The tablet story – a few lessons learnt

I am fascinated by modern tablets. By modern, I mean form factor represented by pads, slates & e-book readers – just screen, with multi-touch capabilities for human-computer interaction.

I’ve been playing with Tablet PCs since I started working for Microsoft. One of very first computers I’ve got here was Tochiba’s tablet with Windows XP (back in 2005). I liked it, but it’d never become my main computer. Reason was simple – touch screen was optional, secondary way of interacting with the machine. Some (in fact a few) apps were designed to take advantage from digital pen, but overall feeling of the OS and most of apps was simple – it was designed for keyboard and the mouse as primary tool for interaction.

I has taken me a while to fully understand why Microsoft has postponed the original Slate idea to go to market. Then when I started playing with iPad and I realized how much the OS and all apps I’d downloaded were designed for the screen as primary tool for interaction. For new developers designing apps for such devices, consider it as mandatory part of your UX focused design. Not only the beauty of High DPI vector based graphics, but well crafted and tested interaction through available and individually invented gestures.
If your design required keyboard then it’s worth checking how many pads users buy this optional accessory. I don’t have the numbers but I don’t believe it’s mainstream. If confirmed, then simple question should be asked: is my one dollar app good enough to convince user to go to app store and buy physical keyboard for additional $60. This is universal knowledge regardless of the device and additionally impacting design process if one device just doesn’t have such accessory available.

So this is the main reason now I understand why well known user experience of current Windows is not the best shot in consumer world of tablets. Different UX from both OS and Apps is a must. I have great hope in Windows v.Next to see Microsoft’s progress in subject but still now I haven’t played only with iPad, I’ve got Galaxy and Xoom in my hands, I have several Slates with Windows 7 and even though I agree current benchmark of quality is measured by iPad’s success I disagree that only if you have bitten apple logo on the back of the screen you can success. I found many imperfections of both iPad1/2, I found many opportunities laying in Android’s the state the art, called the Honeycomb. I found many interesting use cases where Windows 7 based slates are the easiest way to navigate. World is not that clear and I believe that real battle for tablets hasn’t yet started.

Few examples:
- I hate watching movies on iPad because of the process to move my movies there:
If you have great video-streaming services in your countries that might not be an issue but when to watch movies I have to rip my DVD, format it to right codec & size that is iPad compatible. It is time consuming and it heavily frustrates me. Then I have to run iTunes to find settings for my video playing app and upload my movies to the isolated storage for that app. Why can’t I plug my pen drive to be automatically discovered and handled just like on my game console?
- I’m not big fan of isolated storage. sharing data between apps is painful
- Switching between apps is no so fortunate either. 
- Several and non-complementary content license systems. I’m not sure if I prefer iTunes/app store only way to purchase new content, but when individual app has its own system of acquiring new content it’s not always that stable as I’d expect. I lost a few issues of my Wired magazines with one update of the app. It put me on hold toward new purchases.
- there was lot of dicussion in sense of having copy/paste functionality. For me it’s must-be. Additionally I’d add fast app switching to this critical group. Still I miss some fast way like alt+tab, ctrl+c, ctrl+v way of doing it on the screen. Current implementations barely help doing it subconsciously.

I can add lot more of small defects and imperfections but there is no sense in that. After all, it’s great device and user experience playing with it. Still as said, I perceive lot of space for new innovations and improvements better than different color, shape and camera.

I’ve been playing with Samsung Galaxy which is no competition at all. Its performance disqualifies everything. I’ve been playing Motorola Xoom which is kind of cool, but as I read it hasn’t got the traction yet. Windows 7 based slates with good hardware capabilities (Asus Eee Slate is cool enough) are really nice for commercial scenarios, especially as closed OEM boxes. But I think it’s where Windows Embedded was designed to go, so it’s unclear how to position those devices. Windows 8 should answer to all questions but it’s it too early to say something more but speculations. With a few tablets already in my hands, I have learnt a few things though:

- Apple for sure is big perception winner, nevertheless it’s far from perfect
- To win in modern tablet space as a vendor you have to consider:
     – high quality hardware (by means of cpu/gpu/ram/hdd performance and 2+ touch points capacity screen that really is responsive).
     – I believe, there is no need to own hardware part of the business, but you have to ensure high quality of hardware delivered (OEM certification, formal hardware requirements, etc.)
     – you have to have apps (from OS to 3rd party apps) designed with touch screen as primary interaction tool
     – you have to have successful electronic distribution instruments as your business model proposal for developers making consumer apps
     – you have to know how to make strong and long-term relations with developers considering business application that require direct selling. App stores do not fit. Alternative business models have to be constructed or polished.

Considering it, I believe that in future again, just like with iPhone, iPad will land in the exclusive area of high-end consumer devices for people who can afford it as portable, yet home computer. But to reach mainstream in measures of PC’s current reach, I think real battle hasn’t yet started. It will begin and will include more vendors. Which is good, for all innovations that it may bring.

One Response to “The tablet story – a few lessons learnt”

  • Slinky Says:

    Apropos tablets.

    Windows 7 on a tablet is one of the most downright painful user experiences there are. The mouse-with-windows paradigm does not extend to a tablet which has a somewhat smaller screen than desktop computers and is used predominantly with fingers. What about a stylus (pen)? Nope, please no…

    In W7 I was trying to click on some miniature icon to achieve something and then wait the OS to sort itself out before anything happened, which is just the kind of thing which honestly makes one want to rip off ones eyeballs. It was obviously clear that Windows 7 for tablets was rushed out without any thinking, or perhaps an afterthought from sales/marketing. Perhaps Windows 8 will be better in the UX area, if anyone still cares to give it a chance.

    As for Ipads and Apple devices in general, they are very nice UX-wise, but the whole cult of bondage and discipline with the One Apple Way is not my thing. It caters to some though – to each their own.

    Android tablets, are they perfect, then? No. UX is generally good, some tablets aren’t, but the performance in some of the newer tablets is overall quite excellent for tablet usage. The OS is mostly open, but I get this feeling all the time that someone is sitting behind me and reading over my shoulder.

    No perfect devices in an imperfect world, or something like that. BTW did you try any devices yet which have Ice Cream Sandwich?

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