A Novel Approach

So there have been a lot of approaches to this whole smartphone/tablet combo, and I struggle to see how any of them are truly good approaches to something that really isn’t a problem to begin with, and, truth be told, some of them seem actually harmful to the future of the PC that we’re currently headed toward.

The recent release of the Asus Padfone thing is just insane, like a tablet “turducken.”

For some reason, tablet manufacturers keep insisting that the tablet experience is hamstrung on its own, and continuously mandate the use of some sort of phone in order to complete the experience, or even use the device at all. Before anyone jumps on me for that sentence, I know that two of those examples aren’t even tablets, but take that in the spirit of the statement.

Companies designing these personal, productivity-driven devices that are reliant on smartphones are saying several things simultaneously. “You can do more!”, “You don’t have to manage the data on two devices separately!”, “You have more flexibility!” etc. What is really happening, however, is the cheapening of these devices and damage to the overall industry. Let’s take the Palm Foleo, the first of its kind and arguably the predecessor to the netbook. This device was “revealed” in an era when people got their data connections by tethering their devices to bluetooth-capable phones, so it made sense for the Foleo to then suck data out of its tethered Treo. Kudos to Palm for attempting to creating a great ecosystem, too. I applaud that. I think it was too revolutionary at the time, however, which led to its ultimate failure. (Side note: At the time, I was using a Nokia N800 paired with a Sony-Ericsson K790a (James Bond, FTW!). I loved both of these devices, but I kept thinking “I’d like to be able to use this tablet if I ever forget my phone,” and “I wish this phone was more capable at general ‘computing’ tasks so I can still use it if I ever forget my tablet.” Then I got an iPhone. At no point, however, did I think that the phone should be my gateway to the Internet for another device. It stood on its own and was perfectly functional.).

Currently, however, having this sort of dependence tells the consumer that

  1. Their device is not capable of real work (which is a lie).
  2. Their larger laptop/tablet is no more than a large phone (which is also a lie).
  3. The two devices are explicitly codependent.

This is really bad! It further solidifies the view that phones are “just” phones, and that tablets are “just” big phones. I have taken notes, written papers, and read books on my iPhone. The fact of the matter is that this device is powerful and capable of producing real work that I have gotten graded, real research that I have used to write papers and blog posts, and real communication with people oceans away. The reason that I have an iPad and an iPhone is because I want two separate devices, not some crazy Frankenstein monster of a device. There are times that I need to work on just one device, and, let’s face it, sometimes we just forget one at home. The key isn’t creating a physical bridge between the two that mandates the existence of one in order for the other to be used, it’s creating an invisible backbone that allows these devices to share information invisibly, so that the user can put one down,pick the other up, and resume working exactly where he or she left off. There have been hopes of iOS “state” cloud syncing for a little while, and this truly where this needs to go.

We don’t need devices that are tethered together using wires and plugs, we need devices and services that are smart enough to get out of the way and let our intention take center stage.

Update: Corrected spelling of “Padfone.”

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Dysgraphia

One of the most recent and powerful innovations to develop in the mobile computing space has been the capacitative screen. First put into widespread use in the iPhone and later adopted by the mobile phone industry as a standard for mobile devices, the capacitative screen is amazing, but not without its drawbacks. Try tapping on something with the cap of a pen, or using the screen with gloves on, for instance, and you’ll be greeted with…nothing (unless you have those fancy gloves with capacitative pads on the fingers *jealous*).

This is a reaction to the early Tablet PCs, when the computer required what was called an “active” stylus. Active styli essentially have some sort of communication ability built into them (whether magnetic or otherwise) that tells the computer when the stylus is close and allows it to register input on the screen. The problem was that these devices were essentially useless unless they had their accompanying stylus. Lose that, and you’re left with what amounts to a fancy monitor.

The flip side to capacitative screens is that they respond (very well) to skin. While that’s great for your fingertip, it’s not so great for your wrist if you (like almost everyone on the planet) rest your wrist on a surface while writing. Go ahead and try it, chances are you do the same. People anchor their hands to their writing surface with their wrists. It’s just what we do. Try to do the same thing on the surface of an iPad, however, and you’ll be greeted with virtual ink all over the place. Some programs try to circumvent that problem by processing screen inputs to filter out unwanted “marks” on the page, but it isn’t perfect.

Witness, then, the triumphant return of the stylus.

There have been plenty of remarks about Apple’s magic tablet and its lack of a dedicated input stylus. Steve Jobs said clearly that he was against styli when he was first introducing iOS 4. What Steve wanted, was a simple start to a powerful operating system that didn’t require the user to learn “how” to use the stylus (the original styli for Tablet PCs were only semi-intuitive, mostly because users were forced to use an operating system that was never designed for that type of interaction). Steve wanted people to jump right in and start using the OS without requiring them to hunt for buttons with a stick. Fast forward a little while, and we start seeing that people actually do want a stylus, but not for the purpose Windows Mobile used it for.  Now, people want to teach kids how to write.  They want to teach kids how to draw, to create, and that’s difficult to do when all you’ve got is your finger.

Anyway, here’s a little tidbit:

The application, which proposed several different types of styli, such as a disk pivot and a powered conductive tip, for use with capacitive touch displays, was filed in July 2008, several years before the release of the iPad.

And this!

The pen paradox is that, for all the contention that has been fostered between multitouch and styli, the two can shine when used in tandem, assuming the user interface has been created with both in mind.

The crux of the argument is that people are interacting with a tablet using a tool they were born with (their hand), and they want to take the next evolutionary step: the writing utensil.  Strangely enough, with this world of keyboards and texting, there is still something that people love about handwriting.  I tend to wonder if the obsession with a natural handwriting is a waste of time.  We keep chasing a writing system on these various tablets that replicates writing on paper…but why?  Why should we be concerned with that at all?

I mean, fine, teach kids to write using a pen and paper, but why are we searching for a system of writing on an iPad, when typing is clearer, more efficient, and readily transferable to other media, as well?  It doesn’t make sense to me, and it smacks of misunderstanding.  If you need to jot a quick note, there are plenty of styli out there that will accomplish that for you (I use the Pogo Sketch), but for longer text, what is the advantage of writing over typing?  I haven’t yet figured that out.

That isn’t to say that I don’t think that a stylus would have its value.  Drawing is, without a doubt, easier with some sort of stylus.  I imagine that CAD would be a natural fit, as well.  The truth is that the real case for styli hasn’t been made yet.  With all of the amazing talent out there and incredible ideas that the last two years have produced, I can’t wait to see the “killer app” that the stylus will enable.