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A Reactionary Crank Explains Why Tablets Aren't The Future

Do you remember the Abdomenizer? A revolutionary new fitness system so simple you couldn't not understand how to use it, the perfect tool to make sit-ups simple, so simple you could perform them while doing something else, fitness for the on-the-go! Clearly this was a hot new item; after all, there was an infomercial (like the Thighmaster's, it starred an attractive lady,) clearly demonstrating how simple it made things, and they were selling millions of them! (1.5 million by order, 2 million in stores!) This couldn't not be worth it!

So where are they now? 3.5 million plastic saddles don't just disappear, do they? Some people use them as personal toboggans. There's probably even some weirdoes out there who use them for sit-ups. But...most are in landfills, or attics, or basements. They kinda do disappear. Because in the end, they're just colorful plastic things shaped vaguely like a flattened lawn chair, and it turns out that nobody was avoiding sit-ups because they couldn't figure out how to do them. It was a stupid idea with good marketing (or at least what passed for good marketing in 1988, when everybody was insane,) and once the the initial excitement wore off, people realized that it was stupid and they were out $23 for what amounted to a goofy-looking rocking-horse.

This wasn't an isolated incident, either. Countless products have come and gone in the world of phone-order crap over the decades. Often the infomercial makes them look usable. Sometimes they even are usable. But how many of them filled a need that wasn't filled adequately by something people already had? Not many. Yet enough people are swayed by an attractive pitchman or a smiley blonde woman to keep the manufacturers in business and the nation's attics filled with discarded cheap crap from years gone by. The tech world is no different; after all, people bought the Timex-Sinclair 1000.

Right now, as everybody knows, the Hot New Thing is the tablet. You can't go through more than two update pages on a tech-news site without hitting an article about how tablets are The Future Of Computing™ and every other form of personal computer is doomed to death. After all, they're simple, on-the-go, slickly-marketed, and selling millions! The interface is just like your smartphone, only it's...

...the size of a small laptop...? Without a keyboard? And less storage space, and no more RAM, and custom operating systems with vendor-controlled software markets?

Just what is the draw here, anyway?

Where It Started

Smartphones are what they are because of the iPhone. That much is entirely self-evident. But why was the iPhone the way it was? Well, size, for one. It's designed to fit neatly into the average person's hand and cover enough of the distance between ear and mouth that audio quality is okay. It has a nearly full-face touchscreen because physical keyboard solutions at phone size are inconvenient in the best of circumstances and completely unusable at worst, and the same goes for pointing devices. (Ever used a Blackberry's grindy little trackball?)

The other driving factor is simplicity. This is partly due to Apple's basic philosophy. They've been working to simplify computer interfaces for decades,° starting with the original Mac, which took the graphical user interface out of PARC and into the mainstream, and did so brilliantly, such that every major operating system today is basically descended from classic Mac OS, interface-wise. This philosophy meshed quite perfectly with the need to pare down the standard desktop UI to be usable on a device which, by necessity, couldn't rely on a separate keyboard or mouse or have too many widgets on screen at one time, and the result was iOS, which was kind of like existing smartphone/PDA operating systems, if their user interface didn't suck. And once again, every major smartphone OS is based on it.

° (Though I do find myself wondering whether they're not getting out of hand; their relentless drive to pare down everything, physical or conceptual, into a smooth featureless surface seems to have become their engineers' raison d'ętre. I have little doubt that if they could, they'd simply create an interface with a single button that says "Okay.")

Really, that's not something I have a problem with. (I do have a problem with Apple corporate's closed-system model, especially as it affects software availability, but that's not iOS's fault.) I don't have a need for a smartphone myself, but I think they've done a pretty solid job of compressing the time-tested desktop UI into a simplified but usable interface for fun-sized devices like MP3 players and phones. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have stopped there.

Where It's At

Tablet computing is not a new idea; the basic concept has been around since at least 1945, and has existed in the popular consciousness since Original Series Star Trek (though the one everybody remembers is The Next Generation's version, probably because that's when it stopped being just a hunk of colored plastic that the actors pretended to fiddle with.) And given that it appeared on Star Trek, I suppose it was inevitable that techies would try to build one sooner or later. You can't fault them for the thought; after all, the flip-phone was inspired by the communicators, and those worked out pretty great. But they've been trying to build one since 1989's GRiDPad, and in the intervening twenty-two years, they've apparently never stopped to ask one simple question: what the hell is the point?

In The One Corner...

