Tablets today are thought to be made in one of two ways: Upsizing a smartphone or downsizing a laptop. Many of these new tablets are decent, but both methods render something less than the perfect tablet.
These tablets—not the convertible laptops of the past decade, but real single-pane slate-like ones—are in various stages of development, and have various operating systems. You have your iPad, JooJoo, a bunch of Android tablets, HP's slate, the as-yet-unseen Chrome OS tablets, the equally mysterious Courier, and the Microsoft-partner tablets that currently run a reasonably full version of Windows 7. You can easily categorize nearly all of these into two basic design philosophies: The iPad and Android tablets come from platforms originally designed with smartphones in mind; the Windows 7 tablets fully embrace the traditional desktop-metaphor OS; the Chrome OS and JooJoo strip out most of the desktop, leaving—perhaps awkwardly—just the browser.
But what about the Courier? If there is such a thing as a "third" option, it's what Microsoft dreamed up over the last year. Microsoft, already has its fingers in both ends of the pie, but Courier represents a truly different envisioning. Could the tablet that we've really been waiting for come from Redmond? Maybe, but at the moment the fate of Courier isn't clear at all.
Making Phones Bigger
First you have the method of taking a phone interface and making it bigger. That's the iPad, the Android tablets and, in some modes, Lenovo's Ideapad U1. Android tablets are basically doing an upscaling of the base Android interface, whereas the iPad also makes customized first-party apps to take advantage of the increased screen space. Both can theoretically run all the apps their little brothers can. Lenovo is also doing something very similar by creating a completely customized ground-up OS that's sorta widget-based, which is basically a smartphone in everything but name. (When docked, the U1 tablet becomes a screen for a Windows computer, but that's another story.)
So far, going up from a phone OS seems to be the better bet, compared to simplifying a desktop-style OS. But the phone experience is far from perfect.
When you work off of a smartphone base, you theoretically already have the touch interface locked in, because Android, iPhone, Palm and other smartphones now eschew the skinny stylus for your fat finger. It's a more natural pointing device for a tablet, since you can hold the device in one hand while pointing at it with the other. If you were to use a stylus, you'd have to grip the tablet with your forearm, like a watermelon or a baby, in order to provide a stable enough surface to press down upon with a pen.
Also, because you're working with a phone-up methodology, you get to sell a tablet relatively cheap by using high-end phone parts rather than low-end netbook parts. For example, you have Android tablets that are made from ARM processors and Nvidia Tegra graphics, which are basically meant to run high-end phones. Then there's the Apple A4 processor, which is also ARM-based.
So for these manufacturers, they already have the type of modularized applications with minimal multitasking (in Apple's case, basically none) that can run decently well on low-powered hardware. Plus, this type of system requirements basically guarantees that you'll have a better battery life than the alternative.
Jesus already sung much of the praises of this approach when he correctly surmised that the iPad would have this style of operating system. But what about the negatives?
If you're building a tablet from a phone OS, you would fail to have a completely stand-alone device, in the sense that a laptop is completely standalone. You couldn't have file access to dump photos, video and other media onto, you'd have to sync it to something else once in a while to get everything you need. And you have to go through a marketplace instead of installing stuff like a computer.
There is also no real way for apps to interact with each other. There's copy and paste on smartphones, and certain apps can read data files from certain other apps (like the contact list), but there's no way to interact like dragging and dropping files across applications. In the iPhone, you can't even multitask to work on two things simultaneously. You can on Android, but there's minimal interaction between applications. That's not saying it can't be done, it's just not so entrenched in the base OS or the base philosophy that application developers don't do it very often. If the OS maker doesn't do it, developers won't either.
Also, because phones are a very isolated experience, App Stores make it much easier to find apps that are both customized for your device and safe to install. This is great for phones, since stability is important, but when you're getting into higher-performance devices, you want the ability to choose what apps you want, not just pick from the ones that Apple or Google deem OK for you to consume. And since this kind of tablet is adapted from the phone ecosystem, that's the only choice you have.
