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Tablets vs PCs, is this the correct way to compare them?

By , October 21, 2011 11:54 am

A brief history

Since the dawn of electronic computing we’ve had valves disrupted by transistors, mainframes disrupted by minicomputers, mincomputers disrupted by workstations, workstations disrupted by PCs and PCs disrupted by notebooks and netbooks. The latest entrant is the tablet computer.

Tablets were initially a failure, mainly due to desktop operating systems being forced to do a job they were ill suited to do. However the Apple iPad changed all that. A new way of considering how to use a tablet. This has spawned a lot of imitators, mainly based on Android. Microsoft will also be entering the fray with Windows 8 and the Metro UI. Microsoft is making the reverse mistake though – forcing its tablet UI on its desktop users. So it may succeed in the tablet space and then fail in the desktop space. We shall see.

Disruptive or Complementary?

Having set the scene the next question is are tablets going to be disruptive to PCs or complementary? Some people seem to think its a straight fight between PCs and tablets – that tablets are going to disrupt PCs and ultimately replace them. Even Professor Clayton Christensen, author of many books on industrial disruption thinks this is going to happen. His latest tweet on the subject “The value of theory: you know that iPads will cannibalize PCs long before the data tells you it’s happening http://bit.ly/nlSq2l #disruption”.

I’ve read most of Professor Christensen’s books on disruptive innovation theory. I think the case is well argued and I find the books fascinating and engaging. I think I do understand the theory correctly. There is always room to improve my understanding.

But I don’t agree that just because iPad shipments exceed PC shipments its the end for the PC. Not even a long way into the future. When I say PC I’m talking not just Windows, but Macs and Linux boxes etc. Anything that sits on your desktop, under the desk, or a portable computer like a laptop, notebook or netbook.

I think tablets are in the main, complementary to PCs. By complementary I mean that they are providing opportunities in places where a PC is not practical or appropriate. I do think tablets will erode some consumer use of PCs. I do not think tablets will replace PCs in the business world.

Tablets

Tablets are great for passive consumption of data. For example, viewing movies, reading email and writing occasional replies, viewing websites, playing games, viewing 2D and 3D models. Touch screen UIs excel at the consumption of content.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you want to view business data. RedGate software’s SQLMonitor is a great example of this.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you need to update the status of items but do not need to type extensive reports. A scenario for this would be in hospitals. Keyboards are a haven for bugs as they are hard to clean effectively. Tablets are smooth and easy to clean. Tablet touch screens are perfect for this type of work – well designed user interfaces will minimise the need to type and make a tablet usable in this situation.

The above two scenarios are not really tablet vs PC scenarios. They are complementary. The tablet is enabling a business activity that the PC either did badly, or could not do at all. For the SQLMonitor example, the tablet is doing the job better than the PC, is is more convenient. But this is a data consumption task (as opposed to content creation). In the hospital example, no one carries a laptop to the bed of the person they are seeing and then checks off their health and medication as they do their rounds. But I can easily see that happening with a tablet. That is, the tablet is serving an underserved or nonserved market.

But all that said, tablets are not good for any large scale content creation activity. Examples are word processing, accounting, creative work, video editing, audio editing, 3D CAD creation, writing software. All these activities are typically done by professionals with two or more large screen monitors with multiple windows open at once, referencing data in one window, cutting and pasting into another, sometimes having specialised external interaction devices (drawing tablets, styluses, trackballs, joysticks etc). For businesses that need computers the above describes the majority of those computing activities.

The 3D CAD creation item is an interesting one. I know some folks at SolidWorks Corporation. When the iPad came out they created a viewer for it. Have they moved to put SolidWorks on the iPad? No. Its a $4000/seat software product. People use it on powerful workstations with multiple screens with large resolutions. You just cannot replicate this experience on a tablet.

The other interesting point is software creation. When Apple introduced the Macbook, Macbook Pro and Macbook Air computers web developers and creatives very quickly switched to these computers to do their work. Have these people moved to the iPad or any other tablet to do their creative work? If a tablet was suitable for content creation these people would have switched already and be trying to prove it can be done.

