Touching the future: More thoughts on the coming tablet revolution


Like many cutting-edge geeks out there, I have been using the iPad since it's launch a month or so ago. I absolutely love it. More than that, I think pretty much anyone who doesn't love the iPad probably doesn't own one - it's that good. And even more, I think its form factor is the next step in the evolution of computing and is going to revolutionize how people use computers over the next 20 years or more.

I'm not even going to put caveats on it. Yes, the iPad has some issues - it can be a bit heavy at times. Data entry is slow and cumbersome (I'm typing this on a real keyboard, thank you very much). Apple's fascist rules leading to the lack of things like Flash and true multi-tasking in the OS is annoying. But none of that matters if you look at the big picture: The iPad is essentially a proof of concept for tablet, touch-centric computing, and it has proven itself and then some.

Every iPad owner has anecdotal stories of how awesome it is and I'm no different. Seeing my 65yo Mom and my 8yo son use an iPad with so few problems or question was enlightening in many ways. But also judging from personal experience, I can tell there's big things happening here. The iPad has literally changed how I use computers - which is a pretty astounding thing to say.

My prediction? Over the next year or so as various touch-tablet devices are launched, we're going to see a massive shift away from notebook and netbook computers for the general consumer. The tablet lends itself to four areas of use: Web (including Internet-centric apps like weather, news, maps, etc.), Media (music and video), Gaming (from solitaire to Farmville-like games) and Communication (email, social networking, IM, etc.). Which is what 99% of people want their computers for anyways.

Because I think there's still a lot of caution, confusion - or sometimes outright antipathy - towards the iPad and tablets in general, I wanted to note what I think are important points to notice about this new category of devices, and why they're so amazing.

First, it's not about Apple

When you think of Apple - you think of things "just working", right? Ease of use, no hassles, etc. The iPad has some of that, but it really doesn't take advantage of enough of the things that Apple is known for to really make that stuff a significant factor. For example, I rarely, if ever, sync it to my computer (only to backup my purchased apps), so I don't really care if that's quick or easy or "integrated". I don't use it much as a media player, so I don't care about iTunes at all. In fact, most of the Apple qualities the iPad has are the ones that annoy me the most - non-removable battery, no USB or memory card ports, no multi-tasking, no printing, no Flash, etc. In short, the iPad is awesome *despite* it being made by Apple, not because of it.

Don't misunderstand me, Apple definitely got the experience and form factor right, (as they often do), but there's just not a lot of secret sauce in how they did it this time. In fact, I've been using web-tablets since Nokia (my employer) launched the 770 in 1995 and can tell you that much of the same experience has been available for years. My Archos 5 Android-based tablet I got earlier this year was also almost there. All Apple did was finally bring the pieces together with a bigger screen and better touch technology (capacitive as opposed to resistive) combined with their already great iPhone OS. Why Nokia or others like Microsoft - who've been working on tablets for years - didn't get there first is a mystery. But I'll tell you this, though Apple definitely had a 3 year (or more) lead on their competitors with the iPhone, they don't have nearly that same sort of lead with the iPad.

So, to continue - if it's not some secret Apple ingredient, what is it about tablets that make them so great?

Touch Is Amazing

Touch interfaces are the future. They do have some limitations, but these are outweighed by their amazing qualities which drastically improve upon how computers have been used up until now.

First, they finally remove a huge layer of abstraction that is the mouse or touchpad. Essentially, "what you see is what you use". Though a mouse may seems "natural" to most of us who use one on a daily basis, anyone who's had to stand over someone learning how to use a PC for the first time - be it a child or a grown up - knows how truly confusing it can be. Touch puts the interactivity in the exact same spot as the thing you're interacting with. Suddenly the images on the screen become much more visceral and "real" - to the point where even dogs, cats and newborns can interact with them without knowing otherwise. Can't get much more simple than that.

Secondly, touch is portable. In order to use a mouse or trackpad, you need to be in a certain position, dictated not by you, but by the device - either on a desk, or propped up so at least one hand can be free to push and prod at an odd-angle. Touch screens allows for much more freedom - you can be laying on your back, sitting comfortably, or standing on a moving bus, it doesn't matter.

