The Future of Computing or Why I Can’t Wait for the Successor to the iPad

It didn’t happen overnight, but the revolution in computing is on the cusp of taking a very big step forward. The transformation in the way we access data and how we interact with machines has been rapid since the release of the first iPhone. The iPad, and competing Android and WebOS tablets, in addition to smartphones, has, to paraphrase an HP commercial, made computing personal. 

My iPad is the 16GB Wi-Fi model. So far, I have not found this amount of storage to be an issue, despite owning several USB hard drives with backups of files going back to the 286 IBM PS/1. There is plenty of room for my apps, some music, podcasts, books, and PDFs (or other “documents” that do not fit neatly into the iOS “no file” file system), and there is still enough room to add a couple of movies should I decide to take my life offline but keep 90% of the iPad experience in tact.

What surprised me is that this is exactly how I used to view my laptop.

One of my most ambitious projects over the past few years, an attempt to initially justify the purchase of the iPad, was scanning in my law school textbooks. Rather than haul a medium sized dog worth of books with me to class every day, I could put the iPad and a notebook into my backpack and hop on the train. I hadn’t had a backpack that light since elementary school. 

This was my first step to really letting the iPad work its way into my life. While I still needed the physical textbooks to create crude electronic versions, at the end of the semester I could resell the books in nearly perfect condition, (or the condition I purchased it in for used books) hit delete on the my digital copy, and be nearly where I started out, aside from the hours it took to scan 1000 page tomes.

The Pain Points

Many days of laptop-free living can change a person. The amount I was able to do on the iPad made me wish I could skip right to the fourth, seventh, or ninth generation model that will be a true tablet computer. Maybe with Star Trek-level Siri support. Right now though, there are a few weaknesses that keep me coming back to my trusty laptop.

Multi-tasking? It doesn’t exist yet outside of traditional computers. iOS has a form of it, Android has a more robust implementation, but neither one gives the user the same experience as using a laptop or desktop. Multi-tasking audio and text or pictures is great, but that’s about as far as it goes for current tablets and smartphones.

Even the first generation of Chromebooks, Google’s cloud connected netbooks, which are still really laptops, lacked something as essential to computers since the adoption of the GUI over the command line: windows.1 This has since been remedied: the new ChromeOS looks like a cross between the Windows 7 task bar and the OS X Launchpad.

Doing multi-tasking right is still a very complicated problem for mobile devices. It’s possible our definition of multi-tasking will need to change to accommodate the new class of devices.

Tablet computers are lighter both in specs and in weight.  Apple can make iOS devices seem fast because they run one app at a time and use flash memory instead of a spinning disc, and can take a few disguised shortcuts. At the moment, even netbooks are still a decent step up in terms of raw processing power. A $500 laptop is much more capable than the iPad but it will probably never feel “faster” to the user.

This will become less of an issue over time as mobile processers get more powerful, but right now every company promising multitasking is giving only what they think customers really need to get by to prevent any major performance hits.

The second problem is tougher: where to put the keyboard. Unlike the cables in the Uppleva, the keyboard is not “gone, never to be seen again.” It’s always showing up. On top of your app. Because software keyboards use the same real estate as the display there isn’t a lot of room for two windows to be opened simultaneously and a decently sized typing surface.

Yes, external keyboards can eliminate this but what about controlling the display? Reaching up to touch the screen to scroll a website or twitter app that is opened while you also type in a word processing window is clumsy at best. Apple has always used this as the reason their traditional computers don’t have touch screens, offering the Magic Trackpad as a more natural way for our arms and hands to do gestures while typing. Some have suggested “computers” will simply become large tabletop screens – your entire desk will be usable as a rotating display.

Built-in laser keyboards?  Maybe. Or a backtyping keyboard that catches on? They might be the answer someday, though underside typing may take some getting used to.

Apple has a big lead in the current tablet incarnation, but the door is open for the a company to make the next leap forward cut the distance between a tablet and a laptop in half once more.

1. While I was initially in the “why do we want full screen apps on our computers” camp regarding OS X Lion, the new implementation of spaces and gestures between desktops has won me over. iTunes, great as full screen because I’m always doing something else. iPhoto, it’s ok. Calendar? Well, that one I’d prefer the traditional windowing experience, but it’s nice to have the option, particularly with the four-fingered swipe.

Apple TV and Gaming

For a man so prolific, complicated, and of course secretive, it should be no surprise that Steve Jobs left behind one quote in his biography which has intrigued readers like no other: “I’ve finally cracked it.”

In some way, shape or form Steve Jobs had solved television, Apple’s role in bringing television and the Internet closer together, or maybe (but not likely) the secret to smellovision.

Many words have already been spilled analyzing this uncharacteristically specific hint, but I had a moment today which made me think.

I have been dabbling with using a standing desk for the past two years. After getting an external monitor to hook up to my laptop and give myself a little more breathing room I converted back to a sitting desk. But today I rearranged my desk again and set the monitor up high once more. And then did something curious: I picked up the Magic Trackpad to resume a video as I was organizing my things.

Standing a few feet away from the desk I held the trackpad in both hand, thumbs on top, like I would an Xbox or PS3 controller. Two thumbs together will scroll, one thumb or the other acting alone will more the cursor, and tapping will select anything selectable.

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Magic Trackpad is not as clumsy or random as an air mouse (or even a Wii remote at times).

There have been critics of Apple’s current remote arguing that it has too few buttons to be useful and is, in fact, too minimalist. Anyone who has had to type more than a few characters on an Apple TV with it will agree. While there is an app available for iOS devices to control the Apple TV, $200 for an iPod Touch is high price point for a remote control with more than barebones functionality.