PCs

However when it comes to content creation the PC is the place where that will continue to happen.

There are several reasons why PCs will continue to dominate in this area:

  • PCs are designed to be used for content creation. The ability to have multiple windows open, multi-task, source data from one application easily into another application, these are key to being efficient at the job in hand. Tablets just can’t do this. I can’t see this being fixed on a tablet.
  • Multiple screens, with physical screen sizes up to 30″ and pixel counts exceeding 2500 across. Even if you could get a 30″ tablet with 2560×1600 resolution, you wouldn’t be able to lift it and it would be too heavy and too unweildy to rest in your lap when you sit on the sofa.
  • Egonomics. The ergonomics of using a tablet are such that for occasional use sitting on the sofa, lying in bed, etc, they do you no harm. I can speak from my own painful experience with RSI that for extended periods of working a tablet will give rise to all manner of unpleasant ailments. I can see all the problems with poor posture and static loading that did so much damage to me, those problems are all there with the tablet. And those problems will always be there because that is a function of the form factor of a tablet.

In summary at large screen sizes, where tablets could in theory start to compete against a PC, the tablet becomes unweildy, impractical and in ergonomic terms, bad for you. If with advances in materials science – let us say if carbon fibre manufacture became cost effective and e-ink is the future – then the weight element of a large tablet would go away. But you’re still left with the physical size limits of a tablet that is 23″ (or more!) to deal with. I’m writing this on a 23″ screen and I could not imagine trying to sit with this on my lap.

You can improve the touch screen typing of a tablet, but the on screen keyboard will always obscure your work. At present there appears to be no solution to the multi-window aspect of computing that has been so successful on workstations and desktop computers for the last 30 years. Tablets have one window (or with Windows 8 Metro, possibly two) at a time. As you can see in the comments sections of the 4 blogs posts dedicated to the Metro UI and Search on the MSDN blogs, people that work with multiple large screens and many windows absolutely hate being forced to work with one window at a time. I confess that I am one of the many detractors of Microsoft’s new user interface work – it seriously degrades what they are doing.

Conclusion

It is inevitable that for some tasks PCs have been used for (mainly consuming information) tablets may well replace them as the best item “hired to do the job”. But I think there is quite a large section of jobs for which the tablet can never successfully compete against the PC – jobs which require multiple screens, large screens, overlapping windows/displays and specialised data entry devices.

Simply making the tablet larger is not a solution due to physical size constraints. Adding lots of external devices to the tablet (using say bluetooth) kind of defeats the point because then you can only use the tablet in one place – it no longer has the very attribute that makes it attractive (its single object portability) – you may as well use a desktop PC in that situation, it would be better suited to the task.

I think tablets are complementary to PCs. I think tablets are doing a job PCs have never been able to do well. I think PCs do a job that tablets will never be able to do well.

I think this quote from I-DotNET written in the MSDN blog comments Windows 8 Search best describes a tablet.

Touch-screen UIs are not the next generation of UI the way that GUIs and the mouse replaced the command line. Instead, what we’re seeing here is the creation of a brand new category of device, a device that is used differently for different purposes and often by different people. The touch screen UI is simply the UI best suited for this category. No more. No less.

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Windows 8 Start Screen disaster

By , October 13, 2011 11:19 am

Over on the MSDN blog there is a series of articles about Windows 8. Among those articles are three articles about the Windows 8 Start Screen which replaces the Start Menu.

Some background

I’ve been a member of MSDN since late 1994 when I first heard about MSJ magazine and then heard about MSDN. I’ve worked with Microsoft technologies for the vast majority of the time since then and pretty much exclusively since 1998. I’ve hated the backwards steps the Start menu took from Windows XP to Windows Vista/7 but the Windows 8 process – well that is such a change that I think this will debut so badly that this will be worse than the reception Vista received.

The Vista machines we purchased we got rid of. We have Vista as virtual machines only. We do like Windows 7 though. That works.

So far, despite repeated trials of Windows 8, all I can say is that it is awful. It is not productive, not for how we work. I don’t care how good it is at touch or how well it does web related home-consumer tasks. None of that helps me be productive in my day job. That is what counts. It is, more importantly, also what counts for my customers.

