The Ultrabook platform has proved that you can get power packed productivity in a thin and light package. The high dynamic range of today’s Ultrabooks means that you can go from long life web browsing out and about, to seriously heavy work like Photoshop and video editing at your desk, all on the same device. Using a laptop as a desktop in this way means that connectivity is important — two USB ports simply doesn’t cut it.
Is is really that hard for a product designer to sit down and think about what sort of computing experience a product is going to provide a customer?
Thanks in part to devices like the Joojoo [Portal page] and the iPad [Portal page], slate mania is officially underway. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, and those that do — with Windows based devices — are going to fail in a big way. Why? Because the companies creating these products can’t accept one simple fact:
Windows computers require a usable mouse and keyboard to provide a good computing experience.
Whenever this point gets through the heads of the people making the decision to create products such as MSI’s Wind Pad 100, we’ll stop seeing these useless Windows based slates.
Slates are touchscreen computers that lack physical keyboards. Usually this lack of keyboard is compensated for with the addition of an active digitizer touchscreen which allows for some pretty darn good digital ink input. Many of the devices that we’re seeing from this upcoming wave of consumer slates, however, lack active digitizers and instead expect customers to deal with awful on-screen-keyboards. On-screen-keyboards can be pretty good with capacitive touchscreen, as we’ve seen with iPhone/iPad and Android devices, but we’ve yet to see one that works even a little bit well in Windows.
Because some companies can’t seem to just accept that Windows is completely reliant on a usable mouse and keyboard, we’re going to continue to see these $500 touchscreen slates with crappy in-house interfaces that sit ontop of Windows and have â€œtouch inch somewhere in the name. These interfaces are nearly always eye-candy at best, but somehow they exist as a feeble attempt to compensate for the fact that slates don’t have physical keyboards and often don’t have very usable mice either.
We’ve seen this same song and dance before during the early ultra mobile PC days. The Origami software, that Microsoft hoped would provide some awesome touchscreen experience on UMPCs, turned out to be relatively useless. You simply can’t coat Windows in a little bit of touchscreen interface and pretend that it suddenly makes the operating system useful for a slate. Windows is a complicated and extremely deep operating system which has been relying on the mouse and keyboard paradigm for years and years. This means that the ridiculously huge library of software that has been created for Windows over the years is also reliant on a quality mouse and keyboard implementation. If customers can’t use the base operating system effectively without some crappy touch-interface layered on top (which doesn’t extend to that vast library of software), how is the device going to be even remotely useful for use with any of the software that is built with a usable mouse and keyboard in mind? The best UMPCs were those that had usable keyboards and mice (such as the Samsung Q1 Ultra and the Sony VAIO UX Series), not the ones that had poorly designed â€œtouch inch interfaces that we’re slapped ontop of Windows. The best UMPCs gave people keyboards and mice that worked, then got out of the way and allowed consumers to use their UMPCs like the little computers that they are. They didn’t try to emulate some ‘appified’ computing experience that people are currently enthralled with on high-end smartphones.
These horrible in-house â€œtouch inch overlays are going to have an even harder time than Origami did back in the early ultra mobile PC days. Why? Because devices like the iPad — which is similarly priced to many upcoming Windows slates — provides a computing experience that doesn’t rely on a physical keyboard and a mouse. It has a ground-up approach to the way that people interact with the computer. Simply having a Windows overlay that might play music and do a slideshow is not going to provide the utility that facilitates a useful computing device, and consumers are going to be begging for a mouse and usable keyboard, not the horrifically inefficient on-screen-keyboards that we’ve seen on Windows in the past.
Several of the latest mobile operating systems have interfaces that are based on a very bothersome paradigm: the widget-oriented home screen. I really wish the people making the high level design/UI choices could step away from this awful interface concept and think outside the box to some degree (maybe look into what the First Else is doing?). Now, I’m not an interface designer, but I am someone who has used plenty of these devices and at very least, I can tell you why I hate widget-based home screens on mobile operating systems.
First, the players. The big two at the moment are Android and Maemo (there are also several Windows Mobile shells that suport widgets). Additionally, you may have recently seen the WePad [product page] interface demo, which has a widgetized home screen so large that you need a map to navigate it (literally!). All of these essentially use a multi-â€œdesktop inch design which allows the user to customize what widgets are on each desktop as they pan from one to the next.
