Every so often, I have the urge to rant, nay, outright bitch about the current state of technology. This is one of those days. I've had more than my fair share of gadgets, as most people realize, and at the end of the day, each and every one of them sucked, usually for all the same reasons: The software.
When I go out, I really don't like the fact that I may or may not have to fix a major network issue from a massive laptop, so I have one of the smallest PCs imaginable to take with me. Of course, the damned thing is still monstrously huge, but it's capable of running damned near anything, since it can run Windows XP. I can tether to my phone, VPN to the office, open a remote session into a server/switch/router, tweak a few settings, and avoid a nasty trip to the office. It's especially great when I'm, say, in a car heading back from Great Adventure, and have to deal with a major storage issue in one office or another. Someone else drives, I fix, and no one's ever the wiser as to where I was. This is one of those cases where technology was wonderful.
I suppose, of course, if I really tried, I could even pair my phone to the PC, route calls from Outlook's Address Book directly to the phone, talk on my headset, and generally just have things work there, too. I do, after all, have all of the software in place, all of the information more-or-less at my fingertips, and all I seem to be lacking is mobile bandwidth. It's a beautiful thing, but here's the dirty little secret: The guts of my hardware rock, and the ergonomics SUCK. I have a touchscreen, tablet-capable device, which sucks for writing, since the screen is small, the surface is too slippery, and the borders around the screen get in the way. Additionally, there's no elegant scrolling options, and the overall resolution is a horrible compromise between not having enough pixels to show everything on the screen, and having too many pixels in a small space by default.
This isn't the first time that I've been burned. I've also got a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which is a brilliant device, in theory. As some of you may recall, Communism is also a wonderful idea, In Theory. In reality, the 770 is a device with insufficient CPU, RAM, and battery life to be worth a damn to me, and to add insult to injury, the software is crap. Its email client? Garbage. Media player? Crashes. Handwriting recognition? Less than useless. The on-screen thumb keyboard is a burden, it's unresponsive, and it provides not even the slightest amount of acceptable visual feedback. All of that doesn't even begin to discuss its UI problems, which give me every indication that they locked a dozen UI designers in a dozen rooms and then slapped all of their work into a single device.
Of course, it does have Flash support, a real browser, and a wonderfully high-resolution screen, but all of that's not worth a damn if it can't fully replace my typical web browser. In this day and age, it's really not asking too much to support Flash Video playback on a portable device, but then again, I can even point out modern XP machines that can't do that, so once again, software. Thank you, Adobe, for making a brutally inefficient codec.
Now, I don't need Flash Video support to do my job, most of the time. Sure, it's come up from time to time, but that's being pretty picky. The question is, how many limited-purpose devices do I want in my home? Do I really need an MP3 player, a video player, a web browser, and a remote terminal as separate devices, each of which can easily fit in my pocket? Not really. I could actually stand to have one nice general-purpose converged device to do all of these things. For a while, I did, but apparently software has completely outpaced the abilities of small-scale hardware in the past few years.
Where does that leave me today? Well, with a lot of extra crap, when all I really need is one acceptable device. Maybe it doesn't even need to be pocketable, but I certainly wouldn't complain. What it does need, of course, is a keyboard that one can type on comfortably, a screen that can be held at a proper angle relative to that keyboard, a CPU/GPU that can handle most video codecs at modern bitrates, and at least a four-hour battery life.
Most of this is best left to a handful of CPU/GPU combos, and the entire package needs to be comfortable. Now we're left with a failing of software, and that's a bit nastier. See, on a tiny screen, you need to be able to present data in a visible format, and then let the user pick that data and work with it in finer detail, and only one line of devices can do that: Touchscreen iPods. It's also the only thing, so far, that really works quickly and seamlessly with a touchscreen interface. No trying to hit a tiny scrollbar, or tapping vainly around a close button. Apps load, open, close, scroll, and generally just interact without having to fight with the device. Your fingers don't bump into the edge of the screen, because the face of the unit is seamless to the non-control surfaces. (Many TabletPCs also get this right.) Your webpages are tiny, yes, but you can easily zoom in to what you want to see, and apps use up the entire screen. Sure, there are a few controls that are missing, such as copy/paste, but that's something that just needs to be added on cleanly.
Give me a pocketable device with that general interface, and a biometric scanner. Let me log into work using my thumbprint, and remote into my servers using a zoomable interface. If I need 1024x768, then downscale the image, let me interact, and give me zoom functions that Just Work. Play my videos, and do that quickly. Talk to my home and office Wifi connections. Tie me into my email, contacts, schedule, and let me edit my documents, spreadsheets, and so on. Toss in a thumbboard with all the right keys. I don't mind thumbboards, if they're done right. Imagine my shock when I picked up an OQO, and started typing in command-key combos and relatively secure passwords without skipping a beat! (Imagine my disappointment at the stylus-only touchscreen.)
Finally, give me all the battery life that you can muster, and then eke out a bit more. Keep the core OS and a gob of additional application space on a solid-state drive, and use a 1.8" hard disk for mass storage, if you must. Don't hobble performance, since I/O is king. Don't hobble UI response, since usability depends on performance, and a device that gets in your way is a device stuck at home. Give me a handheld tablet with no raised screen border, multi-touch, the ability to accept both finger and stylus input, and a clip-on keyboard with decent input. Figure out the storage where you can, but if all else fails, slap in an SDHC/SDIO slot. Build the software around the general idea that things need to work snappily, and just as well as they would on a full desktop. Cram in specialized hardware if you have to, but *make it work.*
Most of these things require an eye for hardware design and software integration that Microsoft has yet to figure out, but Apple has nailed down perfectly. I would be massively impressed with a miniature Apple tablet, running OS X on an x86 CPU, providing all of these UI controls for any generic app. (This also means that I could just run any necessary MS apps via Parallels without anyone being the wiser.)
Are we still a few years off? Of course. But until someone gets off their ass and makes the one device that can do everything (just not all at once,) we're going to see a glut of products that all try to do 90% of the things we want, all at once, and do all of them very, very poorly.Type your cut contents here.