6 Aug 2014

Revamping Tablets

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but on nothing tablet- or Android- related, and these are my personal opinions.)

Tablet sales in developed are going down, according to multiple sources such as Apple, Samsung and Best Buy.

There’s a widespread feeling that tablets have stagnated, and that there’s little reason for anyone to upgrade:

We were discussing at the Orbiting HQ what it would take to prompt our tablet owners to upgrade or replace their tablets, generally a mix of the last couple of generations of iPad. The consensus was “a lot.” Screen resolution, at least on existing “retina” devices, is as good as it needs to be. Battery life is at the level of “good enough.” Shaving a bit of weight off is nice, especially for the non-Air owners, but not so nice as to justify buying a whole new tablet. It’s not like any of them are heavy. Fast processors? What for?

The low-hanging fruit of easy incremental improvements seems to be tapped out. Short of an unpredictable revolutionary new feature, our staff felt that they’d stick with their tablets until they broke, their batteries became useless, or they ceased to receive software updates.

Another theory is that tablets occupy an odd middle ground between phones and laptops, and are being squeezed by large-screen phones from one side, and small, light and thin laptops from the other.

But I think the doom and gloom is premature. Consider laptops — after a period of rapid improvement, they stagnated for years. But they then started getting better again, with Retina displays, 12-hour battery life, SSDs, becoming thin and light, free OS upgrades (at least on the Apple side) and so on.

I see no reason why this can’t happen for tablets, why tablets can’t overcome a period of stagnation and again start improving. Here are some ways in which tablets can progress again:

First, tablets can have awesome cameras, as good as or better than the best smartphones. Despite what the snobs would have you believe, there’s one way in which tablets beat every other type of camera: smartphones, point-and-shoots, SLRs and large-sensor cameras. And that is the preview. All these other types of cameras have tiny screens, by tablet standards, so you can’t really see what you’re going to shoot, or what you have shot. You find out only when you return home, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it. Whereas with a tablet, you can see the photo right away in detail, understand what worked and what didn’t, and try another technique, quickly improving your skills. In any creative field, you try things, and you see how they worked, to improve yourself. And, shorter this feedback loop, the faster you improve. Tablets offer not only a short feedback loop, but even a time machine: you get to see the photo before you take it. Don’t underestimate this.

So, tablets should embrace their unique potential for photography, rather than being criticized as inconvenient smartphones to take photos with. Which makes as much sense as dismissing bicycles as uncomfortable, slow-moving cars. Tablets should embrace their unique potential for photography.

Second, tablets should have built-in LTE on all models. Without a separate bill — data use on your tablet should get clubbed with data use on your smartphone and be accounted under the same plan, without any additional charges [1]. This helps carriers drive greater usage, and a straightforward, fair pricing structure encourages users to get on board.

Third, tablets should also double up as PCs. You should be able to connect a monitor and keyboard to a tablet, and have it work as a PC, with the surface of the tablet itself becoming a trackpad. After all, tablets have dual- or quad- core, gigahertz processors, 2-3 GB of RAM, and so on. If the iPad can drive a 2048 x 1536 display at 60 FPS, why can’t it drive a 24-inch monitor at 1920 x 1200?

Tablets in PC mode can run native apps. Or they can run web apps, essentially functioning as a Chromebox. Or they can run both. In any case, such a tablet would be far more appealing to a buyer than a tablet that’s a one-trick pony — one that can be used only as a tablet.

Fourth, tablet software can and should be re-imagined for better productivity. There are many ideas — better voice recognition? Better soft keyboards, like Swype? Re-imagining our tools like spreadsheets for touch? As opposed to taking something built for the PC and dragging it over to tablets.

As another example, when I’m trying to research something on a tablet, and end up a dozen tabs, it’s hard to see what tabs are open or to switch between them. Maybe tablet browsers should have a tab overview mode that presents a dozen tabs at once, as thumbnails. The hardware and software should also be improved to keep at least a dozen tabs in memory at once, without reloading when you select a tab. Currently, the poor state of tablet browsers means that they are suitable only for recreational browsing, and not complex tasks like planning a trip or researching anything in depth.

To summarize, tablets can be better cameras, can all come with LTE without a separate bill, work as a PC, and work better as tablets, for complex tasks. All these are doable, and doable with no or marginal compromises [2].

I’m surprised that neither Apple [3] nor Google nor anyone else found a solution to this problem. After all, it’s in their interest to prime the market once again, so that people buy their tablets, as opposed to sticking with what they have, not buying a tablet at all, or buying a competitor’s tablet.

I think it’s only a matter of time before someone tries these ideas, or others like it, to get the market going once again. When they do, others will implement the same or other ideas, and there’ll be progress once again.

[1] Or with a reasonable one-time charge, such as ₹1000 to buy a SIM card.

[2] As opposed to, say, making the screen bigger or the processor more powerful, which have tradeoffs in weight, battery life, etc.

[3] This substantiates the concern that Apple hasn’t innovated much post-Steve.

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