Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Tablet or Not to Tablet

The iPad goes on sale tomorrow, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I have friends who develop for the platform, and I myself have an iPhone/iPad app in the works (should be ready within another 5 days or so). So in the interest of selling lots of apps, I hope they sell lots of iPads. On the other hand, I want Android to succeed, and I hope that Apple doesn't take up most of the oxygen in the room. I think the market for mobile computing is big enough for lots of guests, but still.

Anyway, I thought this perspective on the iPad by SF author Cory Doctorow was pretty interesting, if a little gross:

The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a "consumer," what William Gibson memorably described as "something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."

I think Doctorow's beef with the device is that stuff it's absurdly easy to consume stuff (video, games, music, etc.), and not nearly as easy to produce stuff. I think he's generally wrong. YouTube is full of videos of people using their iPhones as musical instruments. It's not very easy to produce either written material or art, but there are also tons of text editors and paint apps for the device. The iPad will make such composition even easier, with a screen large enough to support a very large soft keyboard and other types of menus and palettes. Still, with its reliance for input almost completely based around the touchscreen, I see his point.

On a related note, my laptop is over 6 years old, so yesterday I invested in a brand new one. I looked at netbooks, but they were just too dinky, a lot of them running Windows 7 Starter, which is an absurdly crippled OS "designed" for only the most trivial use. You can only run 3 concurrent applications, and you can't even change the desktop background!

On the way to the store, I told my girlfriend that what I wanted in an ideal device, besides decent specs and a decent OS, were 3 things:

1) A nice size, between the tiny netbooks and a full-sized laptop.
2) The inclusion of an optical drive.
3) A touchscreen interface.

Well, two out of three ain't bad. I ended up getting the HP TouchSmart tm2. It's nearly exactly what I was looking for. The screen is nicely responsive to touch input. You can swivel it around and lay it flat so that it functions as a tablet, or you can use it like a traditional laptop. Apparently it's the second generation of this line from HP, and the previous models had optical drives, but had more technical issues, were louder, and had crappier battery life. The tm2 doesn't have a CD or DVD drive, but I can always get an external one...they're cheap. The reduced bulk is probably worth it anyway. And with a 12.1" screen it's a perfectly compact size, enough bigger than a netbook so that you don't feel horribly cramped.

Anyway, to tie this in with the iPad, what the HP device makes me feel is that I've got all the same input options I had before, but I've now also got the touchscreen, with either my fingers (it supports multitouch as well) or a stylus. The iPad, on the other hand, has taken input options away. It's done it in an elegant way, but I think Doctorow's main point still stands...the iPad is designed more for consuming and less for creating. I hope my new machine is the opposite...I think it is. But I need more time with it to really see how well it's going to work. In the meantime, it's pretty cool just touching the screen to launch applications, open menus, and generally navigate the Windows 7 environment.