A widget is sort of like a tiny application which resides permanently on the home screen. It usually does a simple task, and generally offers little to no further functionality. When you think of the term ‘widget’ what comes to mind, exactly? I’ll tell you what comes to my mindâ€¦ â€œshallow inch.
What exactly do I mean by shallow? Well it’s just that: widgets do something extraordinarily simple. The thing that makes them shallow is that they offer such little functionality that they are practically worthless and become nothing more than a waste of CPU cycles. Generally they do something that could easily be recreated in the status bar. Take, for example, a clock widget. What does it do? It tells the time, perhaps in analog. Is that really useful to anyone? I doubt I’d even waste the space on my screen with an analog clock widget. Is the current time not already displayed in the status bar? How about a widget that shows some recent emails? Generally, the screen is so tight on space that you can only see, perhaps, the last 3 emails that you’ve received, and more often then not, the widget doesn’t sync up with your actual mail application (to mark mail as read, or delete it, etcetera), and then it becomes rather pointless.
Even homepage shortcuts, as widgets, can become pointless because of the multi-desktop approach. Should I seriously spend my time swiping through four or five different homes screen desktops to find the shortcut I placed? Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to have the web browser accessible at all times from the push of a button, then just pull up a list of bookmarks?
Motorola’s â€œMotoblur inch interface manages to show just one Facebook status update, five words from a tweet, and four words from an email — all on a spacious 480×320 screen. Pathetic.
Even if some widgets do link into a deeper application and stay correctly in sync with them, the widget becomes pointless if the user wants to use a different application. Consider an RSS widget that displays a few posts from an RSS feed. Maybe it can launch out to a built-in RSS reader, but then the user is limited to using the built-in application because it is the only one that supports the widget, even if there is a better alternative application.
Mobile applications, which are already confined to small screens and slow (compared to x86) processing power, are already giving users a stripped down experience. What I’m trying to say is that mobile applications are already much like widgets themselves. They provide the essential functionality. Home screen widgets really don’t have a place anywhere on a mobile operating system. They are so simple that, more often then not, they are pointless. They frequently don’t provide any deeper functionality, and when they do, they only link in to one application, which limits the user from using other applications.
Many people laud widgets for providing â€œat-a-glance inch info, which I don’t have a problem with, but that sort of information is what the status bar is designed for. One glance at a status bar could easily inform you of the time, battery life, new email, missed call, new text, new RSS items, etc., so why are users expected to waste screen space and device resources to have persistently running widgets? With a smart notification system, applications can call attention to themselves and alert that user that something is up (for instance, a new email has a arrived.) The user should be able to launch into the application just by tapping the notification, and do whatever it is that they need to do from the â€œfull inch interface of the application. The widget middle-man is entirely unnecessary.
Maybe my issue is simply the fact that widgets are so inconsistent. For the most part they are oddly shaped and they all work differently. If someone created a more inclusive widget, that did more than one random function, it might not be so bad. In fact, on the iPhone I use a bit of software called LockInfo (jailbreak only) which replaces the lock screen with what is essentially a glorified notification list, and I greatly prefer it over a bunch of widgets that are spread across multiple desktops. The great part about it is that we aren’t talking about a Facebook widget that shows one status update, we are actually getting a list of notifications that are directly generated from the Facebook application itself. So clicking on an application takes me straight there and I don’t deal with any widget middle-man. This is beneficial because if I want to use an alternative Facebook application, that application can generate its own notifications to go to the lock screen list, rather than being unable to link in to a proprietary Facebook widget. The concept here is a bit different from widgets, but I still have all of the at-a-glance info that I need right from this screen.
Please let me know in commentsâ€¦ am I the only one that hates widgets on mobile operating systems?
When you’ve got a new born baby and an Archos Android Tablet at hand (see image) you have a lot of time to read and that’s what I’ve been doing non-stop this weekend as I check-out all the news about the iPad. 24hrs into the game we’re starting to see some well-balance posts about usage models of all types and even though I don’t have an iPad myself (Ben has just started his coverage. His iPad turned up today.), I’m starting to get a feel for how it’s going for people and what usage scenarios are bubbling up as the most important and most interesting.
First off, there don’t seem to be any major surprises or let-downs and you really have to pay the Apple marketing teams some respect for working within sensible bounds and not going crazy with their marketing. Battery life is as good as expected (more on that below,) the screen is crisp with a wide viewing angle, the web experience is very fast and UI is as smooth as you’d expect it to be. Apart from some quibbles about USB charging I haven’t seen anyone that has hit any sort of roadblock. On the other side of the coin however, we’re not seeing any killer usage models rising the surface. Yet.
