Tablet computers are being marketed as one of the most innovative computing devices yet, but, in my opinion, there are some fatal flaws with the concept, as a mainstream computing device.
There are applications where such devices are useful, but the trend towards tablets as potentially replacing desktop and laptop personal computers, or “tabletification” of those platforms (see what’s going on with Windows 8 for an example of that) is, in my opinion, hazardous.
So, I’d like to discuss why this is such a bad idea. I won’t bring up any specific tablet OS, other than as examples to illustrate my point, however – this isn’t meant to be a slam against specific OSes, but rather against the trend of tabletification itself. Jump past the break for a breakdown of what I see wrong with the tablet concept.Before I begin the breakdown however, I should probably explain the basics of the tablet concept, and what I’m discussing.
There are two variations on the tablet concept. (Well, three if you count convertible Tablet PCs, but they’re actually my preferred implementation of the tablet concept, as they have none of the downsides, and most of the upsides, of the slate Tablet PC concept, and are simply a variation on the slate Tablet PC.)
The slate Tablet PC is a modernized version of the “pen computer” from the 1990s. Promoted heavily by Microsoft in the early 1990s, when running Windows for Pen Computing, and again in the early and mid 2000s, when running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, these devices use a stylus as their primary input device. Normally, this is an active stylus – hovering over the screen, the mouse pointer follows the stylus, and tapping simulates a mouse click. However, some devices have used passive digitizers, and cannot detect the stylus position until a tap has been made. This setup is ideal for applications where “inking” – that is, simulating the pen and paper experience on a computer, for whatever reason, either for sketching, or for handwriting recognition – is needed. Handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard are the primary data input methods on these devices. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to this class of tablets as pen tablets, except when discussing the Microsoft platform for this class of tablets.
The modern tablet is an extension of modern smartphone design, where instead of pen or keyboard use, a touchscreen is the preferred input device. Form factor is similar to that of a pen tablet, but the trend is for thinner, and sometimes smaller, devices. As of late, it’s normally a capacitive screen with multitouch capability, which is often used to allow multiple inputs to be selected, or for gesture input. Also, most modern tablets run a modified phone operating system, as opposed to the conventional desktop operating systems of Tablet PCs. However, some Tablet PCs have added touch capability alongside their existing pen input, and some conventional PCs (both laptop and desktop) have also added touch capability as a secondary pointing device with gesture capability. Typically, modern tablets use an on-screen multitouch keyboard as the primary data input method. Tablets that are purely touch-based, I’ll refer to as touch tablets.
While my primary focus is on the problems with modern touch tablet technology, and the application of such technology to mainstream computing devices, I’ll tangentially discuss problems with the pen tablet, as well. So, let’s begin.
Tablets, and tabletified devices, have a severe ergonomic problem that, due to their inherent nature, cannot be solved.
One selling point of tablets (both pen and touch) is that they offer a paper-like, or a book-like, experience. That’s great when you need a paper-like experience, but pen and paper has a severe downfall – namely, your head is mounted high up on your body, but your hands relatively low. You have to bend your head down to read a piece of paper when it’s on a table, which is uncomfortable for your neck, or put your arms and hands in an uncomfortable position against a wall to write on a piece of paper when it’s in a position that’s comfortable for your neck.
This problem was solved with the typewriter. Input was down low, by your hands, whereas output was up high, at a comfortable viewing angle. This trend has been maintained for over a century on the desktop, until recently.
In fact, touchscreens got a bad reputation in the 1980s, as a pointing device (much less a primary input device), due to a problem that was nicknamed gorilla arm syndrome. So, you get either neck strain, or arm strain, with a tablet device.
Ease of input
Your mileage may well vary on this one, but I find that my most efficient data input is done with a conventional keyboard. Handwriting recognition (even the best engines – yes, even Rosetta and the engine in Vista and 7) is slow and can be inaccurate, I find – not to mention, fairly awful to use on a pure touch tablet. Voice recognition, let’s not even talk about it, at least stuff that can run locally on the tablet. On-screen keyboards are horrendously inaccurate (requiring autocorrection, which results in rather hilarious errors), and provide no tactile feedback that you’ve hit the right key – also meaning you have to look at the keyboard, which can slow you down, or distract you from the task. Also, with pen tablets, on-screen keyboards tend to be agonizingly slow to tap. every. letter. out. slowly.
