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Lessons at CES - how your tablet can compete with iPad

Members medicheck out MotorolAtrix during press preview for Consumer Electronics Show Wednesday Jan. 5 2011 Las Vegas.

Members of the media check out the Motorola Atrix during a press preview for the Consumer Electronics Show Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011, in Las Vegas.

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Updated: January 7, 2011 5:25AM



Consumer electronics firms have figured out that the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn’t like a collegiate track meet. There’s definitely an official starting gun but nobody’s going to punish you for jumping off of the blocks a little ahead of everybody else.

Result: the show seems to begin a little earlier every year as these companies try hard to grab attention before the whole tech world is awash in white noise and well before all of the analysts, journalists, and commentators are too burned-out to listen any more.

On Tuesday, for example, the first of many (many many MANY) iPad-esque devices was formally announced. That’s no different from what was happening this time last year. The official mascot of CES 2010 was a slate based on the Android OS and the nvidia Tegra 2 processor. But in 2011, these devices have actual logos on them, and their makers can at least hint at a price and an actual ship date. Last year, the tech companies just wanted to demonstrate that they could build a slate if they wanted to. They were waiting to see what Apple was going to do with their rumored tablet.

This year, they know damned well what Apple did: Apple made a shipload of money.

And that’s why ASUS made sure that they were the first off the blocks with the announcement of four new slates. At this point, I know nothing of these devices apart from what I can learn from the press releases and videos. But it seems as though ASUS has tried to scatter their bets across as much of the board as possible. They’ve got a 10” Android tablet with a built-in slide-out keyboard and a 10” Android tablet that magnetically docks to an accessory keyboard. They’ve got a 7-inch Android tablet that fits into a pocket.

They’ve even got a model for consumers who might have spent the last 16 months in hypersleep. The “Eee Slate”’s specs read like a stock midrange notebook PC: it’s an Intel i5-based Windows 7 machine with a 12” 1280x800 display. Notably missing from the Slate’s spec sheet are its projected battery life and whether it’s powered by several pounds of lithium cells or a Mr. Fusion machine bolted to the back.

By the end of the week, I expect to move at least five major company’s slates out of the Rumored & Leaked folder and into the Confirmed and With Announced Ship Date list (conspicuous on the list: a slate from Motorola, which was teased at the All Things Digital conference recently). By the end of May, I expect to move one or two of those into the Vaporware Bin but before then, it’ll be fun to look at (and hopefully play with) all of these different takes on what made the iPad so successful and how another company can successfully wedge their hands into that till.

Everybody’s navigating a tricky question: what made the iPad such a smash-hit?

(a) Is it a simple case of Apple making a “good enough” product at the right time, selling it at the right price, and then having the market all to itself for an entire year?

or

(b)

Is the iPad the residue of a subtle, profoundly canny, and mostly impossible to duplicate comprehension of slate computers and the ways that the Humans respond to them?

I’m guessing that (a) is more true than Apple would be comfortable to admit. I’m even more confident that that overall, the tech industry will be clueless enough about (b) that Apple will hold on to its lead for a considerable time ... assuming that they ever relinquish it.

I’m a slave to my readers and I want them to have a wide gene pool of terrific hardware to select from. So I’m willing to explain to ASUS, Motorola, HP, RIM, and every other company how to build a slate that can answer the question “But why would I buy this instead of an iPad?”

- The “10-inch or 7-inch?” question will inform every other design decision.

If it’s a 10” tablet, it can be anything ... even a credible substitute for a notebook. If it’s a 7” tablet, it has to be defined by one or two things that it can do exceptionally well.

I’ve used a few different 7-inch Android tablets and although I envied the pocketable size, they never asserted themselves as general-purpose computers. They could run some ambitious Android apps, but every additional function bore a scarlet suffix. You could create and edit documents ... sorta. You could process a folder of email ... within reason. That sort of thing.

The Barnes & Noble Nook Color is a fully-capable Android tablet but Barnes & Noble has worked hard to make sure that the book-reading experience is top-notch. That’s how they sell the thing; it distinguishes the Nook against a phone running the B&N or Amazon Kindle app (which feels cramped on a pocket-sized screen) and even the iPad (which can’t help but be bulky and expensive).

- The $499 price point is the desiccated skeleton propped against a signpost reading “Turn Back Here.”

Any slate whose minimum price is higher than this has to have a damned good answer to the question “But why would I buy this instead of an iPad?”

A manufacturer needs to get that price down well below $400 or come up with a clear and practical explanation of what their slate does that the iPad doesn’t. “It fits in your pocket” is a good answer. “It’s more open” is not.

- Physical form is everything.

This isn’t a device that’s meant to be set on a table and dusted regularly. Until Raytheon starts making computers out of nanoputty, a slate will be the most tactile kind of computer anyone will ever buy. Cheap plastic, port covers that pop off, even something as simple as a lack of grippable space around the screen will sink a slate.

- The basic skin-to-glass interface: that’s everything, too.

Tactile, tactile, tactile. A slate needs to respond to touch inputs with telepathic speed. Tapping a button, scrolling a list, or zooming a screen in and out should make the user feel as though they’re tapping that user interface element directly. It shouldn’t feel as though they’re tapping a domino that knocks over other dominoes inside device which ultimately causes something to happen.

