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March 31, 2010

Will industrial tablets benefit from the iPad?

On April 3rd, the Apple iPad tablet will be available in Apple stores. According to various reports, almost 300,000 iPads have been ordered before the device even became available. The hype is enormous, with experts falling all over themselves proclaiming why the iPad will succeed or fail.

Fact is, at this point no one knows how the iPad will be received. Apple apparently felt comfortable enough with the tablet form factor to create the device and stake a good part of its reputation on it. Since the iPad is really a scaled-up iPhone rather than a pared-down MacBook, the question will be whether the iPhone experience indeed scales up to offer something the little iPhone just couldn't, or whether the larger form factor actually works against it as people may be more likely to compare it to a standard PC.

One thing is for sure: the iPad will put the tablet into the harsh light of public scrutiny again. This, of course, isn't new. The original IBM ThinkPad of the early 1990s was a tablet, and then, just as now, the tablet/pad concept was sold as something millions were already familiar with: Scribble on a notepad or relax in a comfy chair with a tablet computer that feels like a book or print magazine. The major difference between then and now, apart from almost two decades of technological advancement, is that back then handwriting recognition was seen as the key to unlocking the tablet's potential.

Unfortunately, handwriting recognition never quite worked out (though, with some training and given a chance, the software actually works very well), and current tablet efforts do not push recognition at all. Instead, the emphasis is on an attractive, elegant user interface with all the effortless swiping, pinching, bouncing and tapping that made the iPhone such a hit.

Will the iPad benefit industrial tablets by bringing more attention to the tablet form factor? It's quite possible, but there are some pitfalls. The obvious one is that the iPad will set a standard of user expectations (effortless multi-touch, elegant UI, etc.) that Windows-based tablets will probably have a hard time to meet. Another is that Apple's effortless, elegant user interface requires a flawless implementation of projected capacitive touch technology, something that may work much better on a small consumer device than a large vertical market device that users may want to operate with gloves on.

It's probably reasonable to assume that the iPad will raise expectations as to how tablets should operate. And raised expectations always mean that older technology will be viewed as lacking. So if users are driven to vertical market tablets just to find that they do not live up to expectations, the rejection and dissatisfaction will be more severe. Which means the overall impact of the iPad's publicity could be negative if vertical market tablets do not offer the same general improvements that the iPad brought to the consumer market.

What's the implication? For that we need to take a look at prevailing digitizer and touch technologies.

Almost since the very start of pen computing, Wacom's inductive technology has dominated the digitizer market with its precise, sleek pens that do not need a battery. The pen functionality of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which was launched in 2002, was clearly designed for the Wacom pen, and the technology, for the most part, works very well. The primary problem with active pen solutions, though, is that you're dead in the water if you lose the pen, and despite tethering, spares, etc., it's just a matter of time until a pen gets lost.

Which is why resistive touch technology is being used as an alternative to inductive, and often in conjunction with it (so that the computer automatically switches from one to the either when according to certain rules). The problem with resistive touch is that it is not very precise, not well suited for inking and recognition, and very prone to misinterpretation. After all, the digitizer must figure out how much pressure represents a "touch" and also differentiate between an intended touch (like from a stylus) and an unintended one (like the pressure of the palm of your hand). Resistive touch doesn't work very well with Windows and its tiny check boxes and scrollers, though legions of Windows CE/Windows Mobile users have learned to live with it.

The respective shortcomings of inductive and resistive digitizer technologies led Apple to use projected capacitive touch, where a) it's either a touch or not a touch (no shades of gray depending on pressure), and b) multi-touch is possible. Combine that with Apple's interface magic and you have the elegant, effortless and seductive iPhone. Bingo, the perfect solution for tablets.

Or is it? Over the past year we've seen multi-touch functionality added to a lot of tablets and notebooks. I've tried several of them, and none worked very well. Those systems would have a few demo showcase functions, but capacitive touch and multi-touch really did not make the systems easier to use, and they were just another feature rather than the main mode of operation (which is what makes the iPhone such a hit). So simply "having multi-touch" is not enough. It may even work against a product.

This morning I came across a press release from Xplore Technologies, one of the earliest supporters and providers of vertical market tablet computers, where its president, Mark Holleran, lauds the launch of the iPhone as a great opportunity for the tablet form factor. Holleran points out the ease of use of tablets and views the launch of the iPad as a sign that "the tablet PC industry is poised for wider acceptance and accelerated growth."

I do think Holleran is on to something, but even if the iPad is a rousing success, it'll still be a challenge to translate the iPad/iPhone user experience into an equally satisfying solution for vertical market tablets.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:38 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2010

Consumerization of rugged markets?

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on Windows Mobile and the vertical markets and concluded with the question, "So what will the small but significant number of vendors who make and sell Windows Mobile devices do as their chosen operating system platform looks increasingly dated and is becoming a target of customer dissatisfaction?" I got some good (and rather concerned) feedback on that column, and I think it's an issue that is not going to go away.

