Why a Microsoft Tablet PC will fail miserably

iPad.  iPad.  iPad.  Those words probably burn in Steve Ballmer’s head like the word “hippies” antagonized Richard Nixon.  It’s a device that every joker and Microsoft apologist on the web is saying “why the fuck would you want an iPad?” And they’re exactly right, except for the part where Apple sold three million of these things in 80 days.  Ballmer must be shitting blood over this.  And this is evident by the fact that Microsoft keeps slipping in these press releases about various vaporware projects like the Courier tablet, or irrelevant references about how MS will have their tablet out “real soon now”.

Couple things.  First of all, the iPad is not a laptop replacement.  It’s the Fourth Meal of computing.  Are you familiar with Taco Bell’s genius marketing strategy?  Basically, some execs sat around a room saying “you know, our target audience is stoners, drunks, and swing-shift employees that eat lunch at three in the morning.  And we need to get people on board with the idea that eating six thousand calories per meal three times a day is not enough.”  So if you’ve reached maximum market saturation on the three meals you serve, how do you get more volume?  Create a fourth meal.  Even if the FDA and every left-wing vegan idiot out there is screaming about how the fast food industry is destroying the universe, just put together some hipster doofus-friendly commercials that basically say “hey man, when you’re whacked out of your gourd at midnight, you really need ten tacos.”

And Apple is basically inventing the fourth meal of computing.  I mean, they sold a ton of desktops and laptops.  They found out the hard way (see also the Duo system) that nobody wants a hybrid system, a laptop that docks to a desktop; it’s actually easier to just sell people two systems.  And when that maxed out, they basically said “you really need a third system”, which is your iPhone, which is a computer in your pocket.  And when the sales of that maxed out, they came up with the iPad, which does not replace your desktop or your laptop or your phone.  It’s that magical fourth meal.  And there is 0% market penetration in this realm, which means they can blow it wide open, which they have.

About the phone not being the computer thing – this is something that Microsoft and others have struggled with.  Windows Mobile is horribly conflicted in this sense.  Because either you have a primary computer on your desk or in your laptop bag, and you have a phone that mirrors some of that functionality, or you have two battling computers, neither being the system of record, except the phone is not going to be as powerful or as useful.  Windows Mobile tries to be a real computer; they ported Win32 to it, and it has the menu bars and controls and windows and look and feel of Windows shrunk down to a three inch screen.  But every WinMo program that tries to be as functional as a desktop program fails miserably.  It’s impossible to navigate and use the whole windows paradigm on a postage stamp screen with a little stylus.  The iPhone took a page from the old Palm playbook and simply said “the phone is not the computer; it’s a subset of the computer, only giving you what you need when you’re on the go”.  And Microsoft droids bemoan the iPhone’s lack of multitasking or lack of full-featured spreadsheets and word processors or lack of direct access to a file system or full keyboard.  But I’ve gotten way more stuff done on the iPhone than I ever did on a WinMo machine with a keyboard.  When I’m on the go, I want an email program that shows me the messages and lets me send a quick reply; I’m not typing The Grapes of Wrath while I’m waiting in line at the movie theater.  Because it does not try to focus on being a full experience, it can do an excellent job at being what it is.

The Tablet PC is the same thing.  People piss and moan that you can’t run full apps on the iPad.  And Ballmer loves to talk about running Windows on the MS tablet, and having access to eleventy billion Windows programs.  Here’s the problem: tablets are slow, and they have a piss-poor data entry system.  It needs to be finger-friendly, with big buttons and sliding gestures, and basically everything but the Windows interface.  And yeah, you can skin Windows to have big fat buttons and sliders and controls.  And then the first time you launch anything but the dozen or two programs written specifically for the tablet, you end up with a million controls that are unusable.  Like, Windows apologists will say “well what if I want to write code on the iPad?  What if I want to use Photoshop?  What if I want to use Word?”  Well, what if you have a Tablet PC and you fire up your copy of Eclipse and every little thing is a two pixel by two pixel control and your big fat finger is eighty pixels wide?

And why cling onto this bloated OS for what really needs to be a fast and thin system?  I mean, I would not want to whip out a Courier tablet to enter a quick note or look up a quick baseball score, hit the power button, and then…. wait 17 minutes for Windows 7 For Tablet PC Pro Extended Deluxe Light to fire up.  And then wait another 12 minutes for my virus scan software to kick in, because the thing has every damn virus problem Windows has, because it IS Windows.  And then when it has to connect to the network, it pops up this circa-1993 gearhead program to connect the 22 layers of abstraction for its TCPIP stack.  I want to pull out the tablet, swipe a panel, and see the scores.  I WANT an appliance when I want an appliance.

Here’s a horrible confession: I am typing this on a Tablet PC.  It’s a Toshiba Portege, which runs Windows XP For Tablet.  And you know what?  I have not used the tablet functionality in years, because it sucks.  In fact, this computer crashed a couple of years ago (XP has a shelf life just like milk, and when it expires, it EXPIRES) and so I whipped out the magic Toshiba “reinstall everything from the ground up” DVD, and then proceeded to spend three days trying to get everything reinstalled, and nothing worked.  So I had to wipe out everything and install the base XP with no tablet crap.  And this whole episode shows how horribly wrong Windows computers are, because you basically need to be a sysadmin or know one or pay one, because you will eventually get to a point where it breaks and it requires you to know the entire history of Microsoft to tear apart the whole god damned thing and spend days in RegEdit fucking around with total arcane black magic.

And this computer uses a pen, and it’s impossible to use FrameMaker or some crap like that with a pen.  You need a mouse and a keyboard, and fortunately, this has a keyboard, but it basically means I paid too much for a stylus and touchscreen I will never use.

And I know a bunch of you are saying “well what about Android?”  I’ve worked on Android, and I’ve developed for Android, and Android is a lot like communism: it’s a system that sounds really great on paper, but it will never work in the real world.  I really like the Android development environment, but the problem with Android is that a bunch of manufacturers make the phones, and phone manufacturers are competing with each other and only care about money, so they will do stupid shit like not implement drivers correctly to rush phones to market, or not support phones correctly post-sale, or add their own crap on top of stock Android to make their phone “better” than the other ones on the market.  This is one of the problems Windows Mobile faced, and it eventually got to the point where you had to develop 19 different versions of your software for every minor difference in the platform.  And Android does some stuff to mitigate that, but I saw firsthand that the OEMs want to do their own thing to differentiate their phones and get people to buy theirs over the others, and this infighting will either mean the whole thing will get more and more retarded, or OEMs will give up and move away from it, which means fewer devices get made, and you lose that way.  Yes, you are seeing a lot of Android momentum right now, and maybe it will be a strong #2, but it won’t take over the world.

All that said, I still don’t have an iPad.  I’ve only seen them for a second or two at the store, and I’m actually using my laptop a lot more these days, and using my iPhone more too, so I probably won’t get one anytime soon.  But I see the value, and wouldn’t mind having one eventually.  Actually, it could make a good replacement when this Toshiba dies; it’s basically my TV-side computer I use to check scores and do google searches and look stuff up on IMDB during my channel surfing.  I think an iPad would do just fine for that.

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