The Unhealthy Relationship

Another Snarky Intro

Have you ever had one of those relationships? You know, one that starts off with a few nice dates, but you know it’s going nowhere… then it gets worse… yet you still feel the need to be in constant contact with the person?

That’s pretty much how my first tablet experience went…

Mini Monolith

Everyone’s buying a tablet nowadays. I remember being at the Apple store for the iPad’s debut in the Spring of 2010. My buddy (and guest blogger) Ian bought an iPad that day, and brought it to my barbecue that night. Our friends crowded around it and we watched funny videos on YouTube, wondering if the device would ever serve any other purpose.

That night, it was dubbed the “Internet Joke Machine” – in essence, one of the first non-computer devices to roam the Internet. At the time, the industry was still speculating on the iPad’s success, but it was also asking the same thing we were… what exactly are people going to use it for?

I knew right off the bat that there was NO way anyone would write articles with that awful touchscreen keyboard. In the first few months, the iPad and subsequent clones became known as “content consumption devices.” Read the news, watch videos, maybe even listen to a song or two… but no, nobody’s going to write the next Mutiny on the Bounty on one of these babies.

Newspapers such as The New York Times are betting heavily on the tablets. Printed subscriptions have dropped dramatically, and these guys now have to compete with the many free news services and blogs out there. So, they are betting they can charge monthly fees for “premium content” in a digestible format specifically designed for tablet navigation.

We’re in the future

So, great, the world buys a bunch of these “fondleslabs” (as the British are, er, fond of calling them) and we enjoy videos and articles on them. Is that the only thing they’re good for? As Ian put it, “Apple makes stuff you didn’t know you needed until you use it.” The ever-increasing number of tablet Apps means you’ll always find new uses for it.

The first few times I used one, I felt like I’d arrived in the future! After all, the 1985 sci-fi novel Ender’s Game predicted the use of hand-held electronic tablets. Tablets are definitely the first in a wave of “Internet appliances” – devices that allow you on the Internet without constant error messages and long waits. (Note that there’s still huge opportunity for an appliance connected to your TV!) They definitely make you feel… futuristic.

So, what do we have in the market so far?

Here’s the deal. You have Apple, Google, and Everyone Else.

On one extreme, you have the Apple iPod/Pad/Phone App Store. It’s very draconian in what kind of apps it allows for sale, yet all apps are guaranteed to actually work. You have one brand of hardware: Apple. Every 6 months it comes out with new guts inside its products, but to the consumer it’s very simple: iPad, iPhone, iPod. No wacky model numbers to remember. (One of my gripes with Apple devices was their dependence on a computer in order to do anything, including turning on for the first time. Luckily this limitation has been removed recently!)

On the other extreme, you have the myriad devices running Google Android software. You have the Acer Iconia, the Samsung Galaxy, the Velocity Micro Cruz, the Dell… It’s really great that you have the freedom to choose from many brands of hardware, many devices, and multiple app stores. However, there is a good chance that some of them won’t be able to run certain Android apps, or in my case, the App Store itself!

However, you shouldn’t have to face such a dramatic tradeoff.

On the fringes we have HP’s TouchSmart – a great product with the excellent WebOS (from the makers of the original Palm Pilot) but killed before its prime by HP. You also have BlackBerry and its PlayBook tablet. Note that these two tablets run their own software as opposed to using an Apple or Google platform. Finally, a recent entry into the field is the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, which runs a modified version of Android.

I wish the PC industry were just as rich with choices.

Many of these sport integrated webcams for face-to-face chatting – reminding us that we’re coming dangerously close to the Jetsons’ boss reaching into our homes and pulling us by our shirts!

Out of sight, out of mind

In business school, we learned that even if you have an excellent product, if it doesn’t come to mind, nobody’s going to buy it. From my research, there’s only one tablet that’s powered by Microsoft available, and it’s the HP Slate. Unlike the rest of the tablets on the market, this one doesn’t run an OS made for mobile use. It features the “familiar Windows”, replete with viruses, popups, and Norton messages… except you can now use your finger instead of a mouse to swat these alerts away.

