in tech

Why I don’t need a Tablet right now…

I don’t need an Android tablet or an iPad right now. I have a Macbook Pro and an iPhone and I’m happy with my setup. But I’m not just going to say that I don’t need a tablet just because I don’t have one. Here’s what I’ve been thinking –

People are talking about the touchscreen tablet scene as though it’s the next big thing. No, it’s not. No matter how many apps you add to your App Store, the tablet will not be able to replace the various features that a PC or a Mac have (I’ll be referring to both together as a PC). First of all, there’s no real file system. There’s no easy way for me to visualize my files, take total control of them and use them as I want. Each app sits with it’s own collection of files and even though file sharing between apps has been enabled as a recent feature, it doesn’t free my files from those apps. The problem with the apps themselves? They’re not user-friendly. Every once in a while, bugs and new features force a user to update them. But this happens in PCs too right? Except, in a PC, a user has the right to choose what version of the application they want to use. With the exception of web apps, the user holds on to these choices in case they don’t like the new version of the app. They simply uninstall the previous one and download, from one of many sources, the version they like. Can this be done in a tablet (or any mobile device, for that matter) ? No. Mobile OSes are closed in such a way that they do not allow a person to roll back on changes they do not like. Finally, and this is not such a big issue but something that bugs me only too often, where is the re-install button? Facebook, one of the most used iOS apps is also one of the most buggy ones. I’ve often faced memory leaks, crashes, faulty UI and the only solution ever offered online is to delete and re-install the app. Then why can I not do that in a fast and efficient manner? Why do I not have a legacy style of handling features? I understand that mobile OSes are made from scratch and differ greatly from current PC design but if you really want a PC replacement, you need to design for familiarity.

The next big issue that stands in the way of a tablet fulfilling the needs of the masses are the companies that are making these devices themselves. Apple, Microsoft and other companies depend to a large amount on the sales of their desktop and laptops and because of this, they do not have cheap tablets to be a full scale replacement of their larger devices. How that affects us is that Apple actively dumbs down the iPad in attempts to tether it back to their other offerings. It was all about syncing with your Macs earlier and now, they’re aiming to bring more people to the iCloud. Microsoft has been talking about Windows on ARM (WOA), a technology that will allow a full-fledged Windows to run on ARM based mobile devices. But all that talk is leading no where while Microsoft is developing Windows 8 for mobile. This version is obviously as dumbed down as the iOS and will keep people hooked to their PCs. Great strategy on their part, but doesn’t help the end-user be truly free. If we really want to live in a Post-PC world, all the work and all the capability needs to be shifted to tablets. Here I’d like to talk about a recent book – Rule 34 by Charles Stross. Not once in the novel did I read the words “and he logged into his PC” because all the work was being done on VMs on tablets. Each VM did a specific task and it was fast and easy to switch between them. I know this seems highly futuristic, but this is already happening in parts on tablets. For example, the HP Touchpad that people have around the world right now has been configured to dual boot with Android and HP’s failed WebOS. Someone has even put a Windows 95 on an iPad, allowing a whole host of features to be brought to these tablets. That’s the way that we need to think going forward, instead of locking down features and building walled gardens of Apps and Mobile OSes that do not easily talk to PCs.

The third thing that bugs me about the iPad specifically is that the iPad is always about “opening and app and doing something”. I’m not always a “Do something” kind of person. If I want to look at the weather or see a twitter stream, I do not want to click on the Home button, unlock my device, open and app, wait for it to load and then see what I need to see. Android is better in that respect. The presence of widgets that show web views or weather updates is a “see something” attitude, something that is often useful to people. In mobiles of older times (see Nokia) people used to dial directly and other apps/functions were hidden away behind the core functionality of a phone. This ideology was hurt deeply by the iPhone, which put the phone app at an equal level to other apps, forcing people through the painful process of opening the phone, then the app and then dialing the number. The iPad, in essence, is an oversized iPhone in the sense that any task requires a long drawn process to get to the data you need. The Notification Center introduced in iOS5 has a weather view in it, but it’s absence in the lock screen and the point that you still need to unlock your phone and then drag the notifications center down to see the weather restricts it’s usefulness. Apple has a great feature in their desktop OS called the Dashboard. It is perfect to quickly get to general semi-interactive information and that should have been the real influence in the creation of the Notification Center instead of a reaction to some popular third party tweaks.

One more thing that is troublesome in mobile OSes is concept of lock in apps. There’s a default browser, a default mail client and default music app. If they are thinking of building a replacement for desktop OSes, they need to think about breaking all shackles. I don’t want to use these default apps at all and want to break away from them.

