Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oh dear, tablets...

So, I was at the Blackberry Devcon the other week... Yeah, not the most exciting to write about, but a man needs to keep his blog active in some way, right? I had a great time at the con and the people from RIM tried really hard to win developers over to develop for the new Blackberry playbook. They even went as far as to give us our very own playbook, FOR FREE! I now have a Blackberry playbook. :)

Blackberry Playbook! Toys!
I don't have much to say about the con, except that they convinced me that the blackberry userbase is enough alive to make a third kind of tablet viable in the current market. The userbase might be small, but they spend more money and are more focused on quality. A 1 dollar app for android can be easily sold in the blackberry store for 3 dollars, just make sure it does what it should. This is news you want to hear as a developer, because you have a higher chance to make more money with your app.

While the Blackberry playbook is fine and dandy, i couldn't help but get a creepy feeling about the current tablet and smartphone market. Yes, the ARM processor, found in most tablets and smartphones, can perform phenomenally on a very low power usage and the multi-touch screens are fantastic for giving an intuitive interface. The problem is that the focus in marketing is pointed to the software.

Shouldn't have bought a tablet, mate.
Those things are expensive.
One thing all tablet manufacturers don't let you know is that every tablet is able to run the other's operating system. In layman's terms: the I-pad can run android and the other way around. They have roughly the same hardware and specs. All the apps in all three stores do the same. There are video players, music players and games with roughly the same gameplay. (Search for Fruit Ninja and marvel at the clones.) For every platform someone else makes an app that does the same as a popular app in an other or even the same store. The consumer might want originality, but in the mean time the clones keep the money coming.

The irony is that tablets have great hardware potential, but the software that's used for their marketing only restricts their possibilities. Here is a list of things I tried with tablets that took more trouble than needed or didn't work at all:
  • file management: I'm used to throw my files around as much as I like in a folder structure I want. Sadly, every tablet insists you use your apps to handle only their specific formats. There are file managers around, but most of them have a different opinion on if the system folder is part of the personal file folders.
  • Playing shared videos: This should be the number one reason to have a tablet. You want to watch your videos from your clunky computer in the comfort of your couch, right? Sadly, if you have shared files on your network, you can't access those files through your tablet. Technical reason: no tablet has a decent samba client. I got movies copied to the tablet under android using command-line ssh, but if you are a tablet user, you probably don't want to know what that means.
  • Flash: Do I need to say more? Thanks to a disagreement between Apple and Adobe, the industry standard for movies and online games is dead in the water for mobile devices. Yes, HTML5 is better, but developers are still trying the learn the ropes on that one.
  • Installing downloaded programs: You know when you are using a PC, there is always at least one little program you use that you got from this obscure site. It does everything you want and is hacked together by someone who had the same idea as you and had some spare time. That scenario is impossible on the tablet (except in android, but there are not a lot of android tablets). You have to get everything from the app store/market/etc. Worst part: people are deliberately making loads of money with free open-source programs that are probably not written by them.
  • There is no Red Alert or any RTS on any tablet! For shame!
Doesn't this scream 'TABLET!' to you?
My frustrations run even deeper on technical levels, but they get me on a long ramble. For my tech-savvy readers who want an example: I threw in the towel when I found out the Blackberry playbook has a SAMBA server, but not a client. If I want to watch my videos, I have to go to my computer and put them on the tablet, instead of the other way around.

I sincerely hope the tablet hype doesn't turn into an economic bubble. There is no independent programming community on the tablet. All apps are still made on a PC and distributed through 1 store per platform. This makes the tablet platform dependent on the PC platform and the distributors. If developers abandon the PC and try to force consumers to switch to tablets (like windows 8 tries to do with their interface. Yes that is for the PC) the consumer computer market will be dependent on the few people who know how to handle a PC. There will be a grave shortage of developers and the few that are available will be extremely expensive. Fortunately, that is just my doomsday theory. Personally I don't think it will come that far, because the shortage of developers will be obvious before the consumer has switched completely to tablets.

People have rightfully gone into a fit (just one, but very common example) about others who claimed that the tablet will be the sole way of computing in the future. It won't, the tablet only fills a niche. 5 years ago we only had desktops and big laptops. Now we have netbooks and tablets to suit more specific needs and the latter fills the need to read, watch and game from the couch. I don't have a need for a tablet, since my PC and netbook fit my needs pretty well. The Blackberry playbook is the only tablet I will ever own and I got that one for free.

When the I-pad was introduced, people listened way to much to the praises of Steve Jobs. Because the guy 'got shit done', people were intimidated. He was gonna remove your PC from your house! The thoughtless cheering from apple fans only made things more intimidating. Because of this, the market hasn't really had the opportunity to evaluate the tablet for what it really is. It's a tool, but not the future.

As with everything he did, Steve Jobs steered a whole market to thinking that some new gadget will be the next big thing. With it he brought a plethora of emotions to everyone who did or did not want to listen. He threw us head first in a direction that made us do something different and gave him a lot of money. I don't celebrate the death of Steve Jobs, because he seemed to be a nice guy, but I am glad he finally shut up.