Tablets have always been a difficult product to position. In the 4 years that I’ve been covering the smaller tabletPCs, the Origami and ultra mobile PC area I have learned a lot about target audiences, usage models and niches. The iPad isn’t any different although it definitely plays to a more lounge-focused audience rather than to the portable PC fans of the ultra mobile PC world. The issues are the same though so here’s a list of the key ones from the tablet world. How is the iPad shaping up?
There’s the full internet experience and then there’s the consumer internet experience. One needs to be 100% accurate, extendable and tailorable through plugins, multitasking and extensions and the other simply needs to be good enough to serve customers with 95% of their pages in a slick fasion. In the laid-back world of sofa-surfing the iPad seems to really hit the mark. Reports are coming in that Safari is fast and fun. Faster than the fastest phone (widely agreed to be the Google Nexus One at the time of writing) and without any worries of zooming or panning. Easy-to-read and fun to use and for some people, worth the $500 just for this!
Top marks to Apple here. They’ve produced a device that runs over 10 hours. It’s a full day and enough for nearly everyone. There are some interesting stats that can be gleaned from the battery size though because the 24wh battery means it’s running in a 2.5w profile â€“ About 3 times what a smartphone would take under load and it’s all to do with backlight. In fact, I estimate 80% of the battery drain to be coming from screen backlight, Wifi and components other than the CPU.
I’m not hearing anyone calling the keyboard total rubbish but we’re hearing a lot of ‘you won’t want to write a book on it’ type comments which is exactly what people say when they know it’s not going to cover every usage model. Flat-usage on a table in landscape mode is sub-optimal (neck pain) and resting the device on bent knees is also uncomfortable over time. The device is too heavy for extended one-handed use and trust me, carrying a bluetooth keyboard and batteries around ends up being akward. Let’s wait for a while on this because I’m guessing the excitement over blogging and emailing using the iPad will wear off after a while. As always, the phone is always close-by and the laptop is always more productive.
I’m seeing a lot of people talking about the hefty weight of the iPad and I think this is going to be a problem. Apple have chosen to use an aluminum body for strength but it’s added a lot to the weight. The 120gm battery pack is also adding a huge amount of weight. It’s a difficult design decision that plagues tablets all the time and Apple have probably made the right choices but it still doesn’t make it right. For the ultimate in usage flexibility and to cover mobile usage scenarios better, a few hundred grams needs to be taken off the weight.
If you’ve never spent a lot of time with a device that has frame controls for things like scrolling, selecting, backlight adjustment and radio, you’ll never notice that these are missing from the iPad and as one would expect, this shortfall isn’t getting much coverage. We’re talking form over function here but surely there’s something that could have been done with all the frame space?
It’s here where the big discussion takes place and although I’m personally not a long-term iPod Touch or iPhone user, I can see that users are enjoying the large-scale applications. iPhone apps using pixel doubling (4 ipad pixels for each iPhone aplication pixel) are a different matter though and I’m seeing an almost universal disappointment with this. The landscape will change quickly though and you’ll see iPad apps flowing through very quickly now. Games are bubbling up as an exciting feature although I doubt anyone was expecting the best gaming experience; the device just isn’t built for it. You’re unlikely too see too many iPad owners being disappointed with the gaming. Finally, the iWork apps seem to be impressing most people although as with the keyboard issue above, many are also saying that it won’t quite replace a laptop which also means it probably won’t ever replace the laptop.
No-one is moaning about the price. What owner would! For comments on pricing you need to ask people that didn’t buy the iPad. Is it too expensive?
USB charging problems, no GPS on Wifi models, no memory card slot or USB host port.
It doesn’t surprise me that the lack of Flash isn’t mentioned much in reports. Of course it’s mentioned but there aren’t many users getting upset about it. Flash is a serious component of the serious web but when you’re lying in bed, it’s not such a showstopper. Also not mentioned with significant weight is multitasking. I wonder if the iPad is so fun and intriguing that switching between apps is actually fun!
In summary I’m seeing a ‘reader’ and an entertainment device bubbling up as the key usage models right now but you have to look between the lines to find it out because as most of the bloggers out there are scrambling to make money out of it first! As many of them invested $500 in it, there’s also a level of vested interest too!
