Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Tablet Computing Paradigm

A few weeks ago I purchased a Surface Pro 4. I returned it relatively disappointed. I really wanted to like this product. Now I've seen articles and Reddit posts discussing the superiority of the Surface Pro to the iPad. Quite frankly I have no idea why anyone would think this when it comes to, specifically, the concept of tablet computing; what it should or could be, and how we approach it from a UX point-of-view.

I've outline the reasons for my dissatisfaction below. Obviously you can't blame MS for everything here:

  • I prefer interoperability with iMessage across devices. For better or worse I'm trapped in the Apple ecosystem for this reason, though Android has had such interoperability features even before Apple did. MS has Skype, which is bloated and far from elegant. Attempting to plunk down cash and associate my phone number with send/receive features failed miserably.
  • iPad has considerably better battery life; objectively speaking, the user experience stops when the power does, so friendly warnings to plug in aside, the race for consistency of presence is being won by Apple and will be until wireless charging becomes ubiquitous and renders the issue moot. I don't even know if I'll be alive by then.
  • Windows apps are weak. I was surprised that even essential tablet apps like Facebook, eBay and Amazon were all mediocre compared to their iPad counterparts. I ended up using the websites for each of these services instead.
  • Surface defaults to Flash for video, and when turning Flash off in the Edge browser, shows a broken link icon instead of alternative video on most sites.
  • The Edge browser remains the best browser to use on Surface, but lacks touch support. To go back, for instance, one still cannot hold down the back button and get a list of the last few sites visited.
  • UX falls apart for touch as Windows software is generally mouse/keyboard optimized, some are also blurry due to the high-density display. Most Surface tablet apps are fine, but I ended up inevitably venturing into the desktop app space and it was a joke at best. I've often complained about the MacBook not having a touchscreen. But I realize now that it opens up a plethora of UX challenges. I think a limited touch screen system is still justified for MacBooks. Simply being able to scroll a page up and down with a finger would be great.
  • The Surface onscreen keyboard doesn't always appear when entering a text field, and doesn't have the microphone button for Cortana for quick voice input. Why invest in a voice recognition system and then make it inaccessible? I found myself exploring the voice recognition software built into Windows, which is clunky and requires a lengthy training session to start using.
  • I'm a huge gamer, and gaming was definitely a selling point for me. In fact, gaming is what I thought would redeem the Surface due to it's greater processing power. Touch gaming for serious PC games (XCom for instance) was fun, but not enough touch support gaming content is out there. I do also own an XBox and love it, but the XBox/Win 10 streaming feature is a novelty that I have yet to see the value of. The XBox SmartGlass app for iOS is absolutely outstanding and more than sufficient for my needs.
  • At $1300 plus tax (I purchased the 256 / i5 8 gig version), the price was too high to justify a tablet comparison. Or so said the MS sales reps. Microsoft marketing aims to compare the Surface to a Macbook, and for good reason, the touchscreen tablet experience is mediocre and feels very much like an afterthought. The tablet experience is clearly perceived as a "value-add".
  • Because of this implicit mentality of "desktop first" endemic to the product design, I started my experience without a keyboard but in the end, had to drop $100 for a "type cover" keyboard that only covered half of the product. As a laptop, the Surface also falls flat despite access to the file system and other thing that force me to revert back to traditional mouse/trackpad + keyboard computing. There simple wasn't anything that I couldn't do on the MacBook, and with generally fewer problems.

In the end, I'm emboldened to say that there is no Microsoft tablet. There's a touchscreen laptop and the tablet features are half-baked. One might say this is the downfall of the hybrid platform, though not endemic and not unfixable. The problem exists in the user experience, in software. Proper focus on the tablet paradigm could easily change this situation around. But MS seems to still need convincing on the value proposition of a pure tablet experience will little to no accessories to support it.

It's interesting to see that the tablet space isn't being taken as seriously as I feel it should. Rather than letting it fade away, for me it raises the question: "How do we make the most out of the tablet computing experience?"

Hint: It's unique. In the early days of the iPad, even Apple made the mistake of conceptualizing the application UX as a larger version of a phone app. There could be no greater misconception. The tablet experience is deeply ingrained in reading and casual, low-input media consumption lifestyle. At least up until now. touch simply doesn't allow for data entry at the speed and accuracy of the keyboard/mouse combination. But I don't believe the potential of what we can achieve using touch, exclusively, has been fully explored.

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