The Virtuous CIO  

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November 19, 2011 — Tablet Mania

I am not an early adopter. I have the broken bones and bruises from such decisions early in my career. Taking a wait-and-see attitude towards new technology is a good cost saving strategy. One also does not get run over by the stampede of lemmings as they follow each new fad. It can make you appear to be a fuddy-duddy, but more often as the wise elder statesman of IT.

So, while I took the opportunity to play with some of the tablet machines as they were birthed by the midwives of the tech world, I held off committing – more or less because I had difficulty divining the business value inherent in the devices. Recently Amazon announced their “Fire” tablet to an amazed and adoring customer base. I've always leaned towards the 7 inch devices simply because they fit in a coat pocket. I like that convenience. So I placed my order and patiently waited for shipment day.

Meanwhile, I traveled to Gartner's Orlando symposium (which attracts another kind of lemming), and took my boss along. Already a superb strategic thinker, my boss got a good taste of strategic IT. Those of us in business, of course, view this as a win-win. At one of the dinners the conversation turned towards tablet computing. We work for higher-ed, and of course in higher-ed tablets are all the rage right now. My boss said, “I need an iPad.” Then he pointed to me and said, “You need one too.”

Not being disposed to argue, I received my iPad at the end of last week. This week the Kindle Fire arrived on my doorstep. So, I now have been subjected to full immersion in the experience, and also can talk knowledgeably about the devices in a comparative way.

The iPad is... the iPad. With a few years' familiarity with iOS, we tend to take its elegance for granted. However, the strength of the Apple devices lies not in their innovation, I would argue, but rather in the level of refinement. Apple has single-handedly created an entirely new computing paradigm, but most importantly, they shook most of the wrinkles out of the devices before they landed in the hands of the consumers. While Apple has focused on content consumption, the iPad is truly a general purpose computing device and is being used as such.

The Kindle Fire presents an interesting contrast. It is tightly focused as a consuming device, and that is where it excels. It draws sustenance from the Amazon store, and does so transparently. Video is streamed seamlessly, and the screen is large enough to make watching a movie pleasurable. Books? Yep. It's a decent e-reader. The custom interface on top of Android is unique and thoughtful. The hardware is solid, if slightly heavy.

But, the Kindle Fire falls down on the user experience. The main screen allows the user to fan through recent activities, like looking at a horizontal Rolodex. The problem being that it's too touchy. It flips back and forth so easily that it's difficult to select individual items. When selecting other items via the convenient buttons on the screen, it often takes multiple taps to get the device's attention.

This is the huge difference between Apple and the rest of the world. The rough edges of the Kindle Fire Android implementation draw your attention to the device itself, while the iPad draws you into the content. Amazon has done some unique, innovative things, but they need a Steve Jobs to slam the developers against the wall and scream in their faces and tell them they're not done yet. Jobs's mercurial reputation survives him, yet he used it to get things done. Amazon needs to commit some serious resources into refining the Fire (there's an interesting turn of phrase). They have a good device, but not a great one.

Which leads then to the next step in the review. I'm writing this on a Thinkpad running Ubuntu. Typing on any touchscreen device is painful; I don't care what anybody says. When I go to meetings, the iPad stays on my desk (usually), and the Thinkpad gets carried around. It's small enough to be convenient. The battery is good enough to carry it through 99 percent of all meetings, and it has a wonderful keyboard. The tablets just don't have the granularity for good input.

If I know I'm not going to have to do much typing, the iPad is nice to carry around. It's a decent email platform, and it handles most of the things I need to look at. And, let's face it, it is a delight to use. You can focus on the task at hand without having to pay attention to the device itself.

So, are tablets the future of computing? Not quite. I say that as accurately as possible. I mean, look at all the road warriors who carry both an iPad and a laptop. Those people will always pack the bare minimum to get the job done. Pay attention to what those people are doing.

I think that as the hardware gets sufficiently powerful in the next generation or two, and as voice control gets more natural (less stilted), then probably laptops and desktops will largely disappear – except maybe for the content creators.