Friday, January 29, 2010

User Comfort with a Limited Device

A discussion going on over at Technologizer - started in the comments, here and followed up in an article, here - points out an interesting possibility concerning user comfort with a device such as the iPad. As pointed out by commenter Bouke Timbermont and later by the article author David Worthington, perhaps the people Apple is after with the iPad are embarrassed when they get a multi-functional computer and don't feel knowledgeable about it. To a middle-aged techy like myself, that may be the equivalent of getting schooled by a 10-year old in an online game, repeatedly, for the life of the device. Perhaps a restricted device like the iPad is more comfortable because what it can and can't do are much more straight-forward. For example, there are no USB-ports whose purpose is so universal (hence the U) that people still don't know how many they want or need on their computers. Every app you add to an iPhone OS-based device, since it can't really interact with other apps, adds precisely the capability you paid for, or so Apple's review process would have us believe. While an engineer, like myself, tends to focus on the lost potential of capable hardware limited by a locked-down OS, perhaps a more common point of view is that its a tool refined for a more-understandable set of purposes.

Comfort considerations aside, I'm still not sure the set of purposes described so far for the iPad contains any "killer apps" that justify its size and price. It still looks to me like a coffee table device, as expressed in my last post. Perhaps more software capabilities, hardware add-ons, or content deals will be revealed in the ~2 months before launch that make the iPad more compelling. Perhaps I'm right and Apple really is gambling on the coffee table market. Perhaps I'm wrong and my engineer's perspective limits me in ways the market's imagination doesn't. I doubt it. We'll soon see.

Note: post updated at 11:05 EST to include link to second article at Technologizer.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad - Its the coffee-table book of computers

Steve Jobs and others are trying to compare Apple's new "breakthrough" device - the iPad - to a netbook to show how much better it is. At the $500 minimum price, however, its really in the same price class as fully capable laptops. Sure, laptops are a much more mature market so you'd expect better value, but take a look at what you can get at street prices right now of $500 and under: Newegg laptops under $500. Of course, then you have to live with Windows 7 and how awful is that (where did I put that sarcmark, again)?

Steve was clever in announcing the price last and possibly even more clever if Apple purposefully leaked price points near $1,000 to help manage the expectations. If you thought going into his presentation that $1,000 was too much, which everyone did, $500 would sound like a breakthrough. Its excellent salesmanship, as we've all come to expect from Steve.

A few illustrative use cases:
1) You've tapped-out a document in iPad iWork. Now what? iPhone OS doesn't have a user-accessible file system so you can't save it for use or sharing in another app nor save it to a memory card or USB flash drive, you can't send it to a fileshare (AFP or SMB), and since iPhone OS doesn't support printers you can't print it. These are all option on a netbook with even more available on the $500 laptops above (e.g. burn to optical disc). All you can do is e-mail it to yourself or, presumably, sync it over to your $500 computer using iTunes(???) in order to share, burn, copy, or print it. How does that make sense? This use case assumes you've either adjusted to the touch, no-tactile-feedback keyboard which your hands do a great job of hiding or invested another $69 in the iPad Dock Keyboard.
2) You've finger-painted and touch-tapped a presentation in iPad Keynote. Now what? In addition to all the limitations in use case #1, you're only display option on this highly mobile device is plugging it into a fat analog VGA cable via a dock-connector adapter. If you have to stand in the back, tethered to the projector, you really lose out on the mobile capabilities of this device. If only there were a technology that could do this wirelessly...oh wait, didn't Intel release one just a couple weeks ago at CES? But of course, that wireless display only works on full blown laptops with Core I-series processors, the kind you'll soon be finding in laptops, eventually in this price class.
3) A tablet is a great form factor for taking and sharing hand-written or -drawn notes and diagrams. Writing everything down on paper and having it stuck in your notebook is so last century. Currently, there's no App for that. There's not even the necessary handwriting recognition in the OS for turning such notes into anything but big, ugly images (unless you're an artist in which case they're big, artsy images). Since iPhone OS can't currently multi-task, there's little to no hope of a third-party handwriting recognition app integrating with a separate productivity app like iWork. Best case, somebody who's good at handwriting recognition will release an app that can turn your scribbles into text and what with them? See use-case #1.

Basically, all the use cases I can think of where a tablet would be innovative or useful in a work or school environment, I find that this device eschews the necessary features. Its really an entertainment device with a bit of a self-image problem. Its too big to fit into your pocket like an iPod/iPhone and so low-featured compared to comparably-priced laptops that I don't think its going traveling, much. If you owned all 3 (iPod/iPhone, iPad, Macbook), like a good Apple customer, and you were about to leave the house, what would you bring with? The iPod/iPhone, of course, because it fits in your pocket so why not? If you thought you'd need to get something done while you're out (that you can't do on your iPhone) would you bring the iPad over the Macbook? Doubtful. Perhaps if you didn't have a Macbook? Without a computer to sync to, its crippled. No, for most customers, this thing is never leaving the coffee table.

That's what it is, the coffee-table book of computing. You'll have it there for guests to ooh and aah about. You'll flip through a few photos to show them your trip to wherever. Since it doesn't sync wirelessly, there won't be many photos on it. Maybe you'll read a few pages of an ebook on it. Then you'll put it down and forget about it for a month while the battery slowly drains.