To have a very good experience on any sort of serious computing device (not a phone), you need interactivity. An example on the Mac is the way your Mail application knows if someone is online in iChat, and shows a little light by his name, telling you that you can just IM him instead of emailing. Interactivity like this is part of the base design experience of Courier, judging on the videos we posted. You can move parts of each application easily into any other application, and each piece knows what's being dumped onto it. The current state of phones can't, and don't this co-mingling philosophy engrained into it.
Peripherals is something else a phone-based OS can't handle well. You're limited to a specific number of device accessories that needs to be vetted in order to ensure compatibility. Even the iPad, which has a few more accessories than the iPhone (like a keyboard), doesn't have nearly the amount of compatibility as a desktop. A tablet needs to learn this lesson from desktops in order to be truly useful. Plug in a keyboard? Sure. A firewire camera to have the device act as a target storage device? Absolutely. Another tablet, so you can have twice the amount of display area? Why the hell not. Print? Yes.
All this stuff is doable on phone devices, if developers wanted to. Hell, anything is possible if you want it to be. None of this stuff is against the laws of physics, it's just a matter of wanting to put it in. There's no reason why these phone-based OSes can't accept peripherals, multitask, and do everything better than a phone. It's just against the design philosophy.
But not all of this is software. There are certain hardware expectations that can't be met with the current batch of phone OSes. If you're looking at devices on a curve, you have your phone, then your tablet, then your laptop and your desktop. As the size of a increases, your expectation for power does too, and battery life decreases in accordance. So theoretically, in a tablet device, you'd want to have one significant step up in performance over phones, which we're not seeing in these devices. I'm not talking just running the same applications faster, with upscaled graphics, I'm talking entirely new things you can only do with increased processing power. Stuff like true multitasking, games that are actually noticeably better than cellphone games, light media editing (not as good as a laptop, of course) and media playback of all kinds, handling all sorts of codecs.
That's right, people expect more functionality and power with that bigger screen. Android's tablets run Android apps pretty fast, but not so fast that they're on an entirely new level. Widget-ized computing may prove to be practical, something people need as a second device. But for anybody in need of real heavy-duty computing, like Photoshop photo editing or Final Cut video processing, the design of a tablet simply won't do.
Shrinking PCs Down
Then, you have the people who have taken a windows-style desktop-metaphor interface and simplified it for a tablet. There's the HP slate, which runs Windows 7 but, knowing HP, will come with a friendly TouchSmart skin to hide Windows from sight while you're doing basic media and (hopefully) social stuff. There are various other Windows 7 tablets, including the Archos 9, basically just Windows 7 machines stripped of their keyboard. (Some have styluses.)
What makes no sense about the new crop of Windows-powered tablets is that they are based on a design concept that is already proven not to work. You'll recall back to the first time Microsoft tried these tablets, with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, around the turn of the century, and you'll remember that although the premise was neat, the execution had no unique functionality, no specific base of great apps, from Microsoft or anybody else. It was just a regular laptop with a stylus interface thrown in. What has changed? Now you can use your finger, instead:
There are benefits: Excellent peripheral support, the ability to install custom applications, true multitasking and cross-app interactivity, enhanced media performance, etc. In short, everything you expect from a low-powered Windows laptop, you can more or less expect here. But that extra boost of juice, that ongoing background chatter, demand more on the system. The downside is that battery is never remotely as good, and you have to deal with old-world Windows issues, like slower boot times, sleep issues, and, yes, viruses.
HP has worked hard to sell the concept of the touch PC with their TouchSmart platform. We have seen the desktop all-in-one TouchSmarts running multitouch Windows 7 but there wasn't a lot of software for them. Now, HP appears to be pinning its hopes to the slate, presumably giving a nice "tablet" interface on top of Windows 7 when you need it, but with the ability to pop back into desktop mode when you don't. That's fine, better even, but it's not a coherent computing experience.