Third, though I think this has been a bit overrated, multi-touch capabilities allows multiple fingers, hands or people to get involved in the UI as well which allows the user interfaces to do a lot more as a result.

It's important to note, like I wrote in my post yesterday, that just adding a touch screen to the WIMP interface doesn't work - as anyone who's tried a Windows Tablet has already discovered. Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers just aren't made for someone using the interface with just their fingers. In fact, Fitt's law, which dictates that things at the edges of the screen are easier to target, can be completely turned on it's head. My Lenovo IdeaPad for instance has a bezel around the screen, which makes trying to use the scrollbars, control buttons or taskbar in Windows nearly impossible. In the future, I'm sure touchscreen manufacturers will make sure the screens are flush with their frame to avoid this, but it just goes to show exactly how hard it is to convert a WIMP interface into touch.

Instant Accessibility

When you reach into your pocket to use your mobile phone, it's always on and ready to go, right? You don't have to boot it up, or go sit in a special place to use it. Mobiles are with you wherever you are, and are instantly active. Tablets are like that as well, except they simply provide a nicer user experience because of their bigger screens and dedicated functionality. If I'm watching TV and get a new email, I lean over and grab my iPad off the coffee table, check the email and put it back within seconds. If I see something I want to look up (either a fact from a documentary, or to find out who that cute actress is in a movie, etc.), again, I just grab the iPad and I have that info in seconds. I get app updates as well, such as alerts from Facebook or Scrabble - yet because it's so quick and convenient to get to this stuff, these alerts are welcome, and not at all intrusive or annoying. I used to do most of this stuff with my mobile phone, but there would always be limitations on what I could do or how comfortably I could do it, and then I'd have to get up and use my laptop instead. But laptops require sitting at certain angles, with the keyboard and trackpad propped to not cause physical discomfort - tablets aren't like that.

So what ends up happening is tablets becomes almost utilitarian information access devices. Instead of having to wander over to my laptop when I want or need something off the Internet - directions, maps, info, addresses, email, etc. - I now grab a tablet instead. It's always available, generally within easy reach, does what it's meant to do, and then disappears back into the background. It conforms to me, rather than the reverse. Because it's so instantly accessible, tablets just ease into flow of whatever it is you're doing at that moment. You don't have to stop what you're doing to get the info you need, you just grab it on the fly. No friction, no fuss.

Super Social

The other great thing about tablets is how social they end up being. Some other bloggers have written about this as well - but I've seen it first hand. For example, I've used the iPad on the couch with my family, with both of us sitting comfortably, yet we were still able to see the screen and use the interface. You'd almost assume the iPad would be a relatively personal device as the screen is still smaller than a normal piece of notebook paper, but I can't count how many times I've ended up sharing the screen with someone else - sitting, standing, at home, at work, it doesn't matter. Ever share a desktop computer? You're jammed in next to each other, with both of you bumping heads tying to get a good angle on the screen or fighting over the mouse/keyboard... it's not good. Another thing is you can also just look something up and then just *hand it* to someone else for them to see what you've done. Have you ever tried to do that with a laptop? It's generally impossible unless they're *very* familiar with your computer's setup already.

This is the stuff that amazes me - tablets really are completely different than mobiles or desktops/laptops in subtle, yet significant ways. Tablets seem to help lower the wall that comes up when people are using regular computers. If you're reading something on an iPad, it's sort of like reading a magazine, which translates to it being less isolating than when you're lurking behind a computer screen. Someone on a laptop is usually leaning over, staring intently, clicking their mouse once in a while - all which screams "Do Not Disturb" to those around them. Someone using their mobile has almost the same sort of body language, actually! Head down, shoulders hunched, mobile held close to their eyes, squinting intently at the screen while hesitantly jabbing at various options, or suddenly tapping out a message furiously. Everyone around that person gets the clear signal that they are doing something private and to not intrude.

