17 Oct 2015

Redeeming Tablets

Tablet sales have been falling for a while now, as tablets are being attacked from below by smartphones and above by laptops. They have become the worst of both worlds: they are poor smartphones, which don’t fit in your pocket, don’t have cellular connectivity, don’t have great cameras, and so on. They are also poor laptops, with deficient (by PC standards) OSs, lack of powerful apps to get work done, and so on. Tablets have become the worst of both worlds, and users are walking away from them.

How might we redeem this situation? If you’re under attack from both sides, launch counter-attacks to reclaim territory on both sides. That is, tablets should aim to best both smartphones and laptops. How might they do that?

First, let’s take smartphones. Tablets should all have cellular connectivity [1], so that you can get things done on the go. A big advantage of tablets over laptops is their portability, but to make the best of this, they need pervasive connectivity. Just as it’s the norm for smartphones to have cellular connectivity, it should be the norm for tablets. And it doesn’t add much to the cost. Reliance is planning on launching 4G phones for ₹2000. And that’s an entire phone, with screen, SoC, sensors, Wifi, Bluetooth and so on. If you can make an entire 4G phone for ₹2000, surely it should cost less than ₹500 or so to add 4G to a tablet. At such a low price, there’s no excuse to avoid 4G connectivity. Just make it universal [2].

Data used by the tablet should be clubbed with data used by your smartphone, with no extra per-device charge. Carriers will make money due to increased data usage. Make it simple, fair and hassle-free to use data, and users will use more data, resulting in more profits for carriers. When carriers try to rip users off with all kinds of complicated pricing structures and multiple fees of different kinds, users won’t get a data plan for their tablets, which backfires on the carriers. Both sides lose — users and carriers.

An alternative to clubbing tablet data use with smartphone data use is to have a separate plan, but one in which you don’t pay for data you don’t use. You’d buy data by the gigabyte, which would be valid for 10 years. When you exhaust that gigabyte, you’re charged for another gigabyte, with a monthly cap and/or warnings. That way, users won’t have to worry that they’ll pay for a data plan every month even if they use little of it. This will, in turn, drive people to get a data plan, knowing they’ll pay little if they use little.

In addition to the data plan, tablets need to have the best cameras. Both cameras should support Ultra HD, for video chat. And you should be able to use both at once, so that the person you’re chatting with can see both you and where you are, for an immersive experience. Dual Ultra HD chat will be a big step forward.

Tablets should be able to compete with the best smartphones for still photography, as well. Tablets are also excellent for photography, because the large screen acts as an excellent preview. When you use a camera with a tiny screen, like most standalone cameras, you can’t really see what you’re photographing. You’re effectively shooting blind. You come back home from whichever country you’re visiting, copy the photos to your laptop, and find that many of them did not come out well. At which point it’s too late because you left the scene or maybe even the country. Instead, with a tablet, you can see then and there whether a photo came out good. If it didn’t, you can try a different angle, a different position to photograph from, different framing, or a different subject. That way, you learn what works and what doesn’t, improving your skills.

Tablets not only show immediately after taking a photo whether it came out well; they show you before you take the photo. Things like whether the frame is too cluttered aren’t visible on a 3-inch screen, but can be seen very effectively on an 8- or 10-inch tablet. So, you can try a different photo. In any creative endeavour, you try things, and you then see if they worked. Shorter the cycle between trying something and finding out if it worked, the faster you can improve your skills. With a tablet, the cycle takes zero seconds. In fact, it has a negative duration, because you can see how it will turn out before you take the photo. You can’t hope for more.

So, tablets should have the same cameras flagship phones do, with the same quality, sensor size, low-light performance, high-frame rate video and so on. There’s no reason for the iPad Mini 4 or Air 2 to have a worse camera than the iPhone 6s.

