Over the last few months I have been working with tablets in various form factors and platforms. My first dive into the form factor was with the iPad, and then I started working with Android tablets using a Dell Streak 7 and then a Galaxy Tab 10.1, which was running Froyo and Honeycomb respectively. Most recently I bought a Dell Inspiron Duo, a convertible netbook that becomes a (really thick) tablet, and have been using Windows 7 and the new Windows 8 Developer Preview on it.
Each of these have components that have worked well for me, and some that have not. So I wanted to share some of my experiences to see if others can benefit and to try and drive better user experience for tablet applications.
The Device Continuum
To me in terms of capabilities and interface, there is a continuum for working across devices. Now, this is just my personal view of the space—and isn’t based on other sources, including my employer Adobe Systems, but it is how I see the world:
For me, as a user, I move through this spectrum from phone through desktop throughout the day. The tasks and activities I need to complete generally dictate what device or system I reach for, or determine the priority of what I’m able to do when I only have certain devices available. All of this probably seems pretty common sense; however, there is an interesting difference of strategy from the ecosystem drivers in how these devices fit together.
First, the phone is meant to be held in a single hand, and the user interface is rough and imprecise, optimized for use with a finger to work with applications. Functions on a phone are more task oriented and mostly focus on reference. For example, checking e-mail, looking at your schedule, finding contact information, or sending a text message. In addition, the phone has become a primary way to access media content while on the go, perfect for waiting for the bus or train, or passing time through media syncing or streaming services.
The tablet builds on the mobile experience in that it is meant to be used with two hands, and newer devices are adding to the touch UI with pressure sensitive stylus input that increase the precision that you can achieve with the device. With this added precision, and the ability to link the tablet with Bluetooth keyboards users can more easily manipulate existing content and do basic content creation within the constraints of the hardware. The tablet does limit portability in that it can’t be easily stored in your pocket, and you can’t access your tablet in as many situations as you can a mobile phone.
Finally, the laptop or desktop is the least portable of the three classes of devices, but it does offer the most flexibility and power to control your input options and your level of content creation. In addition, the ability to connect to multiple display devices, including 3D enabled screens increases the media consumption options for video and games.
Path of Innovation
With the iPad and the various Android tablets, the approach has been to take the functionality of the phone and bring it to the tablet. In that vein, some of the refinements of the tablet experience have made it to the laptop as a result:
For iOS, the innovation started with the phone with the iPhone and iOS 1.0. This then made it to the tablet as the iPad and the operating system has grown with it to provide additional functionality to support the new form factor. At this point, some of the iOS interface elements have made it into OS X Lion (although not without criticism), taking the technology up through the chain. What is interesting though from this path is that the applications themselves aren’t able to grow with the form factors. iPhone apps can run on an iPad; however, there is no path for the tablet apps to make it to the laptop form fractor. In fact, even from a developer’s perspective, the approach and technologies used to make the application on the laptop are different than the tablet. Apple has tried to even this out through vehicles like the Mac App Store (with the nice side benefit of a monetization and revenue share from each sale), but ultimately the experience and applications consumers use break from the chain.
Google with Android has done something similar; however, they broke the chain with their OS when they released Honeycomb, where they wanted to create a unique tablet experience based on Android. When Honeycomb was released, Gingerbread was released alongside, as the successor to Froyo. What is unique about this roadmap was that Gingerbread was a refinement of the previous Froyo system and was used for mobile phones (shown with a red outline), where Honeycomb was a significant departure from the previous chain and was used specifically for tablets (in yellow outline). Honeycomb was also a great way for Google to experiment with tablet-only user interface constructs that were better aligned for the larger screen. Even though Honeycomb was available and made specifically for tablets, there were still tablet sized-devices that were using Gingerbread, even though Gingerbread was intended only for phones. As a result, there was a significant increase in fragmentation across the operating systems compounded with the difficulty of carriers and handset manufacturers being able to push updates to older OSes like Froyo or Éclair. Recently Google announced Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) which is a unified platform for smartphones and tablets; however, it is too young to see what the application ecosystem will look like with the latest version of Android.
Now Microsoft has approached the problem with a reverse perspective. We may look back and snicker at the Tablet PC initiative they pushed about a decade ago with the Tablet optimized version of Windows XP, but their opinion then still stands today with their vision and preview of Windows 8: A tablet should share the application ecosystem and the productivity level you have come to expect from a laptop in a tablet form factor. Their approach takes the experience of the laptop and brings it to the tablet, but with a catch. Now, instead of the laptop ecosystem being the broken link in the application ecosystem chain, the mobile phone is the break.
With Windows 8, the applications that are part of the laptop ecosystem can run in a tablet form factor with an improved tablet user interface model over previous attempts in Windows 7. These applications though can’t transfer to the mobile phone, and like with the previous example, the tools and technologies used to make the software are very different and require additional work to create the mobile versions.
But Microsoft has done something rather unique with this situation, and that was to introduce the Windows Metro UI from Windows Phone 7 to Windows 8 and replace the Start Menu with an entirely touch optimized UI model on top of the traditional Windows desktop user interface. It isn’t known if Windows Phone 7 applications will be able to run within Windows 8 without modification (something that would really change the ecosystem significantly), but this would significantly repair the break in the ecosystem chain. On the Mac side, OS X Lion introduced a feature called the full-screen application mode, which essentially allows an app to take full control of your screen and interface. This mode could be the way to bring iPad applications to the OS X desktop; however, Apple has not stated if this is the roadmap plan.
With the confusing transfer of applications from device to device mixed with varying platforms and fragmentation, there are significant user experience issues. I’ll review some of these in the next blog post.