The Wall Street Journal has a lot to say about the subject.

Meanwhile, sales of smartphones running Google Inc.’s Android software and Apple Inc.’s iPhone have surged this year, giving both companies greater sway among independent software developers. Demand for Apple’s iPad tablet is eating away at sales of laptops, most of which still run Windows. By one researcher’s measure, Windows share of the PC market in the latest quarter was at its lowest level in two decades. […]

Microsoft is counting on the next version of Windows, dubbed Windows 8, to restart sales growth. But the operating system, which Microsoft has redesigned to run better on touch-screen computers, isn’t expected until the autumn of 2012 at the earliest. […]

[Notice how Windows 8 isn’t going to be a mobile OS – just like the Windows 7 that runs on the Slate, it’ll be an all-purpose OS, which will contain the desktop PC experience – at the very least, this implies buttons that are too small to press with your fingers!]

The supremacy of Windows, particularly for business, isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. While Apple has sold 28.7 million iPads since the product was introduced in the spring of 2010, Microsoft has sold more than 400 million copies of Windows 7 since the product came out in 2009, a record for the company. […]

[I can definitely see Microsoft tripping over itself (or buying webOS or Blackberry?!) in the mobile market. As far as the desktop market, they do have a lot of money coming in from businesses that are stuck in 1991 and think Outlook is a secure email program.]

Executives at the company have also begun to use their iPads instead of Windows laptops for slide presentations because the devices turn on more quickly than PCs, says Steve Jourdan, Hospital Housekeeping’s chief information officer.

[That’s true. Tablets turn on instantly, as opposed to PCs, no matter what the brand. Appliance-like behavior is the future.]

(Segments in italics are excerpted from The Wall Street Journal: “Microsoft faces the post-PC world” Aug 16, 2011)

So I bought one.

I didn’t need one, but I figured I could familiarize myself with the technology. People are going to buy these things and ask me how to use them!

I always thought it’d be nice to have a small appliance to leave around the house for surfing the Web while on the couch. However, I wasn’t about to invest $700 in an iPad, or $500 in one of the many Android tablets out there.

I first checked uBid, my usual source for good, cheap stuff. They had plenty of Chinese knockoff Android tablets for $100-$150, which would in theory serve my purposes, but none came with a warranty longer than 2 weeks. Why? Like carnival goldfish, few knockoffs survive beyond a few weeks.

While buying parts for a customer one day, I found what I was looking for at Radio Shack! Recently they have undergone a very positive transition. What used to be a stockpile of overpriced virus-ridden Compaq computers has become my retail store of choice for good parts at attractive prices.

The Cruz tablet caught my eye as I was leaving the store. $150, basic Android tablet, and best of all, 1 year warranty. Sure it didn’t have a camera, and wasn’t the fastest, but for most of my customers it would suffice. What could go wrong?

Everything

The hardware was fairly well designed. it was simple, sleek, attractive, and my favorite part, UNCLUTTERED. It had a headphone jack, a USB port, power, and volume buttons, and that was it. It didn’t require a computer at all. It’s a truly independent Internet appliance.

I quickly became comfortable with the Android tablet operating system. It’s intuitive, clean, and simple. Here’s the issue though. Every new smartphone and tablet is part of an App Store ecosystem. To my surprise, though… the official Android Marketplace was missing. In its place was something called the Cruz App Store. It only had a handful of apps, and there was no Angry Birds! My little Internet Joke Machine could not be complete without it!

The Cruz App Store allowed me to install AndAppStore, which crashed during a “background update,” and since it’s a Cloud service, requires its OWN account to be created. So at this point I had 2 cloud accounts and still no worthwhile apps.

Here’s where it gets bad

I went to the official Android Market website and it contained a link to install the Android Marketplace App Store. I click on that link and it says “Sorry! You can’t install the App Store until you register your device!” – I go to register my device and it says “Sorry! You can’t register your device until you have the App Store!” And so it went, ad infinitum. At this point I wanted to break the thing. Imagine senior citizens trying to figure this thing out!