Since it's ultimately a desktop OS, it's not designed for the type of input schemes you have on tablets. Besides, what happens when something running in the background crashes or demands attention? Nothing will shake you from your tablet reverie like an unexpected alert from the good people of Norton that your PC is in grave danger of being violated. Unless the tablet-friendly environment is more than skin deep, like the ones phone developers now use to hide Windows Mobile, the whole thing is a wash. By delaying on the Courier and promoting Windows 7 touch tablets, Microsoft's making the same kind of mistake that made WinCE devices (Windows Mobile) slow and clunky. They're offering up their standard base operating system and just telling people to add a skin on top, which is not the way to a tablet revolution.
Desktop Lite: The Browser-Only Approach
Frankly, we're not sure where to put JooJoo and the mysterious Chrome OS. Their philosophy? Why design a whole new OS when you can take the screen most people stare at most often—the web browser—and effectively limit your OS to that. Sure, web apps are only going to get better, richer. But this approach seems to take the limitations of both the phone and the desktop-metaphor OS, with almost none of the benefits of either.
Everything we've seen from the Chrome OS, both early on and more recently, suggests that it is typical white-on-black boring Google desktop style. We hope there's a trick or two up its sleeve, because if it's just a Chrome browser in a box, it might suffer.
We know more about the JooJoo. What's nice about it is that, presumably like the Chrome, its browser is a real WebKit PC browser, not a skimpy mobile one, so it supports Flash and Silverlight, and therefore Hulu, YouTube in HD, and other great video experiences. It does have a 1MP webcam, as well, but it's only for "video conferencing," if and when a browser-based video Skype comes along.
What We Need Is a Third Approach
The tablet operating system problem is one that no one has actually solved in the thirty-something years of personal computing, even though tablets have been in the public's imagination for at least that long.
The biggest players, Apple, Google and Microsoft have huge investments in both desktop and mobile software, and seem to attack this tablet problem from attacking with both Android and Chrome OS. They're all using their previous knowledge to get a head start. This is bad. Neither of these two solutions is optimal.
Surprisingly enough, it's Microsoft—preoccupied as it is with mobile and desktop—that's perhaps closest to this golden mean of tablets.
If you watch the Courier video above, you'll notice that it's an entirely new class of interface. It doesn't have anything reminiscent of applications, which are the way phones do it, and it doesn't have the traditional windowing (lower-case) for programs, which is what desktops use. It's kinda just one big interface where everything talks to everything else, where you can do stuff in a natural way that makes sense.
Or take a look at this video. Again, it's neither phone nor desktop—it's designed with finger pointing in mind, optimized for this middle-ground in screen size. This is just a concept render, but it serves the point: We're looking for something completely new with an interface that "just works" for the device, giving you features from the desktop-side such as multitasking, serious computing and the ability to run any app without having to go through a locked-down application store funnel. But we also don't want to sacrifice the gestures, fingerability or light-weightness that you gain from smartphones.
It might never happen. It takes years and massive amounts of manpower to create a new operating system. Microsoft's taking forever just getting Windows Phone into the 21st century. While we have faith (somehow) that Microsoft will revamp its mobile franchise in its 7th iteration, it's unlikely that they would also then push out an entirely new operating system anytime in the next few years. More problematic is the recent insistence by Steve Ballmer at CES that Windows 7 tablets are the solution, when they very clearly are not.
If not Microsoft, then who? Apple and Google have already shown what they plan to do in the tablet space—and their operating systems may grow and develop in ways only hinted at now. The iPhone platform is not bad, and if they can break through the glass ceiling described above, it could be the answer. Google Chrome OS could also manifest itself in unexpected ways, even if we currently don't have too much optimism. Until that day arrives—or until the unlikely event that an upstart designs a seriously revolutionary OS and accompanying hardware platform to deliver it on—we'll have to make do with our big phones and keyboardless laptops.