Obstruction of output
This is another issue that typewriters solved. See, with pen and paper, your hand covers the paper. Not too big of a deal, though, because you’re usually filling things in. But, when it’s a dynamic display that your hand is covering, you can’t see potentially useful information whenever you’re providing input.
The Oliver Typewriter, in 1895, solved this problem, being the first “visible typewriter” – you could see what you were typing, as it was being typed.
Tablets are creating this problem yet again.
In addition, when an on-screen keyboard or writing panel is being displayed, screen area that could otherwise be used for displaying information is instead used for that.
UI element sizing issues
This one is exclusive to touch tablets – pen tablets are at least quite precise with their pointing devices.
Touchscreen UIs have a unique issue, in that UI elements must be much larger in real-world dimensions than they can be on a high display resolution device with a pen UI, or a UI that doesn’t use the screen itself as a pointing device at all.
This means that less information can be displayed on a touch tablet’s screen, than a similar pen tablet or conventional computer’s screen. It also means that OSes have to be designed for touch to work well, and existing OSes and software work poorly (as Microsoft is finding out the hard way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to abandon legacy, but it can be a bad thing).
So, one common praise of tablets that I’ve seen is that they’re very portable. Problem is, they really AREN’T. You can’t pocket them, therefore you need a carrying case… at which point, you could be carrying a netbook or ultraportable laptop, and get a keyboard and mouse. Really, that’s all there is to say there.
I’ve already mentioned the UI element sizing issues on touch tablets – and I’ll note that the attempts at touch tablets running Windows have failed miserably, largely due to that – but there’s issues with pen tablets, too.
A lot of software wasn’t designed to work well with the pen, and is clunky to use with one. At least the pen also acts as a mouse, so there’s that going for it, but… Windows pen tablets have failed, too, remember.
Decent touch tablets tend to run at $500+ for phone-based ones, and pen tablets tend to be $1000 on up (and by “up”, I mean “WAY up”). Compare to a netbook with more capability than the touch tablets for $250 or so, or an ultraportable laptop with similar capability to the pen tablets for $500 or so. Granted, that can be fixed if the technology penetrates the market better.
So, what’s the answer? In my opinion, tablets will ultimately find themselves confined back to niche spaces. In my opinion, for computers that are actually used daily, conventional computers are best – between all of the drawbacks of tablets, and the fact that many people require software that runs on conventional computers, tablets can’t meet the needs of most users. Some tablet functionality may well become mainstream, but in my opinion, it’s irresponsible to design everything around that functionality at the expense of the keyboard and mouse, rather than treating it as what it is – a nice-to-have. Keyboards and conventional pointing devices show no signs of going away, when it comes down to it – even the iPad has an optional external keyboard, after all, that turns it into a clunky touchscreen laptop-ish thing.
That said, I do think that the most successful tablets will be the ones that combine pen and touch seamlessly. I’ve owned a couple of Wacom pen tablets (a GRiDPad SL, and a ThinkPad X61 Tablet), and found the lack of touch annoying, for things like quickly scrolling through documents and such. On the flip side, I’ve found capacitive touch interfaces to be equally annoying, as I like to keep my UI elements small, and with just capacitive touch, you can’t easily pull out a stylus to tap on a too-small UI element or link.
Also, the convertible Tablet PC, if the cost comes down, may be the way everything goes, or at least a laptop with a pen+touch (or even just touch) display. I found that my X61 Tablet was almost perfect to get the nice-to-have features of a pen tablet, without compromising too much on the laptop features, although it was a pound heavier than the equivalent X61s. And, I’m replacing my netbook with an old Fujitsu P1620, essentially a high-end extreme ultraportable – 8.9″ display, 2.5 pounds with the big battery, and some more rather impressive specs given its age – from 3 years ago, but it happens to be a convertible tablet with a hard-touch resistive sensor as well. Again, perfect to get the nice-to-have features, and it works acceptably as pen and passably as touch, but my focus is on its performance as a conventional, netbook-sized, laptop.