It seems that Apple hasn’t solved the basic physical issues with large-format tablet devices and if you really were expecting them to, you probably need to spend some time with a tablet device to find out that it’s almost impossible. What Apple appear to have done is created a huge wave of interest and sales that will ensure enough momentum to make this iPad a success. Customers are happy and are likely to stay that way and that’s enough for a few million sales. If Apple don’t reach their targets or the momentum runs out, they’ll will still have learned enough and made enough cash to try again and make a better product next time. The iPad is a great device but you really need to be aware that it’s not going to solve any major issues for you; it’s simply a well-designed luxury viewing frame.
Recommended reading / Sources.
At the time of writing we have a list of about 16 ‘latest newslinks’ to important articles about the iPad from across the net. Stay tuned to it as we continue to update it. Information in this article was gleaned from the articles in the list.
You’ll see that we’ve turned off the normal comments on this post. Instead we’ve embedded the comments from the product page which you are invited to add to so that others can benefit on the future. Anything you add here, will appear on the iPad product page and will serve as a long-term reference.
For customers wanting full desktop PC capability in their hand, 2010 will be a frustrating year where you’ll see a lot of game-changing news, and very few products based on it.
On the positive side, Vista has been replaced by Windows 7, a much more efficient operating system that supports HD video decoding on the GMA500, native H.264 support, better tablet features and advanced networking. With fast SSD’s dropping in price we should see some exciting and capable devices based on this OS. On the negative side, Windows 7 is not as efficient as Windows XP and requires more memory, more processing and more storage at a time where platform performance will remain static. Intel’s Menlow, the only platform for advanced, long-battery-life UMPCs, will enter it’s third year of production but continue to be the only ultra mobile PC platform choice. Windows 7 will only be an option for high quality UMPCs and that could mean rising prices.
Moorestown, Intel’s next generation mobile computing platform is not expected to make an impact for UMPCs based on its unique position of (initially) being a Moblin-only platform. Moblin will develop of course and the release of version 2.1 for handhelds will be an interesting one that might reach across the Menlow platform. As Moblin for handhelds reaches launch, we will get a feel for it’s intended position in the market. We’re expecting a dynamic consumer focus rather than the productivity focus that UMPCs users want but this is a flexible OS and adding productivity components should be relatively easy, especially if the Intel application store takes off. A version of Moorestown that supports Windows will be announced in 2010 and it will allow UMPCs running desktop operating systems to shrink another 20% while gaining another 20% battery life but products using this may not appear in 2010. They could also be focused at the embedded market which puts a question-mark over price and small production runs for UMPCs.
Based on this awkward and risky matrix of old and new hardware and operating systems we expect the number of Windows-based UMPCs to drop and the advances in performance and battery life to be less dramatic compared to 2009. Expensive, highly targeted options will continue to appear (the newly announced Fujitsu UH900 is one example) and low-cost options will continue to find sales in Asia. We will see continued small-scale improvements with efficiency and better industrial design but we should not expect anything like the battery life advances we saw in 2009. Moblin-based UMPCs on the Menlow platform may appear which won’t offer any battery life savings but may allow manufacturers to offer low-end consumer-focused models in order to try and stimulate the market.
Screen technology (E.g. Pixel Qi) could make an impact and improve battery life (10-20% in normal use) but we only expect this to reach high-end UMPCs in 2010. We should also see the first capacitive touchscreens on Windows-based UMPCs in 2010. This will be driven by the multi-touch capabilities in Windows 7 and again, will only reach high-end UMPCs.
As Android stabilizes, matures, grows to support multiple screen sizes, starts to sell in significant numbers and attracts productivity-focused application developers, the operating system will become a valid productivity option. We see it scaling well to the 5-7″ screen and offering manufacturers a new choice for their productivity focused personal computers. The ‘power-gated’ platform (Intel terminology) that is already used by ARM-based platforms, is the only way forward for efficient, always-on’ handheld devices and until Moorestown is released, it gives the ARM-based designs a big advantage with battery life, active standby and weight. Maemo won’t be a serious contender in 2010 as it will focus on it’s development and transition towards Maemo 6. Look to 2011 for productivity-focused, large-format Maemo devices.
Unfortunately the platform that Maemo and Android runs on still needs to progress to the next generation before it can offer the processing power that can match X86-based UMPCs. Multi-core Cortex-A9 based platforms are expected to reach production in 2010 but products won’t be in customers hands until 2011 meaning that in 2010, ARM-based devices will only be able to compete by offering longer battery life, lighter weight and active standby.
