Thanks to Apple and the iPad, tablets are all the rage. Android-powered devices look to be most viable competitor to the iPad. Motorola recently released the Xoom tablet, featuring Android’s new Honeycomb operating system, which is optimized for tablets. From what I’ve been able to gather, the Xoom sales have not been as robust as Motorola had expected. This is purely conjecture on my part, but I think some people’s reticence about picking up the Xoom is because it seems too complicated.
That may not be the case, but perception is key — particularly in consumer electronics. It used to rub me the wrong way when people would take shots at Apple products being “dumbed down” for consumers. The more that I try to tweak my Android-powered Droid X smartphone, the more I appreciate something that doesn’t require me to learn or decipher code. Most people, including a lot of very smart people, don’t want to program or fiddle with their computers or smartphones. The vast majority of people want to simply turn on the device and have it perform as needed/expected. I think Google needs to better address this with Android devices, because it’s becoming perceived as a product for computer nerds. And that’s actually probably being unfair to nerds, which I consider myself. While I appreciate being able to personalize my device, I don’t want to sacrifice consistent performance.
As we move to relying even more on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets (I absolutely refuse to say “post-PC”) a rock solid user interface (UI) is paramount. It is critical because people on the move need things to be easy to navigate and use.
Don’t take this yarn as an indictment of Android. I’ve been tough on Google for its handling of the Android OS lately, but I’m still a fan. On top of seamless integration with Google services, one of the best features built into Android is the ability to use customizable widgets. Aside from the turn-by-turn navigation, app widgets are probably what most my friends with iPhones comment on as an enviable feature on my Droid X.
Irrespective of Steve Jobs comment about Hummer phones, it appears that users do like a smartphone with a screen a little bigger than the iPhone’s beautiful crisp, but smallish 3.5″ display. Since the release of the EVO, larger screens on smartphones have gained traction. It looks like a 4″ screen is the sweet spot between the iPhone 3.5″ screen and the EVO and Droid X 4.3″ screens. It remains to be seen whether this “more is more” carries over with tablets. The near 10″ of the iPad and Xoom would seem to be preferred for people looking to differentiate a tablet from a smartphone or laptop/netbook. I think the additional screen real estate of a tablet is particularly attractive to developers, now optimizing apps for the larger tablet screens. I’m left to wonder of the Flyer and original Galaxy Tab, with 7″ screens will be viable. I can see them being popular from a convenience standpoint (portability), but they may not be the best for viewing the new optimized-for-tablet apps. I guess time will tell. I don’t think there necessarily has to be a standard for tablet screen sizes, but the design of the apps may dictate a minimum, functional size.
Based on what I’ve seen of the Motorola Xoom — I have yet to get some hands-on time with one — the widgets look interesting. However, the widgets look too small to me on that large screen. I am not sure if the widgets are expandable like they are on Motorola Android smartphones, but having a tiny calendar widget that I can scroll through serves no purpose if I can’t make out the tiny font.
To that end, I came across this video for a soon-to-be-released tablet by HTC, called the Flyer. I’ve seen previews and mentions in blogs, but after watching this longer walk-trhugh, I am intrigued. HTC, arguably, has the best Android user interface overlay — Sense UI. This video does a good job demonstrating the features that, in my estimation, make the Flyer more appealing to consumers than the Xoom. The widgets look large and usable.
From what I understand, the HTC Flyer will debut with Android 2.4, better known as Gingerbread. There’s no word from HTC on when the Flyer will upgrade to Honeycomb, but I suspect that it may be a while, given that the UI on Honeycomb is somewhat of a departure from Gingerbread and Froyo versions of the Android OS. Given what HTC has been able to do with putting UI skins on both Window and Android, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull out a slick update for tablet-specific versions of Android.
I guess that gets me back to the underlying point about the user experience. As you may have gleaned from this post, I am torn. I have come around to appreciating the merits of Apple’s so-called walled off ecosystem. If only from a design perspective, Apple has done a terrific job creating a family of devices that all feel familiar. There’s something to be said about being able to move from one Apple device to another will no real learning curve. Things tend to be in the same place, and function on the iPad, as the would on the iPhone, as they would on the MacBook Pro or iMac. The flip side of that, however, is that it’s homogenous. There’s no diversity of look and feel. I cannot differentiate my iPad from yours, other than the cover and wallpaper image. Whereas, on Android devices, users can create, essentially, a completely unique interface. I can use different widgets, or even a custom ROM on my Droid X that reflects exactly who I am and how I use my smartphone. It’s not purely cosmetic. The catch is that once you drop below the surface of third-party launchers, you have to root or loosely reprogram your phone to take advantage of a lot of cool changes. I’ve done it, but have become fatigued with having to run to a forum to figure out some glitch.
This sleuthing may be okay with a smartphone I picked up for $100–200; but when I’m looking at dropping $500–700 on a tablet, my interest or willingness to lift the hood and tinker diminishes almost immediately. For instance, I had a similar feeling with my iMac recently. I had some problems with the iMac shutting down. There were plenty of forum threads suggesting that I pull out screw drivers and install dodgy diagnostic software. Considering the coin that I dropped for that iMac, my sense of adventure was reduced to making an appointment with the “Geniuses” at the Apple store. I think this resistance to tinker and customize doesn’t make people less intelligent. Most people are busy and simply don’t have the interest in spending significant chunks of time soupin’ up their tablet. That’s why The Gap sells more clothes than a tailor shop.
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’ve already gone to the Dark Side of Apple zealotry. If nothing else, I think that I just see things a little more clearly now. Apple is by no means perfect. The line at the service area…ahem Genius Bar…confirms the fallibility of Apple products. But, 100% uptime is not the point. It’s about understanding your user. Apple seems to get the basic needs of people buying its product. The thing with Android-based products is that we are being pitched a somewhat schizophrenic experience. The stock Android experience is loaded with features, but comes across as a little too cold and techie for most people. It seems that HTC gets that, and puts a attractive facade on that sturdy Android foundation. Is one necessarily better than the other. Instinctively I say no. However, when thinking about the “average” user [non pejorative], I think if Google hopes for Android to be a compelling alternative to Apple, it has to give considerable attention to the user interface. It feels like Google is enamored with making stock Android the Craigslist of operating systems — highly efficient, but ugly and/or boring as hell. No frills has its place, I just don’t think it’s on a device like a tablet or smartphone.
Thanks for bearing with me. This post didn’t really travel the same path that I started on yesterday when I began typing. That’s actually something I love about writing. Nevertheless, I hope that I made a point in here somewhere.