All of the above points lead to one simple solution. Jailbreak. The now increasingly simple method for installing third party apps and tweaks is leading the campaign of mobile freedom. All of the above defects in the current mobile OSes are in some way handled by third party tweaks created by programmers around the world. Jailbreaking is not just restricted to iOS right now. Android and WebOS are also ‘rooted’ by users to add amazing functionality. The problem of course, is that the corporation shuns these practices, quoting security and reliability issues. Thus, even in a BYOD environment, users are left lacking for a lot more functionality in their devices. One more thing to consider about jail breaking in specific is that the Mac OSX platform is a lot more open than the iOS ones. Third party apps like Growl, Geektool and DockSpaces add so much functionality to it without the need to jailbreak. OS X has also moved on to fast and easy updates that do not depend on CDs or USB drives to install. All in all, the Mac platform is known and popular for the very reason that it’s great for development and creativity. Locking down the iOS, which is supposed to be an extension of OS X is a mistake of historic proportions. Of course, the iPad’s USP is to see and interact with data and not to build code or write long notes (it’s great for making presentations though). But all those features that are missing from it restrict it’s usability in those areas too. Of late, Apple has taken to borrowing the most famous tweaks from the jailbreak community (notifications, camera on the lock screen and wifi sync). This points to their lethargy in innovating on the iOS platform and their unwillingness to bring new and ground breaking features to their devices.

The last topic I want to touch upon is current use. Why are people buying iPads and Android tablets? It is not to make heavy presentations or work on complex spread sheets. It’s not being used to do heavy duty video editing work either. Instead, it is a consumption tool. Blog posts, videos, news and email become very easy on a tablet. It is great if you want to browse through your corporate email and send some quick replies that do not take too much research. Finally, personal users are buying it because of consumption and because it’s fashionable and a semi-dedicated device. The use case right now is not enough of real computing for companies to focus on a real post-PC solution. That’s why it’s not coming and until it does, I don’t think I really am going to need a tablet.

The iPad is not the herald of the post-PC era. It’s not even close to that. It’s just leading the pack in creating a series of entertainment and consumption based devices. It has many flaws and those flaws are not being smoothed out quickly enough.

Main points –

1. It’s not a PC, plain and simple. It lacks too many features.

a. No real file system, file storage and access

b. Apps must be updated, cannot install specific versions

c. Where is the re-install button?

2. They don’t want it to be a PC.

a. Financially, Mac’s need to be sold. So the iPad is always dumbed down.

3. I don’t always want to “do Something”. Maybe I just want to see something.

a. The iPad is not a great info display tool at the first glance. It’s an oversized iPhone

b. I don’t want to open an app/NC just for weather, Android allows weather widgets.

4. Locked in apps

a. I can’t change my default browser, default email client, default music

5. The need to jailbreak

a. Macs are more-open platforms

b. Development/creative editing on a Mac is it’s USP.

c. iPad’s USP is to be able to see and interact with data, not building code or writing notes. (it’s great for making presentations though)

d. Apple has been borrowing a lot from jailbreakers, maybe that’s a hint towards their internal lethargy.

e.  Jailbreaking opens up the file system, brings us back to the defacto standard of – “Files opened by many applications, not files locked inside applications”

f. Jailbreaking allows us to do so many things – install third party apps, block security flaws much faster than Apple does it, install specific versions of applications. (This practice is mired by legality issues, but it’s a need).

6. Why is not everything an app?

a. nearly everything is easily upgradable on Macs. User apps, system apps and even the whole OS with a quick and easy download.

b. The iPad is stuck in a pre-OTA era in terms of ease of update.

c. Third party apps like Growl, CleanMyMac, GeekTool, DockSpaces can do so much and modify the default Mac behavior in so many ways without a need to “jailbreak” it.

7. Why are people mainly buying it?

a. Not to make presentations,

b. Not to work on complex excel sheets. (even though it’s supposed to make it very easy)

c. Not to edit videos.

d. Mainly to consume stuff – blogs, videos, news, email.

e. As a quick reply tool.

f. Because it’s fashionable and a semi-dedicated device.

  • Sahil Ganguly

    I agree with you that tablets, as of now, are not PC replacements. No keyboard dock will be able to fix that. But I will disagree on some things, especially where you group iOS and Android:

    1. Android is much more open that iOS, and much more productive, if you are looking for that. It allows file system access without any root, and much more with a root. Hell, I can put Ubuntu on it.

    2. You can always change the default programs for anything on Android. Clear defaults, voila! Next time you open a link associated to that program, you’re asked to choose the program.

    3. I will give you that Mac’s are the de-facto standard when doing creative things, even though I disagree on why. But anyway, my point is that if anything, development is more of a Linux or a Windows USP than a Mac. How? Just look at the quantity of software out there for Windows and then compare that with a Mac. Also, Windows and Linux are more open platforms than Mac.

    But yes, totally agree with the point you are trying to make here. Tablets are mostly consumption devices, barring a few instances. If they are cheap, I might (read: did) get one ($139 for a Kindle Fire!). But anything above that, and it doesn’t make sense, to me.