In part 2 of this series, I complained about the lack of diversity in the American mobile handset market and some special-use handsets that I would like to see gain a foothold in the market. In this installment, I’ll talk about how tablets figure into the landscape, new and interesting tablet designs, and some trends that I would like to see continue in the space.
The tablet has helped to significantly blur the edges between computers and smartphones. Tablets have also begun to eat into the sales of laptop and desktop computers so if this trend continues, the tablet could become a third connectivity option for prospective computer users. Unlike the smartphone, which has quite a few restrictions placed on it in terms of size, OS, and design, the tablet is pretty much free to grow or shrink, both in price and screen size, based on the purpose it was intended for. There are many variants of the tablet arriving in the market and I would like to see the new hardware designs continue. Because the tablet market is relatively new, different mutations of the form factor are currently in a kind of Darwinian competition for survival. I hope that manufacturers continue to think outside the box with their tablet designs and continue to introduce new designs into the mix. Here is a list of the different types of tablet devices, sort of sorted by their chronology and screen size:
- The tablet computer a.k.a “The Touchscreen Laptop” – A few years ago, a tablet was a very expensive laptop computer with a small yet primitive touch screen the required a stylus, only a few applications that took advantage of the touch interface, and the ability to fold the screen backwards. The key difference between these machines and the more popular iPad-style tablets is that these touchscreen laptops have integrated hardware keyboards and they run touch-enabled versions of desktop operating systems like Windows or Linux, instead of mobile OSes like Android or iOS. My early experience with these machines was not very positive, and although the software has caught up and advanced multi-touch screens are now standard issue on these types of devices, I still don’t see the merits of a touchscreen on a laptop. I have used a Bluetooth keyboard with my iPad and I find that taking my hands off the keyboard to touch the screen is pretty disruptive from a workflow standpoint; it’s way worse than grabbing a mouse or a using a touchpad for some reason. However, A keyboard does vastly improve your ability to highlight and copy text, which can be tough on a tablet and nearly impossible on a smartphone. Speaking of the copy/paste problem on smartphones, why is it so damn difficult to copy a number from a text message or web page and paste it into the dialer app? It’s the same story with addresses and GPS/Maps applications.
- The Internet Tablet a.k.a. “The Slate” – The iPad permanently altered the word tablet to mean “10 inch smartphone that can’t phone”. In the Apple universe, the iPad took the place of the netbook computer. Being a PC guy, I still prefer using a netbook for school, and i’m kind of sad that the netbook basically died out in favor of the tablet and the ultrabook. After I got my iPad, my netbook was relegated almost entirely to school use, and if it were to die, I’m not sure what I would replace it with. I find that a “full sized” or “normal” tablet has 3 ideal locations:
- By the bed – My iPad sits on my nightstand mostly. I use it to read eBooks and check my vitals before bed. Also, during bouts of insomnia, I use it to quietly watch videos via headphones instead of turning on the TV which might disturb my wife.
- On the couch – I use my iPad to play games and socialize while watching TV with my wife. My toddler also finds it very useful for watching Sesame Street on Netflix while I play a console game or use my laptop.
- In a stand next to my monitor – I like to use my iPad as a dedicated communications device when I’m gaming. Alt+tabbing out of a full screen game can be unpredictable, and popups for mail or other messages also be problematic, even when you have multiple screens. When I play MMO’s I also like to multibox, so all of my computer screens may be occupied by games, even my laptop. A tablet on a stand is also a passable substitute for multiple screens when using a laptop to write or code. It still has the workflow disruption problem that comes with using a touchscreen with a keyboard, but it’s less disruptive than using a mobile phone because you don’t have to pick it up.
Did you notice that all three of those locations are basically inside my house? I carried my iPad with me in a murse for a long time, but I often left it in the car because it was so expensive it made me feel weird flashing it in public.
- The uber tablet a.k.a. “The Transformer” – Depending on how you look at it, this new class of tablet could be either a modern version of the touchscreen laptop mentioned above, or a completely new class of tablet that is defined by what you plug it into. These devices are so cutting edge that they are bordering on vaporware, so I am reluctant to hype them at all. I do want to mention them, however, because they do represent the idea of a tablet as a replacement for laptop or desktop computer. These devices tend to run touch versions of Windows rather than mobile OSes like Android and change modes by plugging in to different types of docking stations, such as laptop-style keyboards and specialty gaming hardware as depicted in the image to the right. Some of these devices dual boot Android and Windows depending what you need the device to do. These devices aim to add computer-class performance to a portable device that can fulfill duties as a tablet, laptop, and even a home theater PC or gaming console. The reason that I have always had both a laptop and a desktop computer is that power seldom portable, so historically I have disagreed with using mobile gear as a “real” computer. The current crop of ultrabooks seeks to shore up that difference, but my orginal assertion still holds true: if you put a portable device at the center of your computing world, you are probably going lose at least a bit of performance. My other gripe with this design is what I call The Docking Station Problem(tm). Putting a transforming tablet at the center of your workspace leaves you vulnerable to the same phenomenon.
