Less of a tablet, more of a pill

I found myself in Best Buy again today, looking at the tablet selection, and debating what the best move would be for me.  Being as I have a phone, the 4- and 5-inch tablets are pointless (and Samsung’s assumption that they’re going to put the smack down on Apple with a 5-inch tablet with a stylus is the funniest fucking thing I ever heard in my life. They should call that doorstop the Galaxy Newton) and if you’re going to 10, you may as well have an iPad and get much better value for money.  So my sweet spot is in the 7-8 inch tablet space, which appears to be the area the Android business is congealing around.  Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, whatever.

The first thing you get is that it’s basically impossible to test a tablet in Best Buy, because they’re all on these stands – a straight post with a tilted hole for the humongous plastic thing bolted to the tablet, so that you’re presented with the tablet at a nice diagonal in portrait mode.  The flip side of that is that it’s impossible to test things like touch typing, because you can’t lay it flat on the table – nor can you even really rotate it to landscape mode on the post.  Strike one.  Then you’re at the mercy of whether the Wi-Fi is activated and whether it works.  Strike two.  And once you get past all that – what?  How are you supposed to evaluate an email client or a Foursquare app or Netflix if you don’t want to type your own account information into a public Android device that has God only knows what in the way of security or clean refresh?

The other problem with the tablets in this space is that they’re all Android and all running a mishmash of operating systems.  Some are Honeycomb, some are still using Gingerbread, and they all have the manufacturer’s own UI layered over top of Android proper.  Hell, even the 8″ Vizio tablet at Costco for $200 has its own custom Vizio UI.  The only way to get a pure Android UI is to either buy a reference device (i.e. Nexus) or a developer device from Google, or else roll the dice on a company too small and poor to build a custom UI of their own – in which case you’re probably not going to be getting a current version of the OS anyway.

“Open! Open! Open!  Android is open!”  Which is fine if you’re prepared to code and compile yourself an OS version for your device.  For the remaining 99.99% of tablet users, it means looking online to see if there’s a Cyanogen version for your device and what features don’t work yet if you run it, or whether they’ve managed to jailbreak the manufacturer’s protection scheme to even start trying, or which programs are compatible and which markets work for you.  Only Amazon seems to have really figured this out, and they did it by pulling an Apple – forking the code, creating their own branch of Android, putting it on a single device and curating their own dedicated app store.

There’s a forthcoming book all about Apple’s cult of simplicity (and how to apply it to your own work and business) – and it really is true.  Compared to the crowded and cluttered keyboards I dealt with today, the one on the iPhone is clean and clear.  There’s one home button, it’s big and mechanical and hard to miss, and it does the same thing every time on every device – as opposed to completely different arrangements in Android 2, 3 and 4.  When you go to the Apple store, you’re not dealing with a post and a big metal thing, you’re picking up a tablet from the table (with a discreet wire tethering it at one corner) and using it more or less like you would – because it’s populated with software, with mail, with pictures that you can test and manipulate and even delete if you like.

Simple isn’t easy.  Simple is hard.  Simple takes work.  Apple, from the beginning of the Mac era, said “we’re going to do the work to make this simple so you don’t have to.”   So far, the Android cluster is more than willing to leave the work for me.  And as somebody who does tech support all day for a living, the last damn thing I want to do is come home tonight and troubleshoot my own shit for hours on end.

So as much as I would like to experiment with Android – real, true, unadulterated Android – I have to concede that it’s going to be basically impossible, barring a sudden rush of reasonably-priced Ice Cream Sandwich-based tablets worth sinking $200 or $300 just for the sake of playing around.  And the odds are pretty good that before that happens, Apple will drop yet another $500 tablet that makes all the $200 and $300 look like a false economy.  And for a device that may only be viable for two or three years, the last thing you need is to scrimp on cost up front and then go around gimped for a couple of years with no upgrades on the horizon.

Of which more later.

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