- It needs to have its own UI and its own apps.

Even if it runs Android. The Android OS isn’t a product. It’s only an ingredient. The best Android-based slates will feature boatloads of improvements to the user interface and the standard suite of Android apps.

And that’s true at every level of the user experience. If the stock Android keyboard sucks, a manufacturer can replace it with a better one. There’s nothing keeping them from swapping out a weak email client for a weapons-grade model. That’s one of the great advantages of Android over iOS: a developer can do whatever they want with it. A great Android slate will press that advantage and make itself distinct from every other Android slate on the market.

It’s useful to note that Apple, a company not noted for a lack of self-confidence, invested the time and the money to build its own suite of Office apps for the iPad. This guaranteed that on launch day, the iPad would have the word processor, the spreadsheet, and the presentation app that could justify its $499 price tag ... and that these apps would celebrate the advantage of a slate form factor over a tablet.

If they’d just handed a few hardware samples to DataViz and encouraged them to port Documents To Go to the iPad, the result would have been the same basic apps that anyone can get for any device.

A new slate needs its own apps ... and its own Marketplace. The main Android Marketplace is a muddy scrum of generic apps that often serve a lowest common denominator. If I buy an Android slate I’ll appreciate having a separate store that will steer me specifically towards apps that have been optimized for my new DiscoSlate 3000.

- It shouldn’t be named anything like “DiscoSlate 3000.”

An aside: the highest testimony to the satisfaction of the iPad user experience is that five minutes into your first test flight, you’re willing to overlook the name.

- It shouldn’t ship with Android 2.x.

Android 3.0 is the first true slate-optimized version of Android. A slate that ships with Android 2.x and which can’t provide a convincing proof that there’ll be a free update to 3.0 ASAP is dead on arrival.

And by “convincing proof” I mean “a legal document obligating the company CEO to arrange for Jet Li to kick him in the throat if the Android 3.0 release date slips.” So long as my Android 2.3 slate can play the resulting YouTube video in HD, I suppose I’d be willing to put up with the delay.

- A successful slate doesn’t necessarily need to run Android.

I’m not convinced that sheer metric tonnage of apps are a real feature for a tablet. I know it isn’t a real feature of the iPad. After ten months of iPad ownership, during which I’ve defined and acquired the dozen or so apps that I really need, my app purchases have slowed to a trickle.

Users won’t care that your slate doesn’t run Android or iOS if you can provide them with a surprisingly short list of apps that turn a slate into a useful tool. Office apps, Netflix, Pandora, book readers, apps that plug the user into their cloud storage accounts, and a handful of media apps will cover most of a user’s needs.

I’m actually more eager to see HP’s WebOS slate than anything that runs Android.

- Data plans have to make sense.

You can’t get any simpler than the iPad’s AT&T data plan. If you never use mobile broadband, it never costs you anything. If you activate it, it costs you $25 and the charge will renew every month automatically until you visit a Settings page to cancel it. If you reactivate ... it costs $25.

Complicated contracts are utter nonsense. Any carrier that will charge you $40 for re-activating an ad-hoc 3G service deserves the Jet Li Elective.

- The device needs to be consistent across carriers.

I’m becoming convinced that a slate maker needs to control the entire channel from end to end. The Samsung Galaxy Tab was the first true commercial answer to the iPad and it demonstrates the enormous price of an overly-hippie attitude about openness.

The same hardware is available from multiple carriers. Good. Consumers should have options. But each carrier charges different rates for usage and many carriers deleted features that didn’t fit in with a bigger business plan. If someone comes in to a store looking for a DiscoSlate 3000, they should know exactly what they’re getting.

- Seriously: don’t call it the DiscoSlate 3000.

CES 2011 won’t all be about slates. Every major maker of consumer entertainment electronics has been working exceptionally hard developing and refining new ways to convince people that a 3D television is in any way an interesting or attractive proposition.

Other technologies are more practical, and closer to the center of my radar screen. This is going to be a great year for the Micro Four Thirds camera standard, if sneak peeks are any indication. Two years ago, this new lens and sensor standard was a big lumpy bag of Concepts. In 2010, it became a viable niche in imaging: it was a way to build SLR-style cameras in smaller form factors.

This year, we’ll see Micro Four Thirds cameras that are cheap and pocketable. We’ll see new consumer cameras that can shoot “real” video as well as “real” photos. And we’ll see professional cameras built around the same lens system.

I hope all of this promise pays off. This is the first real chance consumers have had for “one lens mounting ring to rule them all.” I’d love to live in a world where the $300 I spend on a decent lens is an investment in the next five years’ worth of my photos and videos, and not something I give away to sweeten the deal when I move on to a new camera and have to sell off all of my old, incompatible gear.

Stay tuned for more news and thoughts from CES. The Consumer Electronics Show takes place in Las Vegas all week long. In honor of the venue, I annually choose to participate in the show the same way that Howard Hughes would have: locked inside my home, safe from germs, surrounded by video monitors through which I can watch everything unfold.



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