I gave up and tried AppBrain, which was YET ANOTHER app store that required me to create YET ANOTHER ACCOUNT. I couldn’t log in via the tablet’s browser. So I logged in via my desktop computer. I then went back to the tablet and went to apprbain.com/install as it told me to do and voila: “You do not have permission to view this page.” The frustration felt like small bits of metal coursing through my body.

I eventually settled on the Amazon App Store, since I already had an Amazon account, and more importantly, it was the only app store that didn’t crash on the Cruz. However, it was horrendously slow and insisted on nagging me for updates.  The first thing I try to do on it was download Angry Birds: “Sorry! Couldn’t install!” NO explanation. Even after attempting an update on the Amazon store, it wouldn’t work. So I downloaded one or two apps and got a semi-usable stock app working.

Return to Forever

So, in the end I just used it as a Web browsing device and ignored the apps altogether. For that, it worked reasonably well, aside from the slowness, constant crashes, and the fact that the keyboard hardly ever typed what i wanted it to… Since then I’ve used other Android devices and they performed much better.

Once I realized that I had 60 days to return it, I did so, gladly accepting the restocking fee. The guy at the counter noted that many of these tablets were coming back. I told him it was too bad; it was almost a good product.

My Job

Apple and Google software doesn’t break per se – but they are based on the logic bomb that all of your apps, DRMed music, stored documents, EVERYTHING depends on your account and the cloud.

You can’t just download an app anonymously. Every app you run is tied to your account, and if heaven forbid you lose your password and are unable to recover it, or if the company owning the app store goes out of business, all of your purchases are entirely useless.

Imagine your car spontaneously combusting the day Pontiac closed its doors!

The Cloud isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, folks.

My job is going to change over the next few years. Currently I spend my days uninstalling Bing Bar and Yahoo! Toolbar from people’s computers, and occasionally recovering a dead hard drive. Those issues have stayed with PCs, but there are new issues with tablets.

Many of my billable hours come from Cloud-related woes, such as forgetting your password or trying to figure out how in the heck to synchronize your calendar across 5 devices!

The End, for now

This has been my experience in the tablet market thus far.

In summary, the Cruz tablet crashes like it’s Windows 95 in an airplane with one wing. NEVERTHELESS, I found myself using it constantly!

I love the idea of having a small appliance thingy that I can carry around the house when i’m trying to flirt with girls keep up with my stocks and emails. I imagine it’d be fun if I bought an Acer tablet.

As always, thanks for reading, and tell your friends!

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3 Responses to The Unhealthy Relationship

  1. Charles Clauser says:

    Hey Mark,

    Well written and rather informative. The issue that I see with it though is that you bought a Cruz tablet. That right there creates all the problems you had. As I am sure you know each Company (even the small ones) have a proprietary piece of software in Google’s Android OS. its usually known as their boot-loader or their GUI Overlay. HTC has their HTC Sense, Motorola their Motoblur, Samsung their Touchwiz. they are all proprietary and they are all extremely different in their functionality. Cruz has a very very poorly written overlay and although I am certain I am able to find the name of it through a quick and simple search on Google, I am happier spending my seconds writing this sentence. That just goes to prove how poorly their overlay is. If you want a decent Tablet you have 2 choices: A) Pay the money. I Say this because while I know most of the people out there who are reading this either already have or don’t have enough. It is by far worth it, and that is proven by the mass amount of market now taken up by tablets as you have already stated. B) Buy a cheap one such as the cruz tablet and root it then reload the original version of Google’s Android OS as can be shown to you step by step via XDA Developers or multiple other Development communities.

    But I Digress. Thanks for the blog post it was quite informative.

    • teknosophy says:

      Thanks Charles! I tried an Acer later on and had a better experience, so I may look into one of those soon. I didn’t know that you could “format” the Cruz though… I suppose it’s the same concept as formatting a computer and putting on a different OS. That’d be awesome if I could figure that out!

  2. owen says:

    One time in my entirely I was in the country, offline and I had some pdfs on a flash drive and I was holding a laptop sideways and thinking: “it would be totally cool if I had a ipad right now!”. Only time that ever happened.

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