This goes for everything: there should be no reason for a tablet to be worse than a phone in any way at all, except for the necessary compromises that the tablet doesn’t fit in your pocket, and isn’t as light as a phone. These should be the only two areas where a tablet fares worse than a phone. They should be at par in every other aspect. For example, tablets should all have a GPS, so that they can locate themselves accurately. Tablets should be able to make and receive calls and SMSs, just like a phone. Why not? And I’ve seen some people actually make a call on their tablets, holding it up to their ear. Some of us may dismiss this as funny, but who are we to tell other people what they can and cannot do? If it works for the user, and it’s supported on phones, it should also be supported on tablets. A tablet should be a large phone, not a worse phone. Any area where a tablet lags a smartphone should be treated as a design flaw and fixed.

So that’s how tablets can compete with smartphones: the same great cameras, cellular connectivity, GPS, calls and SMSs, and being on par with smartphones in all other respects.

But competing with phones is not enough. Tablets also need to be able to compete with laptops. Otherwise, too many people are finding that tablets are in effect crippled laptops, and skipping them. People don’t want a device that’s just a phone with a large screen. They want it to do more than a phone, if they’re going to buy it in addition to their phone. Tablets  need to do everything laptops can. Tablets currently run OSs designed for smartphones, and are in effect large phones. Instead, we should look at them as small laptops, where the apps are touch-enabled. Tablets should be able to do everything that laptops can, except for raw power.

For example, tablets should be able to connect to an external monitor up to Ultra HD resolution, or at least 2560 px. Together with a Bluetooth keyboard, and with the tablet itself acting as a trackpad, one can use it efficiently to do work involving text entry. This actually covers many professions and use cases: programming, accounts, creating documents, spreadsheets or slideshows, posting on a blog, writing a medium-to-long email, and a long list of other jobs.

A lot of apps have been built in the age of the hardware keyboard, and focus on text entry. Now, we should, by all means, re-imagine these apps and workflows for a touch-first environment. If we were building the first spreadsheet app, or the first email app today, and if we had only tablets and no laptops, how would we approach this problem? We need to go back to first principles and re-imagine our apps from scratch for tablets, rather than forcing something that was designed for one platform and form factor and input method onto another, where it doesn’t quite fit.

But while we embark on this medium- to long-term exercise, we also need to solve users problems today, and fit into their existing apps and workflows and working practices, which means embracing external monitors and keyboards. Just as PCs work with physical keyboards, so should laptops. Not as an afterthought, but with the full power of the PC. Which means apps should all be designed to support keyboard and trackpad as a first-class input method in addition to touch, and support external monitors without making it look like an awkward, giant touch UI being displayed on a non-touch monitor [3]. Apps should feel natural on external monitors, not as a refugee from one world in another world.

For example, Windows 10 phones support external monitors, but you can’t run the same app at once on the phone screen and on the external monitor. Why not? If I have an external monitor connected to my laptop, I can certainly put two windows belonging to the same app on both screens at once. This is an example of how external monitor support on tablets doesn’t just need to be implemented; it needs to be as powerful as on PCs [4].

Tablets should also have full multitasking. This is useful in many cases: syncing tens of GB to Google Drive or OneDrive, BitTorrent, backing up data to an online backup service, copying big folders across the LAN, etc. Or, if you’re editing video, rendering a large or Ultra HD movie. Or transcoding video from one format to another. Or, if you’re programming, compiling a large project. And so on. If tablets are to be as powerful as laptops, they need full multitasking. Which Android tablets have, but iPads don’t — background apps can run for at most 10 minutes.. This is a limitation Apple should address [5].

Apple should bundle the Apple Pencil with all iPads. If the form factor permits and encourages new modes of interaction compared to a laptop, then it would be a shame to lose it, by making the Pencil an optional and expensive ($100) accessory. Apple should encourage users to make the most of the iPad, to make it more compelling to use and to buy in the first place. So, bundle the Apple Pencil. Not doing so makes as much sense as selling a laptop without a trackpad or keyboard. Just as a trackpad and keyboard are natural input methods for a laptop, and needed to make the most of it, the Pencil is a natural input method for a tablet, and should be included with the iPad, to make the most of the iPad.

