Tablets or pads, an interesting new device category since Apple has launched the first iPad back in April 2010. Many manufacturers have followed since then, mostly with Android as an OS or Amazon with their pads designed primarily designed for reading books. And Microsoft is trying hard to launch a pad of their own in 2012. Their approach is radically different than that of Apple or Google, however. They are literally on the other side of the power divide. Let me explain:
The software used by Apple and Google for pads come from the low end of computing, from smartphones. Smartphones are optimized for power consumption, they have a low power CPU, low power components, low power everything and from the outset, the operating systems were designed for that. There might have been more power optimized OSes out there such as Symbian, but nevertheless, I would dare to say that iOS and Android were specifically built from scratch to adapt to this environment. No legacy baggage and apps are trailing behind even though they are built with operating system kernels once designed for the desktop PC, e.g. Linux in the case of Android. But the kernels where shrunken, unnecessary parts removed, the graphics subsystem designed from scratch, etc. It was these operating systems which were then subsequently used as the basis for pads.
From a user's point of view, the user interface on smartphones and pads running the same operating system look pretty similar and apps written in a sensible way to adapt to different screen sizes run on both types of devices without modification. Pads might have the screennsize of netbooks or even small notebooks but they have to be light, which severely limits battery capacity. Consequently the processors used in the tablet are more or less the same as those in smartphones. And it shows when the processor is asked to do complex tasks such as rendering graphics intensive web pages with lots of flash included. Such web pages are rendered more slowly compared to on a PC and scrolling is not as smooth. Sure, you could put in a faster processor but that would come at the expense of how long the device will run on a single battery charge. And, also not to be underestimated, when power consumption rises, so does the heat generated which is immediately noticed negatively by the user. So it's a compromise which works well in most cases but here's the dividing line to netbooks and notebooks and their operating systems: Power
Now back to Microsoft: They are trying something different here which is a good thing as more of the same probably won't work for them, the competition is already there for two years and has a massive lead. What Microsoft is trying to do is to scale down their Windows OS to run on the ARM platform. And more than that they want their Office Suite and other desktop programs to run on ARM as well. Great, get an additional Bluetooth keyboard and you've got a replacement for your notebook!? I remain skeptical that it will work out like that anytime soon for a number of reasons: First, there is the power divide again. Office runs more or less smoothly on high power Intel platforms but how will it perform on a platform that has only a fraction of that processing power by design to conserve power? Secondly, it's a question of the user interface: On a tablet, I like big buttons so I can hit them reliably with a finger. Also I like an app to use as much of the display as possible because while I still multitask on a tablet it is much more limited compared to a PC where I have a keyboard and a mouse and tend to be more in creative mode rather than consuming mode. In creative mode I like a taskbar so I can switch between many applications instantly without holding a menu button for a second, etc. I also like small buttons because sometimes I have several windows open on a small screen and that only works if the applications can run in smaller windows. And with a mouse, that's not a problem, it's an advantage. So a tablet user interface for consumption is very different from an interface for creation.
Microsoft is addressing both things. The link above describes in detail how they are working on the power consumption. And with their consumption focused tile UI first introduced with Windows Mobile, whether you like the design or not, which is intended to run alongside the traditional user interface in Windows 8 on the PC (and tablet) as well, that is taken care of, too. iOS and Android don't have that so far, they are coming from a different direction. So how well will this work for Microsoft? I think there is a certain appeal to replace a netbook with a tablet + keyboard + mouse but only if the UI is right for creation in multitasking mode. Good, that is covered. So it ultimately boils down to power consumption vs. processor speed. I am not sure there is a sweet spot there yet that will ultimately satisfy those who want to use a pad for more than just with their fingers to consume information. Eventually it will come even if it takes some more years until power consumption is further optimized. And I'm pretty sure that by then others will have a UI as well to address those who need a keyboard, creative multitasking and a mouse.
So where does this leave Windows Mobile? For the moment, as far as I can tell that OS is pretty much developed and evolved on its own on the other side of the power divide. With Windows on ARM, Microsoft pretty much says that it will not attempt to jump over to a tablet with Windows Phone. Seems to be a lonely life down there and perhaps a short one should Microsoft succeed and shrink their Windows kernel to run on tablets. After all, it's the same processors running on tablets and smartphones.