- The mini-tablet – The Google Nexus 7 and the iPad mini are examples of lower cost tablets with smaller screens that fit into more pockets. I have the original Nexus 7 and I find that it’s smaller size is great for typing messages and playing games that require you to press buttons on both sides of the screen. It also fits in a cargo pants pocket, and since I bought mine refurbished and on sale, I don’t feel like I have to guard it like a small infant, the way I do with my iPad.
- The Phablet a.k.a. the giant smartphone – I have been making fun of Samsung’s increasing screen sizes lately, but I can grudgingly respect a small tablet that you could put a SIM card in. I think that if I didn’t already have an arsenal of touch screen gadgets, a big phone would be a great device to have. If I were to travel by air more than I do, I might consider a device like the Galaxy Note II for use while traveling due to its rumored great battery life. What I don’t want is for the average size of the smartphone screen to expand to 5 or 6 inches and for the “normal” sized smartphone to become an endangered species. I think the new crop of smartphone accessory devices, like watches, are a sign that smartphone screen size is going to continue to trend upward.
- The semi-portable tablet a.k.a. tabletop tablet – This emerging class of tablet bucks the trend of shrinking a tablet down closer to smartphone size and instead scales screen sizes up to the point of rivaling some desktop monitors. These new variants come in different form factors, such as all in one desktops with removable screens, to just big honkin’ tablets. The desktop is another place where a touchscreen doesn’t make sense to me. It combines the workflow disruption of the touchscreen laptop mentioned above, with the exhausting handwaving of the smart board which I will discuss in greater detail below.
- The Stationary Tablet a.k.a. Smart Glass – As a student of mathematics who writes a lot on chalkboards and whiteboards, I can tell you from experience that writing on a wall will wear you out in pretty short order. As an occasional Nintendo Wii player, I can confirm that waving your hands in front of you at close to arms’ length for an extended period of time can leave you pretty sore the next day. Maybe I’m just an out of shape wimp (a distinct possibility), but the idea of working for 8+ hours waving my hands over a smartboard just doesn’t sound very ergonomic. Needless to say, I would not be a fan of a touchscreen television, smartboard or other large wall mounted touch screen except for occasional use (which probably wouldn’t justify the cost). In the video to the right, you will notice that the screen touching doesn’t happen on the TV screen, but on a phone or tablet. However, if you were to take that same large screen and place it horizontally, such as on a conference table or coffee table, I would instantly become a fan. Playing board games on my iPad with friends has shown me the virtues of an interactive multi-touch tabletop and I am eager to experiment with one. Being able to have multiple hands work on multiple regions of the surface, and having the surface able to interact with objects placed on it would make for some very interesting games and collaborative work scenarios. I have sat around a conference table to collaborate on documents and presentations before and it often comes down to telling someone with a laptop plugged into a projector what to do. It might work better if everyone could put their hands on the document to make highlights or edits. I have done a little with Google Docs and simultaneous edits at school, and once you get past the idea of others seeing how slowly and inaccurately you type, it’s pretty cool. It could definitely put an end to the “have a meeting to edit the doc, then meet again to review edits, then meet again to review re-edits” problem that can come from working with a group. While the corporate conference table will probably be where this sort of thing is pioneered, I think the killer application will be tabletop role playing games with smart miniatures. Imagine playing on a zoomable map that interacts with the movements of your minis and displays their statistics, either in terms of real numbers or just in terms of “healthy/wounded/dead”. I think that having the map pop up things like “TRAP!” or “You are under attack!” would be very handy. Also keeping track of dice rolls and helping to keep track of how far a character can move or the effective range of a weapon would help the GM to focus less on enforcing the rules and more on the story. Giving the game master a private region of the table, dynamically defined by the placement of the GM’s screen would let the GM set up each encounter. BTW, I’m kind of hoping that the guy that came up with the word “phablet” comes up with another weird name for a smart table, like “table-et” or “coffee tablet”.
