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  • The awesome tablet no one is getting this holiday

    2010 - 12.21

    The book. It’s the oldest form factor for information. How much have you learned in your lifetime from reading pages in a textbook? How many hours have you spent leisurely flipping pages in your free time? Laughter, history, enlightenment, escape, understanding, introspection–we look to books for all these things. They will be revered in history as likely the most important invention we ever made.

    Modern computer technology is a very recent invention when compared to the book. Its own form factors are still being debated, switched, refined. For a long time the desktop model of computing has ruled. There are voices who say that it is dying, due for replacement. I’d disagree. Especially in the business world, nothing else can touch the desktop in terms of speed, flexibility, and widespread acceptance. And as long as it remains entrenched in business, it will retain at least a modest foothold in the consumer world. But there are other form factors which will definitely grow in popularity to offer some desktop functionality in a more couch-friendly format.

    Tablets are all the rage these days. I’m not particularly won over. When the iPad came out, I was very disappointed in it. There are a lot of reasons to dislike it, but maybe the worst aspect of it is that Apple tends to set the trend. So if they release a product whose form factor is a slab with exposed screen on one side and brushed metal on the other, you’re going to get 500 other companies making essentially the same device. And that’s what we’ve seen. The Blackberry Playbook, the uncountable Android tablets, the color Nook, the upcoming Motorola tablet; these are all the same form factor. One that leaves the screen wide open to scratches. Some people say it is tedious to hold for an extended period. I have only used one for a few minutes at a time, so I can’t say.

    It seems ironic to me that a laptop computer is often referred to as a “notebook”. How often does anyone use an actual notebook with the pages oriented vertically?

    There are a few different products out there now which blend a tablet, a book, and a smartphone. To me, this is the form factor that I want to see. Give me a leather-bound computer that looks like an old-fashioned ledger, just like the one above.  This type of design is referred to as a “booklet PC”. Toshiba’s Libretto W105 was probably the first commercial product to go down this avenue. However this product was more of an experiment or publicity stunt rather than a serious attempt at a booklet PC. The operating system was windows 7 and it ran on laptop hardware. That in itself tells a lot. Cramming desktop OS and laptop hardware into a tablet is a recipie for lousy battery life and poor UI. The software must be lightweight, and designed explicitly for touch/stylus. The hardware must be completely low-power-centric.

    Just this week, another device became available that intrigues me a lot. It’s called the Kno, and it’s intended for students, as a replacement for notebooks and textbooks both. It comes in dual and single screen versions (of course the former is what interests me) and it accepts input from a stylus, running on custom Linux software with webkit browsing. Now this is an eyebrow raising product. You can doodle on it, take notes, or surf the web, read books, play music, and watch video. Nice!

    It would appear that demand is high. On their website, you’ll be greeted by a notification saying that you need a special invite to be eligible to recieve one. The ultimate success of the Kno will probably hinge upon how widely it is accepted by textbook publishers and students. It is also surprisingly large. Those displays are 14″ each! I’m not sure if that’s huge to the point of unweildy or not. I’d love to get my hands on one and try it out!!

    As sweet as it is, the Kno is, in my mind, a shadow of the most incredible booklet PC that never was. The Microsoft Courier. When videos of the software interface first surfaced, it was shocking that a company as lumbering and overweight as Microsoft could have been the origin of something so fresh and ahead of the curve. Alas, Microsoft didn’t find the project worthy of pursuit, and it was cancelled. The very talented man who was Microsoft’s “Chief Experience Officer”, J Allard, resigned shortly after these events. Coincidence?

    J Allard sheparded the design of the Zune player, which, despite the impossibility of ever catching Apple in the PMP space, was an excellently-designed product. The interface of the Zune HD went on to form the basis of Microsoft’s nascent phone OS, Windows Phone 7. Allard also worked extensively on the XBOX 360, and presumably the earlier stages of their recently released Kinect system. Allard had been spearheading Courier.

    So what was so cool about Courier? Watch this:

    and this:

    In essence, it was a sketchbook. True, it also did the stuff that Kno does (doodling, handwriting, web surfing, music, video, books), but the Courier was centered around what they called the Infinite Journal. This was a space to paste clippings from webpages, jot ideas, scribble in the margins, and draw, using pencil, marker, or paint. There was no soft keyboard. Stylus only. The key concept of what made Courier exciting was that it was all about writing down ideas and making drawings. The interface pictured, conceptual as it may have been, was a brilliant structure revolving around your journaled ideas. There were lots of neat little touches too, like the 2 buttons on the stylus: one for undo, another to switch between marker and pen. Flipping the stylus 180 degrees turned it into an eraser. A device like this is an artist’s pipe dream.

    Wake me up when it’s real, tablet makers.

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