I want Windows 8 to be a success. That is why I am pushing back so hard against the Windows 8 start screen.

MSDN Blog articles

The first article Evolving the Start menu explains what they did and why they did it. It received a lot of negative criticism. They followed up with a second article Designing the Start screen which completely ignored all the criticism and tried to steamroller the Start Screen as superb. This duly received a lot of further criticism.

There is now a third article Reflecting your comments on the Start screen which is full of information, insights and analysis on how they came to arrive at the Start screen and why they think the Start menu should go away. The problem is the arguments are not convincing.

Menus are inefficient

The first argument is that the Start menu is inefficient. That it requires dextrous control of the mouse to find and select an item (this is true) and that it is slow to do so (also, reasonably true).

Therefore they introduce the start screen which is a 2 dimensional grid of tiles that you can easily find with your mouse etc. The problem is, this is not true. They boast that on screens of 1900 x 1080 resolution you can have 80 tiles.

Whooppee! Er No.

I have a screen of 1900 x 1200 and it has 72 icons on the desktop. Can I easily find the icon I want to launch a program? Yes, sometimes. But most of the time I have to scan the whole thing to find the one I want. And I organised that group of icons. It is not efficient. Sometimes despite knowing what I want is in my list of 72 icons I can’t find it and I give up and go and find it from the Search menu anyway.

And Microsoft want all of us to work this way in future. Yikes!

And of couse when you can’t find it you then have to use the new Search functionality. Which I’ll tell you about now…

Search

The old Start menu had a search function on it. In Windows 2000 and Windows XP this was really efficient – you could tell it where to search, what to look for in a document all before starting the search. No time wasted.

In Windows Vista and Windows 7 this was awful, very inefficient. You had to start a search you knew would fail, then bring up the search widget, choose custom and flail around in that awful user interface then get the search (with no progress indicator showing which directory was getting searched – we had that in W2K and XP).

The new Windows 8 search function – there isn’t one. Wait, there is. Just its invisible. Which is why I didn’t know it exists. Its that discoverable that an MSDN member of 17 years could not find it.

Yes, I know I know, I must be an old fart, but seriously. If I can’t find it can my parents, can my girlfriend, can the people working in the Vetinary surgery down the road? No they can’t.

To use search in Windows 8 you have to switch to the start screen and then type. That’s right type into nothing, just type. Apparently this nonesense is inspired from mobile phones. Thats great. Except it isn’t. I’m happy with that metaphor on a phone. But I want my PC to behave like a PC. What is efficient for one device is not efficient for another. If that were true we’d control aircraft the same way we control submarines. Unsurprisingly we don’t.

Furthermore when you switch to the Start menu to make your search you lose the context of your work – so god help you if were hoping to read some text from a website or a document to type into the search widget. How efficient is that? They just made you add an extra step – you now have to copy and paste the text from the website or document. What? The text isn’t copy and pastable? Oh dear, no you’ve got to copy the text off the document onto some paper, switch to the Start screen and then type what you’ve written on paper into the invisible search widget.

Sound exaggerated? Perhaps. But I can see this happening. Especially with less au-fait users like the aforementioned people at the Vetinary surgery (I am actually thinking of some people I know – good with animals, not so with computers – just things to use, on the Desktop!).

But I don’t know what I’m looking for

You don’t know what you’re looking for? So how will you know when you find it? Well, I can kind of remember its name, but not really, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Its like being in a library in the philosophy section and you’re not sure what you’re looking for then all of a sudden you hit the section of Thoreau books and out pops the one you’re looking for. How could I have forgotten its name? Silly me.

Well indeed. And its the same with programs. Often I can’t remember who wrote it (so I can’t select by Vendor) or what its exact name is. My developer machine has 94 menus on the Programs section and most of those have submenus with between 5 and 10 items on. Some have more and some have more submenus. That is a lot of program names to rememeber. Unsurprisingly I don’t rememeber them. I have better things to devote my memory to. But I can browse those menus relatively easily and with reasonable speed.

