved the sales success that their groundbreaking status in the PDA market perhaps dictated that they deserved, although the limited accuracy of the handwriting recognition system goes a long way in explaining why. In any circumstance, Apple’s endeavour was ultimately a failure, and the Newton platform was displaced in the PDA market by the early PalmPilot PDAs, which went on to be market leaders in the PDA segment.

This time, Apple’s taking a different approach. The iPad is less PDA and more… Actually, I can’t work out exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s competing in the same price segment as netbooks and low-end laptops, and yet, it doesn’t have the application environment or hardware to compete with either directly. Instead, it uses the same sort of power-frugal ARM processors and custom-built mobile graphics processing units as smartphones, but with a decidedly bigger form-factor. Perhaps it’s my fault for trying to compare it directly to existing devices, but its unique selling points seem to be more related to smartphones than to larger devices.

Also perplexing is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing on an iPad. Internet browsing would arguably be better served on a netbook, where the lack of screen space is offset by the presence of Flash and the subsequent greater compliance with the standards of the internet. Word processing and other text-heavy applications would also be better served by a netbook, as even the smallest and most awkward of netbook keyboards is better in my eyes than the touchscreen keyboard of an iPad, which offers almost no tactile feedback and not even haptic feedback to compensate. OK, word processing would obviously be better served by a desktop with a damned good keyboard – something with mechanical switches and a sculpted key layout – but I digress.

Music playing is better served by a smartphone or a discrete MP3 player, which can fit far more easily into a pocket and aren’t as heavy to carry about. Video playing, to be fair, would be more of an advantage for the iPad, with its large screen and lack of extraneous input peripherals, but if you’re spending several hundred euro on a device for video playing alone when there are decent portable DVD players for €100, you’ve got too much money to be sensible.

Most perplexing of all is the iPad’s ostensible pretensions towards being a portable games platform. Given that I’ve been playing handheld consoles since the Game Boy Color, I have noticed that Nintendo do seem to put a decent amount of work into making their portable gaming devices ergonomically sensible. There is little ergonomic sensibility about a heavy 10” tablet. The thing’s too heavy to take in one hand, too large to properly play it in two, and there’s not much appeal to playing the thing on your lap.

This could perhaps be forgiven if there were any decent games to play on the thing, but I can’t really see any games on the platform which even begin to compete with some of the titles on the Nintendo DS, let alone the upcoming Nintendo 3DS. The big sellers on the iPad are likely the same applications that have achieved prominence on smartphones, and aside from being simplistic games without a proper central narrative, it appears to me that these games would be better served on a more comfortable form-factor, like a smartphone. I’m hardly a fan of smartphone gaming, but that’s a story for another day.

The sole advantage of the iPad (and, for that matter, smartphones) in the gaming market is the potential for superior graphics, but somehow, I can’t think of many people playing smartphone games for which graphics are a key factor in deciding their choice of platform. The graphics connoisseurs tend to be too busy playing games like Crysis or Metro 2033 on their super-powerful desktops. As long as there aren’t any games that I can plunge into for hours at a time on the iPad, like I can and have done on the Nintendo handhelds, I’m going to continue to fail to see the appeal.

But whatever, right? I’m just another anonymous tech-blogger, and as much as we’d like to admit that we have our ears close to the ground, we’re often hardly representative of the target market or of the mainstream audience. What interests me more than the iPad are the new series of Android tablets being designed, even with their current lack of refinement, lack of applications and even with the Samsung Galaxy Tab losing ground even to the iPad.

Android is, in my eyes, a far superior operating system to Apple’s iOS. With greater flexibility, greater room for customisation, proper multitasking and room for applications on a far greater range of devices than iOS, it’s the perfect antithesis to Apple’s philosophy of closed devices. With the OS soon touted to take top place from Symbian in the smartphone operating system market, it seems that Android is the platform to back for future success. To be honest, there doesn’t seem to be much to recommend Android in the tablet stakes as of present over iOS, but as technology progresses and a proper use is found for the tablet computer, Android would appear to have the features which Apple lacks.

Android seems to be the only current operating system filling the niches below 10” screens, such as the 5” Dell Streak or 7” Galaxy Tab. I wouldn’t buy either device at present, and yet, I can actually see an advantage for this sort of screen size over the iPad. Netbooks with 7” screens have come with almost entirely inadequate keyboards, which renders one of the advantages of the netbook almost pointless. What’s more, a 7” device is perhaps just within the range of pocketability, and comes with distinct ergonomic advantages, such as being able to hold the device with one hand.

As such, I can see these devices becoming a competitor to all-singing, all-dancing smartphones. Yet, at the same time, perhaps customers will see them as being an awkward hybrid between the smartphone and larger tablets and netbooks. Just as Apple’s Newton failed to meet much market success, Nokia’s series of Internet Tablets failed to come into the public eye until Nokia released the N900 smartphone. Will the 7” tablet represent one of the possible futures of mobile computing, or will it collapse in on itself without an audience to sustain it? Let’s watch and see, shall we?

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