Yesterday I saw an article entitled "Delays Decimate Microsoft's Enterprise Mobile Market Share" at channelinsider.com, and they asked, "So, what of the rugged device market? A market largely dominated by bulky devices running Windows Mobile from manufacturers like Motorola and Intermec. Howe (Director of Anywhere Consumer Research at Yankee Group) says that enterprise applications are becoming more and more prevalent on consumer-grade smart phones, and the rugged hardware manufacturers will become more and more niche-focused."

What they're saying is that enterprise and vertical market functionality is increasingly becoming available in inexpensive, standard consumer products, and the people who use that functionality do not want to walk around with two phones or handhelds. That's been pretty much accepted for a while now, as evidenced by the number of ruggedized handhelds that have integrated phones. The problem, though, as Howe puts it in the channelinsider.com article, is that "No one wants to go around looking like a UPS guy when they are out at the movies."

And perhaps an even bigger problem is that no one, including the UPS guy, wants to put up anymore with a clumsy, recalcitrant user interface that fights you every step along the way. Not when the iPhone and Android and Palm have shown us that it can be done so much better.

What will happen? I honestly don't think that Microsoft's mantra that handhelds need Windows CE because it leverages enterprise expertise washes anymore. Not when the handheld platform has been neglected to the degree Windows CE has been neglected. It's much more likely that Windows CE is still alive on vertical markets because it's a leap of faith to trust Apple or Google or open source to care about the relatively small vertical markets (even though some sales, like UPS, can be in the hundreds of thousands).

Yet, the fact is that I can now take an iPhone, which doesn't even have a scanner, and scan barcodes with its built-in camera. Or take pictures with it that are far better than anything I've seen out of the integrated cameras on Windows CE devices. And due to the laws of physics, small devices are often inherently more rugged (and easier to ruggedize) than large ones. Does that mean we'll soon see slightly modified smartphones do the job of rugged handhelds?

Probably not, but the thought definitely enters the mind.

Posted by conradb212 at 08:31 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2010

Will the iPad replace my iPhone?

I wrote this column for the blog at iPhoneLife Magazine, a terrific resource for iPhone owners (or anyone interested in the iPhone) that's published by my old friend Hal Goldstein who used to be a friendly competitor when we published the print version of Pen Computing Magazine.

The article really has nothing to do with rugged computing, but I think it's relevant here anyway because a) the fate of the Apple iPad will have a big impact on how tablets are viewed in the coming years, and b) because of the mobile industry's never-ending struggle to find form factors that are really right for a given job.

So here's what I contemplated:

This week I will order my iPad. Though I know it'll take a bit longer, I am aiming for the 3G model with 32GB of storage. When I get it, I will sign up for the unlimited data plan, forking over an even larger part of my disposable income to AT&T every month. What I do wonder is whether the iPad will replace my iPhone.

Silly question you may say. The iPad is not a phone, so how could it replace the iPhone? True, but I really don't consider my iPhone as primarily a phone. It is, in fact, a pretty crappy phone, with voice quality worse than virtually any cellphone I've ever had, going back to the original Motorola "brick." But I do need a phone for the few calls I make, and it doesn't make sense to carry a much more convenient little fliphone in addition to the iPhone, and so, yes, the iPhone is my phone, too. But if I checked the number of minutes I use my iPhone as a phone versus for everything else, everything else would account for about 95%, at least.

That's because the iPhone has pretty much become my information and entertainment device of choice. Before I leave the house I check the weather and temperature on the iPhone so I know what to wear. I get my news from the iPhone's USA Today and CNN apps (and even a couple of local and foreign newspapers), and more detailed news from the NY Times on the iPhone. I keep in touch with my Facebook friends on my iPhone. I read e-books on it. I play games on it. I use it when I go running and want to keep track of my time. I use it to check prices and read reviews while shopping. I check sports scores, the load on my servers, new messages on websites I post on. I do all that on my iPhone because it's so darn handy and convenient, and because it is good enough to do all those things. Had anyone told me a few years ago that, yes, it WILL be possible to use the web on a tiny device not as just a technology demonstration, but because it really works, I probably would not have believed it. After all, everyone had tried and it just didn't work. Until the iPhone.

So now the iPad will do everything the iPhone can, but on a much bigger screen. No more squinting, no more screen rotating to make columns more easily readable, no more constant pinching to zoom in and out. That will all be a thing of the past as what we have all been waiting for is now here with the iPad, the book/magazine reading experience in an electronic device. Because that is the one remaining hang-up that keeps print newspapers and mags in business; they are more convenient than reading on a laptop computer.

But now I wonder if the iPad will do everything the iPhone can, and do it better. Will I appreciate the much larger screen, or will it simply make the iPhone experience big and unwieldy? Will I have much higher expectations from a "real" computer like the iPad than I have of the little iPhone? For example, will I still tolerate the lack of Flash on the iPad? Will iPhone apps still look so terrific and clever on a much bigger screen, or will I expect real computer functionality? Will I start whining about the lack of "real" software? But most importantly, will I be able to use the iPad like I use the iPhone, just whipping it out wherever I am? Because if not, it may not work, and the new big iPhone will be something else that'll have to fly, or fail, on its own merits.

Posted by conradb212 at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)