Thursday, March 09, 2006

Thick, as a Brick

Thick as a Brick, by Jethro Tull. That's my idea for the theme song for Microsoft's new portable device, which was code-named Origami, but should properly be called Tablet PC II. I see no reason why this effort will be any more successful...

But, most computer users long for something more portable, more "handy", and every few years someone comes out with something that looks like it might fill the bill. Only problem is that there are a few "gotchas" that you inevitably "get" after you have plunked your money down and used the thing for a while. Depending on your retailers return policy, you may be stuck with more than a bad attitude about whoever's name is on the thing. In no particular order:

Battery life. Standard benchmark for this seems to be a transcontinental (New York to LA for example) plane trip. Not surprisingly, nobody bothers to market anything like this with less than 4-hours battery life. Ooops, well, nobody but Microsoft, but if you'll notice, as was the case with the tablet PC, they helped design the thing, they won't be making them, and they won't be stuck with an inventory of unsold units should the thing flop. It sells Windows licenses, and that is all MS cares about at this point (often seemingly to their own detriment). These will last from 2-3 hours of that plane flight, promises of better battery life (is a portable fusion reactor in the works?) are already being made before the first units go on sale.

Display brightness. All new portable devices, even if they are "desktop replacement" laptops these days brag about display brightness. I don't have a single display, CRT or LCD that I don't have to adjust down so that I feel safe from radiation burns. That is, under normal indoor lighting conditions. Take those same displays out into bright sunlight and suddenly you can't tell if the thing is switched on or off. My original black on grey Palm Pilot from years ago had no trouble in bright sun, but my new COLOR model requires me to pull off the road and cup the thing in my hands forming a little "room" so that I can see the thing, only then my eyes are too close to focus. Maybe they should come equipped with a shoe-box that you could put them at one end of and look through a peep hole from the other end to read the display. I'll send Palm that idea. Raise your hand if you know why there is this disparity between color and black and white displays.**

Ruggedness. No, not the lumber-jack kind. But you know you are going to drop one of these eventually. You may also sit on it, put it in a briefcase with a few to many other things and of course, fling the briefcase across the room when you get home (or am I the only one this careless with the tools of the workplace?) When the tablet PC I came out a few years ago I made the effort to track them down in several local retailers. None of them were in working order, and it wasn't because the batteries had run down. Cracked display, or displays that didn't respond to the touch any longer were the norm. Even in the store, bolted to the counter so they couldn't be flipped about, they were not rugged enough for inspection by the public. Today, in stores that might have 20 laptops on display, all in working order, you are not likely to find a tablet PC. Ask yourself why. When the screen on these things is quarter inch plexiglas that has somehow been made touch sensitive, I'll be interested. Until then, like many people, I'll take one only if my employer agrees to pay for it.

Familiarity. Finally, from the lowly Palm Pilot to the most sophisticated Tablet PC, without a keyboard and a mouse you have a contextual transition*** to make as you go from what you are used to on your desktop to anything else. Even on laptops with the new scrolling touch-pad I'd rather hook up a mouse when I have the space. Scrolling touch-pads, joystick controls and things your touch on the screen to move around don't get to feel "normal" unless you use them a lot, as in ALL THE TIME. If you ever manage to get used to such a thing, then chances are when you use a regular PC you will be reaching for the touch-pad that isn't there or putting fingerprints all over your screen to no avail. Go into Second Life for a few hours or play with Google Earth for an equal amount of time and then go brows a web page. Feel a little hesitation as you navigate from one page to another, bump the text size up or down, scroll down the page? Well, I do. Which is why I hope someday they merge the actions we take from gaming and 2D work so that one is a subset of the other. It hasn't happened yet, and won't, not in this product's lifetime anyway.

Really, don't mind if you sit this one out.

** Brightness of display is an important factor ONLY for displays that depend on self produced, rather than ambient light to work. The original Palm Pilot and similar devices actually were EASIER to see in bright light because they used reflected light by coloring a normally grey surface black. Moderns color LCD devices really should be given a different name because they depend on backlighting for everything you see. In a dark room, the original black and white LCDs were useless, which is why Palm Pilots and those old LCD watches came with some sort of button you could push to momentarily light the display from behind. That has a lot to do with why the original Palm Pilots (not to mention all those digital watches) would last for months or years on a set of batteries, but the new "improved" color devices will probably always last for hours, or, given fancy new fuel cell batteries, maybe days.

*** Or maybe a better term is Cognitive Dissonance ( a term you can also use to describe the feeling you have after you have had a new toy for a few weeks and realize it made your life more complicated, not less.

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