28 November 2013

Tablets... the curse of "good enough". [Updated]

I always looked at tablets with slitted eyes. I didn't like them - I didn't really see the need for them and I really didn't think they were useful. After all I had my desktop PC for everything - big, powerful and very versatile. Big is always better, right?

Well, I then came into contact with an iPad - one that I'd rather stupidly bought for my significant other (hey, they wanted one and I don't let my petty grievances or opinions get in the way!) - and... it wasn't so bad. Only, after using the tablet for some time, I am once again veering towards disliking the platform as a user-oriented device.

It's not an Apple vs Android thing, I know this much because I also dislike my Android phone, it's the touch screen... and even the size of the screen that's such a factor in my dislike of them. Tablets and to a lesser extent phones are great for viewing the internet and video files but they're pretty much terrible for any other task that requires a keyboard and/or mouse. Writing a short comment is about as far as I can go nowadays without becoming frustrated with the interface and the shenanigans that the developers of the interface software have gotten to.

Whether it's re-inputting the text I just deleted, jumping back to the beginning of the post after entering half of the sentence at the end of the post, being unable to reliably select text to copy and/or drag the selection markers to where you want them (god forbid you want to scroll at the same time!!) or wanting to correct the spelling of a word by clicking on it and not get bogged down by trying to unselect the autocorrect box that pops up in the way without making the cursor go to another part of the screen... the whole experience is terrible! 

Of course, therein lies the problem: most people don't need to write anything other than a few words using a tablet. 

It's good enough.

More serious users use a linked keyboard that is always cheap (though not in the monetary sense) feeling and mushy - likely to give any person using them for long periods some sort of RSI. They are tiny (to go with their tiny devices) and this is where the next two problems come in.

First of all, the cradles and stands that come for these tablet devices just don't offer any sort of great angle options for tall people and if you manage to position it "just so" you're likely to suffer from a lot of glare and reflection off the screen (assuming you've wiped off all those greasy fingerprints).

Secondly, those keyboards don't work well on the lap - where you want to use the tablet most!! If I want something on the table then I'm going to have a proper sized screen with a proper stand and a proper keyboard. The tablet's use is, at least to my design sensibilities, specifically not for that scenario.

This all isn't even taking into account the quirks of the platform(s) - the constantly having to manage apps in memory by shutting them down or clearing all running programmes, for example. The last time I was regularly doing this was when I was having to write autoexec.exe and config.sys files so that I could get windows 3.11 stable enough to play the game I wanted. I thought tablets are supposed to be easy for non-techie people?
Then there's the problem that the computational power requirements are advancing so quickly that a brand new top of the line tablet will be next to useless in 2-3 years time due to slow down... This is a terrible waste. Though, I've never been one to upgrade my phone every year or two so maybe I don't appreciate this feature.

So what's the take-away from this rant? Not much, really. Tablets aren't as bad as I thought they were but they are also worse than I thought they could be. They're "good enough" devices but, inevitably, they're not good enough for me... yet.


And I've changed my mind: there is a take-away. (I really should learn to sit on posts for longer!!)

The problem is that this radical shift towards these mobile experiences by the mass market is having a huge impact on the traditional PC hardware industry. Everyone wants SOCs and integrated devices and that means that the traditional PC will, in my worried opinion, start to send prices for hardware higher and higher. I remember when a simple 286 or 386 was above £1000 (okay, I'm not that old) but if the only customers of low-end PC parts are corporations and the only customers of mid/high-end parts are gaming enthusiasts and video/audio editing people then we have a hugely shrinking market that's going to see a contraction in the number of companies able to compete, a lower revenue and thus research and thus innovation.

It's scary to think that within 20 years time we could go back to the situation where a high end PC costs multiple thousands of (adjusted) pounds compared to today as a matter of course. It's like imagining if those Casio calculator/programmable watches were the main means of computation in the 80s compared to the vastly more powerful and capable beige desktops that were in very limited use.

In this imaginary future world, PC is no longer a dominant player in the games arena, iOS and Android rule the roost on the casual side whereas consoles (both handheld and the boxes under your TV) rule the roost on the core gamer side. All major access to gaming is controlled by the platform owner and operated out of walled gardens (also in an eerily similar nature to the 80s and early 90s!). PC gamers are suffering the same fate as Mac gamers in the 80s and 90s with very few titles supported. This gets even more fragmented and confusing if you believe that the ARM architecture will make a serious entry into the desktop market.

It's a hellish nightmare of a place (only joking, but it is a very different ecosystem from today.)...

I wonder if this is the future that Valve is seeing and if this is why they've made the move toward their "Steam Box" style of console. If it becomes popular enough then it's the only way a company like Valve can survive in a future such as the one depicted above. Similarly, if companies like those that make devices like Occulus Rift don't get on board with console platform holders (they previously said that they wouldn't even want to get the device to work on consoles) and/or work closely with Valve to ensure Steam box and Linux compatibility then they are doomed to irrelevance.

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