- The Remote Touchscreen – I don’t have an a.k.a. for this one because it’s a really new idea. As far as I can tell, this was first implemented by Nintendo with the Wii U, but it’s also being done by nVidia. The idea is to use a tablet as the input and display for a desktop PC or game console. The benefit, of course, is that you can use more powerful graphics hardware to render video and then stream it to the remote touchscreen. The non-obvious benefit is that you can sit on the couch and play a game that would normally take up an entire TV screen or require you to sit at a desktop to play. With a peripheral like this, it’s possible to join the family in the living room, while still playing a “real” game rather than a tablet or smartphone game. This is different than using an app to remotely access a desktop via RPD or VNC, because these applications are meant to conserve bandwidth and work through slower Internet connections and thus 3d graphics are a no-go. The marketing info basically says these tablets make fast and responsive links, perhaps using a dedicated and private wireless connection. What I am hoping to see in this category are devices that that allow “real” 3d games like MMO’s and FPS’s to be played on screens that are still handheld, but significantly larger than traditional handheld gaming systems like the Nintendo DS.
- The TV Intelligence Upgrade a.k.a. the Smart HDMI Plug – While technically not a tablet, this is an interesting device that I have mostly seen from Chinese vendors, until Google also got into the game. The Google Chromecast and its Chinese cousins are little USB powered gizmos the size of a large thumbdrive that plug into the HDMI port on a television and allow it to be used much like the smart glass devices mentioned above. These devices tend to cost significantly less than Internet tablets, home theater PCs, or video game consoles, probably due to the fact that Smart plugs have neither screens nor batteries. Some models let you use wireless mice and keyboards, the Google device can be accessed from any Chrome browser (presumably with a plugin of some sort). I would like to see similar devices come on to the market that can turn a TV or monitor into a specialized workstation or media device. Some of these specialized functions could include:
- Video conferencing – A web camera that works well in lower-light conditions and an omnidirectional mic could turn any living room into a video conferencing room. Right now I am accomplishing this with a Windows PC and a PS3 Eye camera sitting on my mantle. It’s not the key feature for my home theater setup, but it does make my toddler happy when I’m out of town.
- Intelligent screen-splitting KVM – I have always wanted a tiling window manager for video inputs that let you quickly and efficiently carve up a big screen into smaller ones. Think of a picture-in-picture setup only the PiPs are like windows on a computer screen that can be moved, layered, tiled, resized, minimized, maximized, or closed based on the viewer’s desire. This would require the box that the inputs plugged into to run its own OS, and display each input in a separate window. The obvious use is in a home theater setup for watching multiple sports shows at once, but it would be great for playing video games that don’t support multiplayer or split screens, such as MMOs. Such a device would greatly simplify my multiboxing experience. A more advanced model could support multiple screens as well It’s possible to do this using existing (and expensive) specialty equipment for TV production or CCTV monitoring, but it’s probably not feasible on a livingroom budget.
- Smart Projector – With the use of an infrared tracking camera and infrared light pen, you could put an interactive multi-touch display on any surface. When combined with the intelligent screen splitting KVM from above, you perform herculean feats like displaying a speaker on the same screen as their slides, in real time, potentially without the need for specialty A/V gear.
- The Application Specific Tablet – Since the tablet is free to grow or shrink in screen size according to its application, why not embed customized Android or Linux touch screens into other devices? Samsung probably pioneered this class of “smartphone-ized accessory” with their “Android powered smart camera“. This is a fancy camera with a smartphone embedded into it. While *I* have no use for such a device, I could see how person who is very serious about taking pictures on the go would find this device useful. The problem is that people don’t treat these peripheral-hosting PCs a task-specific terminal, and instead tend to use them for other tasks, hence the problem of obsolescence. A trend that I would like to see in the tablet space is the rise of the smart peripheral, or devices with tablet-like touch screens built into them, running customized versions of mobile OSes such as Android or Linux, or even tiny low cost computers like the Raspberry Pi. Instead of plugging these devices into a host computer (or docking your personal tablet in them), these peripherals would be self contained and able to host themselves and serve their results over a network connection of some kind. The “smart” portion could be a swappable unit, like any other part, or a removable dedicated tablet. This would probably increase the price of the peripheral by a significant amount, but you would probably not need to replace said peripheral nearly as often because your cool new tablet or PC no longer supports the peripheral, so the value proposition could improve. For basic operations, a small to medium sized touch screen would probably work best, while a keyboard and monitor might make sense for more intricate operations. The role of the smart peripheral would be to put an end to the practice of requiring the PC to install hundreds of megs of software in order to access a printer, scanner, or microscope that will be rendered useless in 5 years when the PC dies. Here are a couple of examples of peripherals that could use an intelligence upgrade:
- The Smart Scientific Instrument – Very expensive scientific and medical instruments often outlive the computers they attach to, and on a long enough timeline, a dead PC can render a working instrument useless. Instead of directly connecting a PC to the instrument, why not embed a small computer of some kind into the instrument that controls the operation of the instrument, captures the data, and serves the resulting files over the network via a web server, file server, or mobile app?