But what if Apple is working on a Magic Trackpad 2.0? Cheaper than the current $69 version. Maybe closer to the $50 price of a new Xbox controller. If Apple builds a full television set, one of these would come with it. If that TV can play iOS games…multiplayer games…well, others can join in if they have an iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad or their own touchpad-esque, Xbox-like, Apple Controller.

Mr. Bezos or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle Fire

There has been a series of “iPad killers” and alternatives since the Apple announced it in January 2010. Windows tablets, the HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook and, of course, a number of Android-powered  tablets from a large pool of manufacturers. Some of these devices were launched with great hopes and hype but failed to catch on with consumers for one reason or another. When faced with an array of products similar in price to the iPad but without the platform Apple has built around iOS the other tablets have been a tough sell to the general public.

Consumers specifically looking for an Android tablet or who snagged a TouchPad in August can be perfectly happy with those devices as touch-based netbooks with a bit more customization than Apple will likely ever offer. But in many cases this is a niche market: the big bucks (not to mention market share) will be won by the company that targets the masses. The Kindle Fire wants to be that marquee non-iPad product.

For those who just cannot stand Apple products, the Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. For those who want a tablet to replace most of what a laptop or netbook can do, the Kindle Fire will be a disappointment. While the hardware in the Kindle Fire is quite similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook and it runs Android as the underlying OS, the Kindle Fire is not a full-featured tablet and it’s implementation of Android is a heavily skinned Gingerbread, not Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. It is however very interesting for what it is: a portal into the Amazon marketplace.

The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a Kindle. Amazon has expanded the Kindle brand from e-ink reading devices to include a color LCD content consumption device that can run audio, video, apps, and the web in addition to text.

As an iPad user for more than a year I have begun to rely on the tablet as an indispensable tool. It has become my primary means of using Twitter, a gaming device, a bottomless notebook powered by Evernote, a recipe book, Netflix viewer, and more. Using a bluetooth keyboard it can function adequately for typing, though primarily as an input device. Editing is still easier with a traditional computer, but is not impossible with the touch interface. After reading some early reviews of the Kindle Fire, I was afraid the iPad use had colored my expectations in a way that would make Amazon’s toe-in-the-water entry into the tablet market.

Instead, I find myself enjoying the Kindle Fire immensely. It’s the first Kindle I have owned, given my reservations concerning e-books, and has created a dilemma for me regarding what device to travel with.

The Kindle Fire provides a pleasant enough reading experience. Although it uses an LCD screen instead of e-ink I have not found myself wishing for the latter outside of battery concerns (the Kindle Fire is good for “all day” use, but it needs to be charged every day or two even if just used for a little light reading). I have read Kindle and blog content extensively on my phone and on the iPad, so the LCD is not a change from my normal reading habits when I’m paperless. With its seven-inch display, the Kindle Fire fits easily in my hand and the user experience is similar to holding a heavy paperback book. If it were a little lighter and had a bit more battery life I would probably never wonder if I could be happier with an e-ink reader instead.

Watching video from the Prime Instant Video library is painless, although like Netflix (whose app supports the Kindle Fire) the free streaming selection is limited. Of course, Amazon matches the iTunes store here with their additional selection of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase. The screen isn’t as large as the one on the iPad, but it’s good enough for a device that can fit in a large pocket and is either used on the go or while sitting somewhere without a larger screen. The music capability is similarly functional: tight integration with the Amazon MP3 store and the ability to upload your own tracks to Amazon’s cloud and either stream them over WiFi or sync a number of tracks to the Kindle Fire for offline playback.

Audio, video, and e-books are and should be the Kindle Fire’s strengths: they are strengths of Amazon’s cloud and digital offerings. What sets the Kindle Fire apart from Amazon’s other devices is the Appstore. Given how the store has expanded over time in terms of Android phone apps, the relatively limited selection of apps for the Kindle Fire at launch is not necessarily a sign failure. As the first Android tablet aiming to catch on with a mass market, the Kindle Fire could spark developers to build tablet apps for Android in the first place. Because the Kindle Fire can be perfectly usable just with the Amazon content available, apps can be an afterthought, but are very nice to have for anyone wanting the tablet functionality in addition to the pure content consumption.

By downloading a few apps: Evernote, Seesmic, and Wolfram Alpha, in addition to the pre-loaded Pulse, the Kindle Fire feels enough like a tablet to leave home with it and still have some computing power at your fingertips. With a few productivity apps, including several office suites, a few games, and music and video content, the Kindle Fire is sitting between a traditional e-reader and a full-fledged tablet. As a WiFi-only device priced at $199 it is almost targeting iPod Touch owners more than those who have taken, or want to take, the tablet plunge with the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is smaller than an iPad, less powerful, and not really better than Apple’s device for anything outside of the e-book experience because of its size. It might be clunky browsing the web, the keyboard is good-not-great, and the document syncing and magazine experiences don’t feel as fully baked as the areas where the goal is simply “purchase from Amazon” but the Kindle Fire is primarily a device to drive sales to Amazon after all. 

When it comes down to it, when leaving the house without a bag, I can stick the Kindle Fire in a coat pocket or carry it as I would carry a single book on the train or outside the house. The iPad is a file folder of infinite capacity that can contain all your information and transform itself into a number of devices through apps. The Kindle Fire by contrast is a limitless Moleskin notebook that can do a few other things as well.