2010 will be the year that the Windows Desktop operating systems are shown to be limiting the progress of the UMPC. Sub-system power control is the only way forward if Intel want to compete with the ARM platforms and this is simply not compatible with Windows operating systems. The difference between battery life on Windows/Menlow and Moblin/Moorestown is going to be very significant and once OEMs see this, we’ll see a move away from Windows-based devices. At least for the pro-sumer ultra mobile PC market. Specialist business UMPCs running Windows 7 will remain. 2010 will be a year where a new generation of Linux-based ultra mobile PC products will be designed. Unfortunately, we may not see those until 2011.
2010 will see big turning points for hardware and software but most of these won’t reach consumers until 2011.
Seems strange that we’ve been seeing quite a few MIDs lately, but not in the capacity in which they were expected. Intel is responsible for propagating the term MID and the initial plan was to couple these devices with the Atom platform to have pocketable web access ‘companion’ device that could also function as a media player and productivity tool. However this hasn’t quite come to fruition as the current Atom lineup just doesn’t lend itself to the type of device that people want in their pocket. Instead of X86 architecture running a full OS for two or three hours, the masses seem to want always-on all day devices. At this point, we’ve only seen that achieved with some combination of the ARM platform and a ‘mobile’ OS (Android etc.). Seems like we’ll need to wait on Moorestown to see Intel’s true vision of a MID.
Until then, we’ve seen a relatively small number of attempts from large companies to create MID devices. The Archos 5 Android Internet Tablet is a good example of a pretty well done MID, but at this point not many other big companies are following suit.
Filling the void seem to be a bunch of ‘no-name’ MIDs coming out of Asia from companies that I’ll wager most of us never knew existed. We should be happy that there are MIDs being made, right? Unfortunately there are several problems with these devices:
1. Inconsistent specs and info
As is the nature of these devices, it is hard to find solid and consistent translations of specs or convincingly official information about a given device. Maybe it’s our fault for trying to buy devices which are designed for the Asian market, but most of the time it seems that emails need to be sent to the manufacturers to determine exactly what the specs of the device are, what version of software they are running, included wireless radios and supports bands, etc. â€œMarketing inch seems to only come in the form of YouTube videos showing off what seem to be perpetually early builds of these foreign devices.
2. Early-adopters as beta testers
Another frightening trend with no-name MID companies is their willingness to ship units ripe with bugs, or lacking features that were claimed. Several of the devices out there today mention â€œAndroid capable inch, but ship with Windows CE instead, promising updates at later times. But how is a consumer to know whether or not these companies will follow up on those promises in a timely manner? Even if they do provide these updates, how many users really want to go through the process of a firmware upgrade? Is it too much to ask that these devices be released once they have been thoroughly tested and polished?
This is one of the most peculiar problems. Even if someone wants one of these devices, it is rarely clear whether they are yet on the market, or where to buy them. Best case scenario, you can pick up a device through a big name importer, which usually makes sure that these devices are in working order. But these random MIDs we’ve seen lately aren’t hitting the big name importers, they are often sold direct through the OEMs website and sometimes can only be purchased in bulk! One of the biggest roadblocks to actually owning one of these is deciding whether or not you trust the company to ship the MID to you after forking over your cash, the vast majority of consumers (and even of hardcore gadget gurus) aren’t going to be tracking these guys down and trying to ascertain a unit from overseas.
4. None of these devices are going mainstream
All of the points listed above lead to these devices staying random no-name MIDs. Even when one breaks out of no-name land and makes rounds on the web, like the SmartQ 7, all of the above issues prevent these units from being anything more than a geek toy. Which is really sad considering this is the state of the majority of MIDs that we see today.
For those of you paying attention to the segment, it seems like MIDs never really took off as Intel envisioned them, but they picked up an additional component, phone capability. Now we see devices like the HTC HD2 which could be considered a pretty good attempt at a MID, but we are still calling these devices smartphones. So maybe Asia hasn’t caught on that we’ve made the jump from standalone MIDs to MID + phone devices, or they just really like to cobble together generic slate devices running Windows CE â€“ either way, these no-name MIDs that we’ve seen lately are doing nothing but giving a bad name to the term MID, and I’m really hoping that they aren’t a sign of things to come. Maybe if Dell would hurry up and show us a decent attempt with their rumored Streak MID, we could break out of this boring no-name MID era.
And just in case you were wondering, this article was inspired by this device as well as other random MIDs we’ve seen over the last few months.