2010-04-07

MeeGo Makes More Sense on Tablets Than iPhone OS or Windows

The previous big push for tablet computers was about a decade ago, but Microsoft's attempt to leverage desktop Windows failed to convince people they needed one. Apple's iPad is coming from the opposite direction - it's more of an appliance than a computer. It will certainly be more pleasant than using a desktop OS, but in my opinion even Apple hasn't gotten it 100% right.

Now that rumors about a new Nokia tablet are circulating again, it's time to think about what the ideal tablet could do. The previous one is many years old after all, and hardware is much improved.


What's Wrong?


It's not that I'd want the full Mac OS X. I feel many have unfairly criticized the iPad for being so appliance-like. This is in fact its major strength. Running a desktop OS on a tablet device is just too uncomfortable, as Microsoft found out. Instead, it needs to be optimized for what you can comfortably do with a finger UI - browse websites, watch videos, read, look at photos. The list is not that long.

But no matter how well optimized, can I really justify another device that does so little? I already have a smartphone, a netbook, a notebook, and several desktop computers. Ignoring the cost, just managing all these devices is a pain.

The smartphone fits in my pocket, the netbook comes on trips, and the notebook lives next to my bed. Where does that leave the iPad? The only item it could realistically replace is my full size notebook of all things, because iPhone OS is not an adequately capable travel companion.

But my bedside notebook has a nice keyboard, and it doesn't really need to be smaller. And I can take it with me when I don't mind its size.


I Am Not the Target Market, but That's Not the Point


Of course, that's all meaningless to someone who owns one computer and is afraid of it. The iPad will be great for people who want to look at some photos on the sofa and watch YouTube in the bathroom.

But why does the usage pattern have to stop there? The problem with the iPad is the same as with all Apple devices. Once Apple's core idea is realized, you're unequivocally stuck. They will even actively try to prevent you from doing more.

Simplicity and advanced functionality are NOT mutually exclusive, no matter how hard Apple and many overly complex UIs try to convince us of it. Maemo 5 is the proof of concept, and MeeGo will break into the mass market, satisfying both groups of people.


How is MeeGo different?


The main difference is that a MeeGo tablet can fully replace one of the devices I listed - the netbook. Neither iPhone OS or Android can readily do so.

Here is how I would use a MeeGo tablet to replace the netbook:

While traveling
  • Quickly access videos and music
  • Do some leisure or business reading
  • Use the touchscreen for occasional typing
  • Enjoy how it takes up even less space while not being as horribly uncomfortable
  • In fact, using it would be downright enjoyable
At the destination
  • Dig out a wireless keyboard and mouse
  • Start up OpenOffice, The Gimp, etc.
  • Import photos with digiKam
  • Use anything I want - it's a real computer

Those last points are critical. Without them, a tablet can't replace my netbook, no matter how much more comfortable it would be at airports, on planes, etc.

Existing netbooks and tablets are all half-assed solutions that fail in different ways. With MeeGo, the fast appliance-like user interface is there, but only until you decide to start a desktop application. No hacking required.

And now that I've bought into the concept of owning this device anyway, all the minor tasks start looking a lot more attractive. Looking at photos, having a simplistic device next to the bed. They're a nice bonus. But a tablet that offered only that would quickly gather dust in my house.


So Who Will Win?

There are some big questions hanging in the air for MeeGo. Just a few:
  • Will iPad productivity apps become as full featured and HID-capable as desktop ones?
  • Will Nokia's first new tablet actually be fast enough to run those desktop programs? Atom can do it, but that's an immediate extra power drain. The next hardware generation will be too late.
  • Apple content partners, although Ovi is growing stronger.
  • Media hype on Apple's side
  • Will MeeGo's appliance usage model become too reliant on proprietary third party software, or will projects like KDE step up and provide finger friendly skins? I'd love a digiKam-based photo viewer app, as an example.

It's going to be an interesting 2010.

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