- The smart office appliance – Copiers, scanners, faxes, and printers are already fairly intelligent they’re just not very easy to use. Consumer grade devices use proprietary software that is not well supported, especially on new versions of Windows. Enterprise grade machines can perform lots of functions, but often have cryptic interfaces that are not well designed and not very intuitive. A better solution would be to use more familiar touch interfaces, with larger screens that better explain their functions, and allow the user provide access interactive and searchable help documentation that is maintained and updated on the web. The reason the business world uses Microsoft Windows and Office is there is that they can expect a certain amount of basic understanding on the part of the user, and the solutions to many problems can be found online. By extending this to office equipment, a user who is familiar with tablets and/or smartphones could better navigate the controls of a multi-function copier/scanner/printer/fax. The video embedded to the right is about a consumer grade printer with a custom Android tablet attached. While a wireless tablet may be a nice option for a family or home office, a larger office would probably make better use of a built in screen won’t be separated from the copier.
- The smart home automation/security/surveillance controller – A sophisticated thermostat controller can easily cost more than a cheap Internet Tablet. Some home automation gear includes mobile apps or web interfaces for control. Many wireless security cameras or baby monitors host their video feeds on web servers built into the camera. In both cases, proprietary control software may be required to see the full extent of your automation, sensor, or surveillance network. This can also be problematic if you want to support multiple simultaneous users, especially in a remote access scenario. A better solution would be to use wall-mounted or desktop style tablets with touch interfaces that could control your cameras or sensors without needing to boot up a computer and access a web page or application, and also host access to your network via mobile apps and mobile-friendly web pages. In the case of security alarm and camera systems, you may need instant access to your cameras or sensors, so running up to a wall panel that automatically shows the alert is probably better than bringing up an app on your phone or PC. It also has this awesome Star Trek/Spy movie feel that really cannot be discounted.
- The Smart Desk Phone – I mentioned this in my post about application specific handsets, but I think that it deserves mention here as well. In the handset post I called for an Android or embedded Linux version of a desktop phone that you could plug a variety of network and telephony technologies into. Grandstream makes an Ethernet-only version of the VOIP desktop phone that runs an older version of Android. Mocet also makes a line of telephone docking stations for tablets that turn them into sophisticated video speakerphones. The problem with plugging a tablet into a dock is that you are vulnerable to The Docking Station Problem(tm). If the “smart” function is embedded into the peripheral itself, and the smart function is also customized for that peripheral, the “tablet” still has value once the world has moved on to newer gadgets. This is especially true if you don’t interact with that peripheral all the time, like you would with a smartphone or tablet that you carried with you at all times. One security concern that I would have with smart deskphone in a large office is putting important credentials in it and then leaving it unattended 16 hours a day. That is one compelling reason to dock a tablet or smartphone, but similar results could be had from a pluggable hardware key like a thumb drive, or simply by locking the phone when you leave like you would a workstation. The connector issue is a ringing endorsement for using Bluetooth for these sorts of connections. Bluetooth isn’t without its own problems, however. If you have done something to anger the Bluetooth gods, pairing a device can prove to be difficult.
- The smart childrens’ toy – A cute animal shaped phone cover can be a great way to recycle an obsolete iOS device. For those of us without gadgetry laying around the house, a toy with a built in interactive panel could be just the thing for long car rides. Include some sort of harness or other mount so the toy can hang on the back of a car or airplane seat and serve as a video player and you would probably have a toy that never left little junior’s side. Additional accessories could include a wireless game controller for kids who are just getting into video games and easily replaceable battery packs so your little friend never has to suffer from downtime.
I think that a tablet is a nice supplement to a mobile phone and a computer, and when you have a reliable mobile connection to the Internet, a nice tablet with a few accessories might make a decent substitute for a low end laptop. For someone whose computing needs consist almost entirely of Facebook and Angry Birds, a large-screen tablet could be the only device a person might need. This is why the tendency of the market to keep tablets in the “other” category bugs me, which I will discuss in greater detail in part 4.