What does the tablet PC offer the user? It's not pocket-sized; PDAs and palmtops were, and now the smartphone has absorbed those functions while being even more conveniently pocket-sized (and arguably more usable.) Not only is it bulkier than a smartphone, it's also not a phone. (Unless you install Skype, but that still doesn't mean you can hold it up to your head and chat while you stroll down the street.)

And current tablet operating systems basically are smartphone operating systems, which means they have all the disadvantages thereof; the software selection is generally controlled by the vendor unless you're up for cracking the OS (easier than it used to be, but still, why should you have to do this?) And the user interface is just a scaled-up version of what the corresponding phone OS uses, so you're using an interface cut down from an interface designed for a large screen to fit a small screen on a large screen. You might as well go to the theater to watch TV sitcoms in all their 4:3, three-camera glory.

In The Other...

So if it's not as good at being a smartphone as a smartphone, what about the other obvious comparison? It's thinner and lighter than a laptop, admittedly, but generally only a bit smaller in the other two dimensions. It does have a touchscreen, if you like that sort of thing, and those are hard to come by in laptops. On the other hand, it doesn't have a keyboard.

Tablet enthusiasts often claim that "average users" (by which they seem to mean Facebook mall-rats whose primary use for a computer is watching YouTube and Tweeting about the burrito they just ate) don't need a keyboard, and anyway touchscreen keyboards are just as good. To which I say: BULLSHIT.

I won't say too much against current touchscreen-keyboard implementations as taken on their own merits; frankly, they're surprisingly okay these days, and as an alternative to teensy little button-keyboards on smartphones, they're a pretty good choice. What they aren't is "as good as a real keyboard." Even with haptic feedback, they don't offer the response of a physical keyboard with discrete keys and an actual travel distance. They're closer to the membrane keyboards of the cheap-of-the-cheap home computers of the '80s, only (thankfully) not in the sense that they actually hurt to type on.

Which, again, is an acceptable compromise for a small portable device like a phone; arguably better than button keyboards, and a million times more convenient than number-pad text-entry schemes. But, as noted above, tablets can't be intended to compete with smartphones, as they are neither as portable, nor a phone. And if they're intended to compete with laptops, those have a real keyboard built right in, and these days they're generally pretty good. Of course, tablet users will make up for that with a Bluetooth keyboard...which they put in a case...that folds against the screen like a laptop.

And that's not even mentioning that laptops offer more horsepower, more memory, and more storage space than any tablet, at cheaper rates, and are available in a broad variety of form factors from paperback-sized to mega-screen. (If nothing else, tablets usually beat them at battery life, but not always, and not always by a whole lot.) And laptops run desktop operating systems which take advantage of the fact that they have a screen larger than a phone's and offer the full complement of available software without the need to go through a fershlugginer app store to get it.

Stuck In The Middle With You

So here's how it is: the tablet is not as good at being a smartphone as a smartphone. It's also not as good at being a laptop as a laptop. In fact, it basically offers the worst of both worlds: the phone's limited software selection, limited and more expensive hardware, lack of a keyboard, and cut-down UI, plus the laptop's increased size and need for a separate carrying case. It's not as convenient as a smartphone because you can't hold it in the palm of your hand, and it's not as convenient for lap use as a laptop, unless you get a case that props it up and folds out a a laptop. It is, in its very nature, a compromised design that can't figure out what the hell it wants to be; both the hardware and the software reflect that.

And yet they're the trend of 2010-2011. The entire industry is rushing all-hogs-to-the-trough to get in on this fantastic new market, yet the product they're pushing can't even decide what its market is. Is it a phone? Is it a laptop? No, it's a thoughtless compromise between the two, and less useful than either. It's a shiny piece of plastic and glass that people will smilingly demonstrate to you can be used (sort of) for everyday tasks (that are already done better by something else.) It is the Abdomenizer of the 2010s, a technically-useful but practically-useless invention that can be yours now, for only $499! Order now!

The tablet computer is another in the long line of hype-driven electronics fads based on a sort-of-interesting-sounding but ill-considered idea that nobody seems to have questioned during the journey from concept to finished product, like the 3Com Audrey if it had had the full force of the Apple marketing machine behind it. There's basically just no reason to have one when the tag-team of laptop and smartphone fills all of its functions better than it does. Enthusiasts talk about the convenience of having only one device, but how many of them do? They still have cell phones, I guarantee it, and that leaves the tablet as simply a poor man's laptop. Why not just have a laptop to go with the phone, then?

Anybody with a tablet either tried to decide between a laptop and a smartphone and got confused, or buys things because they like having flashy new trendy fashion accessories. Either way, in twenty-five years the iPad and its ilk will be sharing attic space with the Abdomenizer.