Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Trouble With Tablets

Tablet computers are clearly all the rage. Unlike the "netbook" craze a few years ago, tablets seem to be on a sales trajectory that will continue to grow.

I love my Apple iPad. It turns on quickly, its speed on a WiFi network is very good, the apps are abundant and generally useful, it's easy to carry with me most of the time — and I look pretty darn good sporting such high-tech gear.

So, what's not to love?

First, they're expensive. The new iPad starts at $500 and goes to more than $800. You can buy a pretty sweet laptop or desktop computer for that. And it's hardly affordable, especially if you want one for everyone in the family.

To be fair, if you want to buy an iPad 2 — the previous version — they run typically $100 less than the new version.

The primary competitor to Apple iPad are tablets that run the Google Android operating system. These tablets tend to be a few hundred dollars less expensive, but are still pretty pricey.
A quick look at Verizon's website indicates that they offer tablets from $229 up to more than $700. Some of the tablets are available at reduced prices with a minimum two-year contract, meaning that along with the tablet itself, you'll have a monthly fee to connect it to the Internet.

There are some tablets I have seen that are just coming to the United States that are available for under $100. They're not very popular yet, but this is the direction that we need to see tablets going before they reach saturation.

Second, most tablets are hard to read in sunlight. The most notable example is the Amazon Kindle with its eink (see: www.eink.com) displays. To date, eink displays have been primarily black and white, although they do have a color display that is starting to see its way into markets.

Third, tablets aren't really good for typing. This inhibits work such as emails, creating of documents and even spreadsheets. I do not see that the desktop/laptop computer with a keyboard will every actually go away, but if people think that the tablets and software currently available will become their "regular" computer, I would consider them to think again.

On the plus side for tablets, they do significantly change the computing paradigm. Due to their lack of keyboards, we now have a vastly different way to interact with our computers. This certainly enables more people to use computers that are not familiar with computers, keyboards or are not even literate.

Tablets also have opened up tools for entertainment, productivity and education that were not practical on computers with a keyboard. Sometimes a keyboard and a mouse are just downright clunky. Using one's fingers to gesture on the screen what to do is a very natural form of working.

So, as much as I like my tablet, I envision that I will like it even more as the software and hardware mature over the next few years. I will still not give up my computer with my keyboard, but when I go out of my office for a while, it's sure nice to take a tablet with me instead.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 29 March 2012.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What I Don't Like About Mobile Phones

Mobile phones are great. It's rare I go anywhere without one — unless I want to go without one.

It's also probably not right to call these things "phones" anymore. They are truly mobile computers with a phone function. In fact, devices such as an iPod Touch are truly a mobile device that doesn't have a built-in phone function — you have to add it with an app.

But they sometimes drive me batty. Here are several reasons why:

1. We need really good voice recognition. Other than powering the device off and on, there are very few functions that should require one to touch the phone. Apple's new Siri is a good start, but there are issues about ambient noise, such as when one's in a car — perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for voice recognition on mobile phones — that need to be addressed.

2. Voice quality. I still find it much harder to carry on a good conversation on a mobile phone. Between the delays of voice and sometimes just plain terrible voice quality, mobile phones are not yet my primary way of making phone calls.

3. Screen visibility in sunlight. Looking at a phone screen in an office is pretty easy, but walking down a sunny street is a vastly different problem. There are some good screen technologies coming out that improve screen visibility in direct light, but they're still too hard to see. Back to another reason for good voice recognition.

4. Battery life. The old phone flip phone I had that was just a phone used to be able to run on a single charge for three to five days if I didn't use it much. Now, most smartphones I have used are lucky to go a full day without requiring a recharge. This requires buying either bulky batteries, constantly trying to find a place to charge up our batteries or carrying spare batteries. There has to be a better way.

5. Pricing plans. I still marvel at how expensive mobile phone plans are, especially for services such as adding WiFi hotspot and SMS messaging that provide huge profits. This is one area where I believe competition and products from companies such as Google and Apple that provide similar services free serve the consumers very well.

6. International pricing. As a corollary to the above, for anyone who has ever traveled internationally knows, using a domestic cell phone internationally typically runs up huge costs. Even with an "international plan", you will pay three to 10 times the price of a local user.

7. Stability. While Apple's tightly-controlled iPhone/iPad environment yields a quite reliable environment, all phones — including Android and Apple — can lock up and crash. So while we've complained about this issue for years on personal computers, it has made its way to the phone space.

8. Out-of-coverage use. While becoming less and less of an issue, when your phone is out of its coverage area, many functions simply don't work. This is because, despite all of the computing power of your phone, many functions are handled in a data center somewhere instead of on your phone. As coverage continues to get better, this is less and less of an issue, but it's still frustrating.

So, my love-hate relationship with my phone continues. And probably always will. I will continue to use it as it serves me, but will always keep in my mind that it, too, has its limitations.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 14 March 2012.