Friday, April 27, 2012

Hybrid Tablets.....back to the future

As Apple continues to surge, Microsoft is betting that hybrid tablet/computers will be the next big thing. Just like they were before the iPad came along, which pretty much killed hybrid laptops off. But this time it will be different, but really it won't.

There is pretty much a market for just about anything, but it still begs to question whether it is worth the effort. Samsung's Galaxy Note is an unwieldy combination of cell phone and tablet, with a stylus as one of it's selling points. I was amused at Samsung's extra long Super Bowl ad poking fun at the folks in line waiting to buy the latest unnamed competitor that Samsung wishes they were.

Why they never will be Apple, or anything close, is for another time. Now, I want to ponder why would ordinarily smart people recognize that something that didn't sell that great before will magically be so much better now. Hybrid tablet computers were heavy, clunky, and eventually would become just another laptop in the hands of the user. They were too heavy to cradle in an arm like the iPad.

Now, the solution is to have......a docking keyboard. It is a dead out of the gate idea. Developers have to make assumptions about basic functionality of products. This has allowed Apple to leverage both software and hardware experience to offer a coherent device platform for developers. I have talked to developers who relate what a pain in the neck it is to write for Android phones because you can't count on a physical keyboard, and even then - the keyboard interfaces are not standard.

This won't be the case for Microsoft's Windows 8 to be sure. But from a software designers standpoint, does it make sense to rely on physical keyboard and point device interfaces when it is just as likely not to be there? Can there even be a cohesive user experience centered around tablet computing, or will be be another no-even-half-baked "Windows Tablet" thingie?

Apple succeeds here because they see it all as one thing. Microsoft is cursed because they can't own the whole eco system - they are reliant on hardware manufacturers that have their own ideas as how stuff should work - just like the mess that is android user interfaces on cell phones (admittedly, it has improved a lot since a year ago).

I saw one design that Intel is showing that features a tablet with a dock. That is their idea for this new "hybrid tablet". It is so bad it makes me ill just thinking about it. It is simply more back to the future. It didn't work last time, won't work this time as well, for the same reasons. Witness how many people who buy keyboard cases for their iPad - some, but not all. That is a problem. It kind of illustrates my earlier point - sure - there is a market there - but is it enough to stake an entire platform initiative on? No.