In the Pacific Ocean after World War II, islanders built imitation landing strips, aircraft, and radio equipment, and mimicked the behavior of the departed military personnel, not understanding that going through the motions wouldn’t bring back the huge amounts of goods that arrived when the real military was there during the war. A similar situation is developing with tablet devices.
For nearly ten years people have been proclaiming that tablets are the way of the future (2001), that the tablet PC still has a strong future (2005), that the tablet PC is going to obsolete paper (2007). Now there is the iPad, which as some point out is just a big iPod Touch. That’s not the insult PC World seems to think it is: the one break out successful tablet device of the last decade — or two, if you like — is the iPhone/iPod Touch, with roughly 75 million sold, which as far as I can tell is more than the total number of tablet PCs sold in the last ten years.
The industry has learned from the iPhone experience, and Apple won’t have a grace period to establish the iPad as dominant in the re-made field of tablet computers; there are dozens of competitors looking to jump into the field immediately. But do any of them really understand what they’re doing?
Cars with tillers
Henry Ford sits at the tiller of the first car he made, in 1896 when he was 33.
In the early days of the automobile, cars looked very much like the wagons that preceded them:
That’s understandable: no one knew what a car should look like, and a wagon was the closest thing to a car anyone had seen. As car manufacturers experimented with different designs, they came up with the many things we take for granted today. Some advances, like seat belts, took far later than you might expect, but once the steering wheel was introduced the tiller quickly faded away.
Still, that doesn’t make the early car designs any more practical just because their design flaws were understandable. A car with a tiller was impractical and was doomed to be replaced by those with a steering mechanism not mired in the past.
Cargo cult design is everywhere
The Space Shuttle -- over 100 flights
Buran -- 1 unmanned test flight
Honda CVCC -- 37MPG City, 47MPG Highway
AMC Pacer -- 16MPG City, 26MPG Highway
It’s easier to take an existing design and copy it. Come up with a few variations on the theme and you’re done. But if you don’t understand which attributes are important, you’ll copy the wrong things and modify the crucial parts and end up with a dud.
Defining a (successful) tablet
There are many attributes necessary for a tablet computer: accurate, finger-based multi-touch; a display large enough to work with the web and web applications, and suitable for general use including video; wireless networking. There are more, but one in particular that Apple’s eager competitors (and the tablet PC makers of the past) seem to have overlooked is a user interface designed for use on a tablet. It’s not enough to put a coat of paint on a desktop-keyboard-mouse-oriented user interface. Henry Ford could have pointed to the wheels on his first car, shown above, and said, “Look how the wheels are specifically designed for a car, not a wagon!” That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that the user interface, the tiller, is wrong.
This lack of UI support has doomed every tablet PC that came out with a customized version of XP, Vista, and now Windows 7. There are basic differences between a finger and a mouse/pointer that have to be accounted for. Imagine a Chevy Corvette with a leather-covered tiller and you have something like this:
Lots of little fiddly bits
The application icons are a reasonable size only because they’re heavily framed (doesn’t the OS support larger-resolution icons?), and the other controls are just too small and too close together. After ten years you’d think the UI designers for tablet OSes (mostly from Microsoft) would have realized the things they need to give up in order to deliver a viable user experience.
The Cargo Cult designers of the HP Slate, the Dell Streak, the Lenovo U1, and others are aping Apple’s hardware design, using large touch screens in stylish cases, and trumpeting how they support Flash or function as a laptop replacement, but they will all fail miserably as long as they try to dress up a tiller to make it work like a steering wheel.
Edit: here’s another example of someone who thinks it’s about the hardware.
Postscript: I first ran into the term “cargo cult” because of Richard Feynman’s use of the term “cargo cult science.”