Using a tablet is completely different! You're usually sitting in a comfortable position, face viewable, eyes scanning normally, with an occasional flick at the screen or other casual movement - this gives a totally different and much more welcoming vibe.

This may not seem important but we are all spending way more time on the Internet or using digital content in general. Tablets allow people to consume that content without isolating themselves from those around them. While your family is watching TV, you can be sitting on the couch nearby reading an online newspaper, rather than hunched over in the corner at a desk. During morning breakfast, you can be checking your email while having your coffee, yet still be social and accessible. You can bring a tablet to a meeting, and not seem like you're hiding behind the screen, or checking Facebook instead of working. These sorts of societal effects are pretty big in my opinion.

That said... it depends

So as devices for consumption of content or casual interaction like games, tablets and touch interfaces are spectacular. But the problem is many of us do other things with our computers that may not fit in very well with touch.

Typing on a touch screen is generally slower because you can't feel the keys. You can get used to it and get faster, I'm sure, but I doubt most people will ever get as fast as when using a real keyboard. This means that text-entry heavy applications - email, document writing, etc. - aren't going to be as good on a touch device for the immediate future. There's some work on creating screens that provide feedback to your fingers making it feel like you're touching real objects, but I'm not sure if it's clear whether that will make it easier to type or not. I will say that combining keyboards and touch-screens works pretty well - I have a ThinkOutside Bluetooth keyboard that I've used with my iPad and it works pretty well. Surprisingly, it felt more accurate to touch the screen when I needed to, rather than having to grope around for the mouse, then scan the screen for where the pointer was, move the mouse to what I wanted to interact with, and then move back to the keyboard.

If you don't have buttons, you don't have combos and shortcuts. I think most regular computer users have a few key combinations they use regularly, whether it's as simple as Control-C/Control-V to copy and paste, or more elaborate combinations for Excel and Photoshop experts. Even holding down the shift key while selecting multiple rows of items, or even simply clicking to highlight a row of text is a combination of sorts, really. Yet, all of these activities are made harder by the fact that pure touch interfaces only have a few fingers as data-entry points. Some solutions are timeouts - like what the iPad does for copy/paste or Windows Tablet edition does to mimic the right mouse button, or using two or even three fingers instead of one. But these solutions are limited, which means until applications are completely re-written with touch interfaces in mind, the people who rely on actions like this to work efficiently are going to balk at tablets completely.

Our fat fingers hide the things we're touching. Occlusion is a problem, as well as trying to get pixel-perfect accuracy with the blunt instrument that is our fingers. I don't think this is a huge problem, actually, I just think that zooming in and out of a specific screen area will have to become a more common UI paradigm. Right now, we simply move our mouse slightly slower to get that image aligned *just so*, or put the cursor at exactly the right letter. Getting that sort of accuracy with our fingertips is tough, unless it's easy to quickly enlarge the UI to the point where your fingertip isn't so big. Again, for someone who uses their mouse like a surgeon wields a scalpel, using a touch-screen will be like operating with mittens on.

Despite these problems, I still think that tablets are going to take over. Why? Because these are problems of content producers, and we all know from using the Internet that much fewer people actually create all the content out there than consume it. And much of the problem is simply about getting used to new ways of doing things. Millions of people got used to texting when you had to do it with number pads, and then later millions of others got used to tapping out long, involved messages on small Blackberry keyboards. They'll get used to using touchscreen keyboards as well. New apps will be written that get rid of the need for so many shortcuts, or come up with some cool new use of multitouch that helps ease the problems. And the rest? Well, they'll continue to use computers just like they're doing now. The guys at Pixar aren't using Atom powered netbooks to create movies, right? There will always be a class of users who's needs require better/more specific computing power. But I think the vast majority of the rest of us will be moving away from laptops and desktops, and using tablets instead.

We're just a few years away from the time when incoming Freshman at colleges around the world will be carrying shiny new tablets instead of laptops, and when that happens the corporate world won't be far behind, and we will have truly entered a new era of computing.


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