Imagining The Tablet from a Design Perspective

Posted by | January 21, 2010 | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Computers used to occupy a whole floor of a building, then a room, a desk and ultimately a lap. The laptop is the default form factor for computing, with the smartphone occupying an emerging niche for on the go. But while the laptop replaces the desktop in most cases, the smartphone doesn’t replace the laptop, but is something to have in addition to it.
The tablet will replace neither the laptop or the smartphone, so matter what the hype, it is destined to be an ancillary form factor for computing devices.
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[ The Kindle just isn’t cool. I’m a Tablet. And I’m a Kindle.] That being said, the tablet will fill the niche that the Kindle aspires to. It’s an area that generates lots of press, because its the one occupied by print media itself which is currently delivered via the medium of dead trees. Its an anachronism that highlights an obsolete business model looking for a savior, but the Kindle isn’t it. Amazon’s device placed its bet on an irrational design choice which was based on thinking about dead trees rather than what’s on them, e-paper vs a screen, a product decision which removes more functionality than it adds. The current state of the art E-paper renders the Kindle a black & white, video-less computer that you can’t read in bed without the light on. The Kindle is a bad design because it focuses on the medium (paper) rather than the message ( video, sound, color). Electronic books, magazines and newspapers need not look like their paper equivalent, especially the drab black and white variety, they will have color and videos and will look much more like a web site than a dead tree. Apple know this and they will crush the Kindle.
The tablet will be positioned as the ultimate media reader, it will kill the Kindle near instantly by focusing on what the Kindle tried to, but wrongly – the screen. To differentiate reading the Vogue website on a laptop from reading Vogue on the tablet, Apple will arrange custom sites and deliver a device with a screen resolution and quality never seen before. Apple will deliver something with the interaction of a website and the seductiveness of a glossy magazine. It will offer syndicated, tablet-enhanced content and will be hailed as the savior of an entire industry.
But perhaps the notion of a tablet as an e-reader misses something much more interesting? Newspapers and magazines are not that interesting – despite the business model problems which create a lot of noise, magazines and newspapers already have a savior: common or garden websites. The fact that these website have different economics that traditional media doesn’t like is tough luck. Whatever Apple tries to do, a tablet site will basically be a pretty website, and by following the iTunes Music Store or App. store model, unlike with music or software, Apple will be taking something that is already legally available on the web and corralling it into a controlled, walled-garden environment under the yet-to-be-proved auspices of value-add.
In terms of hardware, the tablet might offer something qualitatively superior but it won’t offer much that a laptop doesn’t already. In fact, without a stand, or a keyboard that can be used with two hands while holding it, it could be regarded as a willful, unergonomic gimmick, something based on the idea that a digital newspaper doesn’t look right with a keyboard. This is the UI of science fiction movies, not the real world, nonetheless, such purity will play into the hands of Apple expertise and the tablet will no doubt be an extremely minimalist and elegant device to lust after.
But it could be the seductive purity and minimalism of the device that may cripple its true potential, if it doesn’t do what tablets traditionally offer beyond ordinary devices – allow you to draw with them. The problem is that drawing on a tablet would require stylus input (or at least using a regular pen) and the whole ethos of the iPhone generation Apple interface is geared around using a finger instead. Jobs famously stated ‘now what’ after dropping a stylus with an iPhone prototype and that lead to the undoubted elegance of not needing to carry around a pen, when a finger will do. Unfortunately, fingers aren’t good for painting unless you are a three year old.
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[Unfortunately Pen Computing has been Historically Uncool, But it Doesn’t Have to be That Way] Why is pen based drawing so important, isn’t that a niche requirement for CAD using architects or Photoshop and Illustrator wielding graphic designers? And anyway, few people have either the inclination or ability to draw, even if they have the tools to do so.
Touch based computing isn’t just a feature, its a fundamental shift in the way we interact with a computer and it represents as big an interface development as the transition from the command line to mouse & icon. With a mouse, interaction is remote and clunky, but with touch, it is direct and allows precision and subtlety, through gestures. This is where the iPhone version of the Apple OS represents the way forward for all devices, and why it will run on the tablet. But if the tablet shows off the difference between it and a laptop through the precision of a wonderfully high resolution screen, surely the precision of input offered by allowing you to draw with it using a pen would open up unknown potential, taking drawing based UI from niche to mainstream.
Sadly, drawing will be perceived as just that, niche. The inelegant Palm Pilot-like connotations of stylus input will make it very unlikely that considerable design effort will be applied to making sure an already beautiful and precious screen doesn’t break when you apply 50 times more pressure on it than a finger, by using a fine point.
A tablet is in many ways laptop without its own keyboard or stand and there isn’t much that you can’t in theory do on a laptop that you can on a tablet – apart from draw. Drawing with a pen is the one thing a tablet is made for, that can’t be done comfortably on the tilted screen of a laptop and it would surely be the thing that opens up genuinely new avenues for undiscovered applications, rather than reading a newspaper.
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[The original Apple tablet] Sadly the future of a tablet for drawing with may rest with the long forgotten Newton. I hope I’m wrong.

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