What happened to tablets? The harbingers of the post-PC era, the iPad and its ilk were supposed to be a bridge between our smartphones and laptops, an entirely new breed of device. Nearly four years later, they're still not living up to their potential.
Increasingly lighter and thinner, with better batteries than laptops and roomier screens than the ones on our smartphones, tablets should be a booming industry. Instead sales have stalled; in 2014, tablet shipments are up only about 11 percent, a paltry number when compared to the still-exploding smartphone segment. Slower sales are partly because tablets have staying power. But it's also because tablets have been so slow to come into their own.
When the iPad was released in 2010 it was widely mocked for both its name and rather stark resemblance to a giant iPod touch. Rightly, it turns out, at least on the second point. When you pick up a tablet, you're likely find a near-identical version of the corresponding smartphone OS, whether it's running an Android fork or iOS.
And that's the problem.
A waste of space
It's remarkable how mature mobile operating systems have become. iOS 8 and Android 5.0 Lollipop represent major leaps in power and performance, and on our phones, they're fantastic, bringing desktop-caliber features and a remarkable level of integration with the devices around them. But there's a reason why the marketing images are all shot on phones; on our tablets, the experience just isn't the same.
Or rather, it's too much of the same. Neither iOS nor Android embraces the fundamental difference between phones and tablets: orientation. Even if they're too big to comfortably operate with one hand, we generally hold our phones in portrait view, and consequently mobile OSes are designed to be viewed vertically. But tablets beg to be used in landscape, making for a forced fit; little about the experience seems natural or intuitive and even worse, the interfaces feel like super-sized versions of the ones on our phones rather than something designed for the devices we're using.
Everything from alerts, quick settings and folders, down to the home screens themselves lose their natural intuition when scaled to such extremes, and there hasn't been a device since the Motorola Xoom—yes the Motorola Xoom—that has put much thought into how we might access and use things differently on a larger screen.
On the Xoom, notifications and setting were repositioned in more logical positions, but the current crop of tablets do little to better the experience. Features like Multi Window mode on Samsung's tablets, but it's mostly just lipstick on a pig. Any kind of comprehensive overhaul needs to come from the source, and Apple and Google don't seem to be listening.
Take notifications. On both Lollipop and iOS 8, they're accessed by pulling down from the top of the screen. It's an awkward stretching gesture on phablets like the Note 4 or the iPhone 6 Plus, but on 7-inch or 10-inch tablets, its completely out of place, forcing us to the nether regions of our screens and abruptly interrupting whatever we were doing. And in iOS it's even more exasperating, since that's where Apple has hidden its widgets.
To see how far tablet operating systems need to go, you don't need to look much further than apps for a counterpoint. Only rivaled by their PC counterparts, the best tablet apps are meticulously designed to take advantage of the unique benefits tablets offer, with logical button placement, smart menus and rich, vibrant workspaces.
They're like little worlds onto their own; with a full-screen presentation, developers can create interfaces that even rival the ones on our desktop PCs, delivering controlled, immersive environments that enhance the way we work and play.
But when you get a bad one, its flaws instantly stand out. It's not so much that they're poorly designed, it's that they're hastily slapped together. Phone apps that are quickly converted into tablet ones invariably leave large swaths of unused space and clumsy navigation, failing to take advantage of any advantages that the larger screen offers.
It's a wasted opportunity, and it happens all over both Android and iOS. But it doesn't have to be like this.
No quick fix
If the rumor mill is correct in predicting the launch of a mega-screen iPad Pro next year—which will no doubt be followed by a giant Nexus device—there need to be some changes.
It starts with the corners. OS X has taken its share of design cues from iOS over the years, but our tablets could benefit from an injection of some desktop ingenuity. Hot Corners let us set customizable triggers for what happens when we move our cursors into the corners of our displays, and it could work just as well on our tablets, moving our most commonly used actions to the bottom of the screen.
And while we're at it, it would be a whole lot nicer if the Notification Center slid out from the side rather than the top.
Then there's the issue of the home screen. Android does iOS one better with its app drawer and folders that display more than nine apps at a time, but neither does anything truly intuitive with their tablet offerings. Android's widgets help, but without a universal design language, screens can quickly turn into a mess of mixed fonts and unrelated shapes; a better solution would be something like the ill-fated Chameleon concept that proposed a way to turn tablet home screens into true workspaces.
If we can't have floating windows like we do on our laptops, the information we need should be front and center—something akin to Windows' live tiles, but with a greater ability to input and access chunks of information.
And then there's multitasking. Apple's app extensions are promising, but there are still far too many steps to take if we want to simply cut and paste some text from a website into a note. Side-by-side windows aren't the greatest solution, as they invariably limit the function of both apps, but the ability to bring up a small version of an app while working—like a text editor window while in Safari—would take multitasking to a new level of efficiency while still preserving the integrity of our full-screen apps.
Tablets don't have to die. Since the iPad kicked off the tablet revolution, we've been waiting for a device with a true post-PC OS, one that legitimately fills the space between smartphones and laptops and naturally extends the capabilities of our smaller screens with a smart, custom UI instead of wasted space. But if we have to wait for iOS X or Android Napoleon, it may be too late.
Top image: Shannon Des Roches Rosa/Flickr