Tablet PCs, iPads, Pens and Interfaces

I've sat rather bemused over the past few months as iPad fever has taken over the media, and with it people's minds. I've been a daily user of a tablet PC for over 5 years now - and by daily, I mean really do mean daily - so it's a bit of a struggle for me to come to terms with this so called 'revolutionary' device called an iPad. It kind of suggests that for the past 5 years I've been living in some sort of dream world - did I really just imagine I've had a tablet myself all these years? I had to see one of these revolutions for myself.

I've written a little before about what I think of the iPad, based on details at it's launch, but now I've finally had a chance to explore one personally and I can't say I'm exactly impressed. Sure it's a fun thing to try, but I'm so used to using my tablet now that in comparison the iPad seems a bit 'lightweight' - though by that I'm talking about it's functionality, not it's actual weight. In actual fact it's quite heavy, as many others have already commented. In some bizarre way it's harder on your hands and wrists than my own device (a Motion Computing LE1600), which in theory at least should be worse seeing as my tablet is a fair bit heavier. But what struck me most about the iPad was the lack of any wow factor, in fact I felt quite the opposite. The interface frequently shifted the way in which it reacted to me, i.e. the usability sucked - again something which others have commented on. It's not that individual application usability is bad, it's that the device as a whole has no common interacting model, so that you're constantly trying to adapt how you use it to what you're using it for. That's hard work. Overall it felt like a toy, something to play with now and then, not a proper computer at all - which is a very different experience to using my tablet.


Browsing the web and checking emails in the living room on my Motion Computing LE1600

To be fair, my old tablet PC still evokes wonder with those who aren't used to me using it in meetings and the like (where I'm usually whingeing about the lack of wireless - iPad users take note. It's kind of like the bad old days when you used to take acetates of your presentation to a conference, only this time around you need to remember a local digital copy of something that you were going to access live on the web :-). It's a bit disturbing really, I always try to reassure them that my tablet is 'just a laptop without a keyboard' which it is of course, but then again it is also something special. The way it engages you so directly, by allowing you to interact so immediately with virtual space and the digital objects that inhabit it.

Interface is Shifting

And that is of course where the iPad is different, it allows touch in a way which really hasn't been available to the average person before. My old device relies on a pen to interact with the screen, whereas the iPad allows you to use multiple touch points to move and interact with the space. It may be simple, appear even trivial, but it truly has 'transformed' the interface - but in order to appreciate that I think you need to backtrack, and think about just how much connection you have to the virtual space now, without touch. We're a species of many senses, far more than the 5 that are often bandied about, but when it comes to connecting to virtual spaces we're generally limited to vision and one poor finger moving about on the screen. Doesn't it strike you as odd that with ten fingers you can only really move and interact with your computer using one? Sure there's the keyboard, and some applications might allow you to use another finger or two (especially in the gaming world of course) but on average we have a very poor connection to the virtual world. iPad changes that, just as the iPhone did and how new Android phones like the Nexus One are doing now.

But you know what - I still don't want one. Even given my earlier comments about the iPads downside, and considering it's amazing upside, I stand by my argument that my ancient old Tablet PC is a better device - for what I do with it. Business wise it's a no brainer really, the Tablet PC beats the iPad easily. But then the iPad is not a device built with the office in mind. But oddly enough, one of the Tablet PCs biggest wins is also the iPads greatest win - my pen versus it's touch. I use my tablet primarily for work and study, and the pen gives me a level of preciseness that you just can't achieve with a finger. I'm forever making weird doodles and loops, connecting disparate ideas with notes and annotations, and changing from red pen to green highlighter to bring clarity to my thoughts. Honestly I'm thinking maybe an Android tablet might suit me better, but if they don't come with as pen either I might be stuck with what I have now for a few more years!


My Tablet PC in its stand next to my desktop, with a page of study notes in Microsoft Onenote

My Tablet PC is mostly a replacement for standard notepads and pens, it's a simulator if you like for something pretty mundane, but that said notepads and pens are technologies with pretty impressive pedigrees. Much as the iPad is clever, I don't think it's going to surpass that tech anytime soon. I know there are times when I despair of even my own simulators ability, and go back to good old paper & pen where my thoughts are no longer the prisoner of my technology. As far as I'm concerned people who think that these devices are going to replace pen & paper just don't spend much time actually trying to create new thought with them.


Catching up with some RSS Feeds on my Tablet

The Hype is Winning

I guess deep down I'm worried that this Apple iPad hype might actually be dangerous. As someone deeply concerned with the use of technology in education I follow several online forums where discussions take place, and just the other day someone was posting that they wanted to get some iPads for their School. They didn't know why, but somehow they felt that they were important, and were looking for reasons to buy from others. Ten years or so of tablet technology, and all of a sudden now they want one - hype at its very worst.

This kind of thing sends a chill down my spine, I find it mildly terrifying that those with power and control can be hooked so easily by marketing hype, and it perhaps says much about the type of person who has risen to the top of the educational system - or perhaps more significantly the way that the educational system is encouraging people who want to be managers to succeed, rather than those who want to be teachers. Yet again we're expecting technology to deliver something in education, as opposed to pedagogy. But then again the current government plans to swap experienced educators with hopeful amateurs, so maybe it's all par for the course. Did you know that half of all those already signed up to run free schools are NOT teachers? I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of them didn't even have a clue what pedagogy means, let alone know how to celebrate and support it. But that's another blog post.

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