6 thoughts on “Power is the Dividing Line on Tablets”
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Two thoughts on this:
1. with Motorola Atrix and similar solutions, the Android side is already working on the table->desktop dual use
2. though processors are basically the same, if Win8 is still extra power-hungry (due to higher CPU usage), it still might have trouble scaling from tablets down to phones, due to smaller batteries in phones than tablets
I would like to add a little something about power, heat and speed on Intel processors, because a lot of people still get this wrong.
Modern day Intel processors (Core ixxxx) are very, very fast. When they run. Which they don’t, most of the time. Most of the time they are sleeping, because there isn’t much to do for them. AFAIK they will enter different sleep states several hundred times per second. The longer and faster they can go back to sleep, the less power they use. The leads to the very paradoxical conlcusion that if you have two identical Intel processors, one of which has a higher clock speed, the one with the higher clock speed will actually run on less power over time. So notebook designers always want the biggest and fastest processors for their machines. Heat and cooling is the limiting factor here. Especially in those new ultra thin machines. Because as soon as one of those ultra fast Intel processors wakes up and startes crunching numbers, they will produce excess amounts of heat. Which need to be dissipated in some way. Notebook users can attest to that. Their legs can get very hot. But I doubt that notebook designers actually think about the legs of their users. Apple notebooks can get *very* hot for example. Bottom line: If you can’t design adequate heat dissipation into the machine, you can’t put in a powerful processor and you will have a shorter battery life. This is all very counterintuitive. From modding forums I know that people want to undervolt and underclock their processors to save power, when it actually drains more power over time.
I don’t know how or if this applies to ARM processors.
This year promises to be very interesting in the pad arena. Microsoft just presented their Office for the iPad and then went back and said this never happened, but might happen again in a couple weeks.
Personally I doubt that there will be any speed problems for a full fledged MS Office. You can try for yourself, Wireless Moves. You have a netbook. The built in Atom processor is not much more powerful than the most power ARM processors that are currently on the market. If MS Office runs fine on a netbook, it will run fine on the iPad3 and other Android Pads coming out this year.
A little something about the pad from Amazon. Amazon brought out eInk display eBook readers for their books. That was more than a year ago and it was an event in itself. But the device they brought out last year (Kindle Fire) is something different. The backlit display isn’t very good for reading books. The eyes will get tired. But it is good for watching movies. Or listening to music. Or browsing the web. Especially the Amazon website, where people can buy all those things. It is a different media channel into peoples homes. Google and Apple are working on their respective media offerings (Google TV, Apple TV) as well, with Google even going cable.
I am sure the next Kindle Fire will have something to connect it to the tv. Preferably wireless. So you can sit down in the livingroom, pick up the Kindle Fire, buy a movie on Amazon and watch it on the lcd tv.
One last little bit about speed. It looks like an important limiting factor for “felt” speed (what the user thinks how fast their device feels) is the same for both smartphones and big, clunky pcs. The permanent memory. In pcs it is the hdd, which has been turning at 7200 turns a minute for 10 years now and delivers abysmal speeds for any data that is scattered throughout the drive. Because the head can change position as fast as it wants to, it will always have to wait for the data to come by. The more the data is scattered, the slower the device will feel. Now researchers looked at phones and found out that slow flash memory will also make a smartphone feel slow. Which I think presents some technically interesting questions. Because all of those super fast ssd flash drives for the pc consume a lot of power. Not because of the flash cells, but because the controllers consume a lot of power. The speed that the user will feel while working on MS Office on their iPad3 might very well depend on the speed of the flash controller, not on the speed of the main processor.
I don’t have a clue about ui technology, so I will make this rather short. First I would like to point out this little video:
In connection with this webpage:
And then I would like to point to the user interface wars that have been going on in the free software arena for the last two years, ever since Ubuntu unveiled their intent to go for their own ui (Unity) and not Gnome 3 Shell. Both, the Gnome 3 Shell and Unity are supposed to be optimised for future devices (tablets, netbooks, …). But users that were exposed to them on the desktop often didn’t like them. Especially Gnome 3 Shell met a lot of resistance. To me, it looks like there is no final answer to the question what ui is best for each user and/or each device. At least not yet.
End note: I am sorry for writing 4 posts, but I had so many so different things to say and your blog entry opened up so many issues I wanted to respond to. I didn’t want to make a huge post and divded it up in smaller parts. I hope that’s ok.
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