And, needless to say, tablets need to ship with enough storage — at least 64GB. Given that Appe sells laptops with at least 128GB storage, tablets should have at least half, which is 64. Though, ideally, they should match laptops in storage, and have 128GB. When tablets are content consumption devices with extremely limited OS and apps, 32GB may work fine. But if tablets are to become laptop replacements, vendors shouldn’t be miserly with storage. The cloud is no substitute — it’s slow, expensive, flaky, and not always available. So, tablets should have at least 64 but ideally 128GB storage.

The app stores also need to be more flexible, with support for trials. Otherwise, the majority of potential buyers may not take the risk of buying an app that may or may not work properly. And with support for paid upgrades. The iOS app store doesn’t support paid upgrades, so developers work around that by releasing newer versions of apps they want to charge for as a completely different app, For example, Tweetbot 3 and 4 are two different apps on the iOS app store. Small developers, in particular, need an ongoing revenue stream, to cover salaries and other costs. If they charged for an older version of an app years ago, how are they going to continue to earn money? Paid upgrades are a necessity, so the app stores should support them.

Many developers have concerns with the iOS app store, with the ever-changing and ill-defined rules, arbitrary rejections and restrictions, and so on, that often serve Apple’s interests over those of users or developers. The argument goes that the iOS app store isn’t a good foundation for everyone to build their software business on. The iPad doesn’t have a top-quality app ecosystem, like the Mac does. iPads should allow apps to be installed from outside the store. These might still be protected using Gatekeeper, a system Apple uses on the Mac to verify the authenticity of the developer, but not review the apps themselves. Apple should bring Gatekeeper to the iPad. That way, developers can focus on building great apps without worrying about Apple politics. Android is, of course, an open platform, even more than a hypothetical iPad with Gatekeeper, so this issue affects only the iPad.

In summary, if tablets are to succeed, they cannot be the worst of both worlds — less powerful than phones, and less powerful than laptops. Customers don’t want and aren’t buying such devices. Instead, tablets should be able to do everything phones can do. They should have great cameras, LTE, GPS and be able to make and receive phone calls and SMSs. The only limitations of tablets compared to phones should be that they can’t fit in your pocket, and that they are heavier.

Similarly, tablets need to be able to do everything laptops can do, with full multitasking, PC-quality support for external monitors and keyboards, and plenty of storage, like 64GB minimum. The Apple Pencil should be included with all iPads. The app stores should support trials and upgrade pricing, and developers should be able to bypass the store if they want to. Tablets should be able to do everything laptops can, except for raw power. Think of tablets as miniature laptops, not phones with bigger screens (which customers have rejected).

So, tablets should be able to do everything phones can do, and do everything laptops can do.

[1] It doesn’t work to have some models with cellular connectivity and some not. Most people will buy the Wifi-only models, and the goal of pervasive connectivity won’t be achieved.

[2] Companies try to use cellular connectivity as an excuse to extract tons of extra money from users, but that means people just buy Wifi-only tablets, and find them not that useful, and refuse to buy tablets anymore. OEMs are shooting themselves in the foot by crippling tablets.

[3] Or vendors could sell external touchscreen. That way, you’ll be able to tap things on screen in your tablet apps, just as you’d expect to be able to. Now, holding your hand up to touch things on an external monitor may be tiring, so I don’t expect that to be the primary way users will use external monitors. But when the user does touch something, it should work as expected. External touchscreens may support touch both when they’re connected to a tablet and when they’re connected to a PC.

[4] But stopping just short of overlapping windows, which are a mess. A split screen works best. Or, if you have a huge 30-inch monitor, maybe you should be able to snap in apps from all four sides of the screen, while having another app in the centre.

[5] iPads already have excellent battery life, so they can afford to lose a little to multitasking. Maybe long-running background tasks can be forced to have a notification so that users are aware of and can stop them if they want to.

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