The main reason I can do that, browse between 450 and 900 items is because each menu only exposes the data under it when I look at it. If I had to look at all 450-900 items at once it would impossible. Most of the items I never look at the submenus, I just have to read the main menu entry and then move on or occasionally check the contents.

It is an efficient compromise between having to use search to search for all executables and then dig through the ridiculous number of results (very slow) and the other extreme where I have to remember them all.

The problem with Windows 8 is that there is no Start menu to browse. I have to use search to find what I want. How can I find what I want when I don’t know its name? Answers on a postcard please (or leave them in the comments section).

Live Updates

A few of the comments in support of Metro in the MSDN blog comments indicate that the poster of these comments thinks that people with views like mine are dinosaurs that can’t see the value of having updating live tiles. What a limited and narrow view.

Such live tiles were previewed in Vista with the gadgets on the screen. Sure they are useful. I haven’t said they are not useful. I have said I don’t wish to work that way. These are different concerns just as some people wish to drive manual cars and others don’t want that chore so they choose an automatic car. In fact that is not a bad analogy, Metro would be the automatic car (less control) and Start Menu users would be driving a manual car (more control).

I have no need for an email tile keeping me up to date with my email. Why? Because I work with 2 computers and three screens. One computer is dedicated to handling email and browsing the web. The other one is for development work. The email machine has an email browser open all the time. Even if I had one machine I’d have the email client open all the time. An email tile is a waste of CPU time for me.

Also, if you know anything about productivity the last thing you want is a screenful of animated tiles doing their thing in your peripheral vision. Nice eye candy for the easily impressed. Boring annoyance for those of us that want to get stuff done.

Ubuntu One

Linux? Who cares about Linux? Why suddenly talk about Linux?

Well they’ve already done this particular experiment for you. The most recent release of Ubuntu comes with the Ubuntu One interface as the default. This is a user interface that makes you access everything via tiles (admittedly more restricted than Metro) and forces you to work with single screen applications.

I first tried it on my netbook. My initial thoughts were that it was good. Web browser and email clients come up full screen (all 800×600 of it!) and I could browse the web OK.

Then a few weeks later I thought I’d install Ruby On Rails on it and take a toy project away with me for a bit of tinkering while on a break. What a disaster. Totally impossible to get anything done in these single whole-screen environments. I spent a good deal of my time in the task switcher moving one window to the front, finding another, then moving that to the front and so on.

That installation of Ubuntu got replaced with the standard Ubuntu classic and all future installations are setup deliberately to exlude Ubuntu One. If you read around the web you’ll find lots of power users also hate Ubuntu One. Just like the power users complaining on the MSDN blog about Metro. You’re taking control (and thus productivity) away from your best customers.

Multi-Screen

The Windows 8 Start Screen covers all your screens. Not user friendly at all. Completely stops any context. As far as I am concerned losing even one whole screen is way too much, especially when you consider how efficient and non-context losing the start menu is.

If the start screen could be encompassed in a resizable window so you could move it whereever you want, or minimize it out of the way that would be useful. This in addition of course, to actually having a proper functioning start menu.

Multi-Tasking

Many complaints have been made about the inability to kill tasks in the Metro interface (all you can do is suspend them). Also the lack of support for multi-tasking windows is a real productivity killer.

These complaints remain un-addressed by the Windows 8 developer team.

No Compromise

The Windows 8 developer team seem completely unconcerned that those of us that want to use their PC to do work do not wish to work in a fashion that is dictated by the needs and desires of those whose only use for a PC is to consume the web/youtube/facebook/email on their tablet or gaming PC.

Both groups of people can be accomodated.

  • Business users. Leave our Windows Desktop alone and give us the Start menu we know and love.
  • Home users. By all means give them the tablet UI you have designed Metro for.

Why can’t this be a configurable option? A powerful Start menu option for folks like myself and the Metro interface for people that think search is a useful replacement for the Start menu.

User Experience

The user experience that I have had with Windows 8 Developer Preview has been extremely poor. Open source operating systems like Haiku give you a better experience out of the box.

Dog Food

I really do wonder if the Windows 8 Developer team is using Windows 8 to develop Windows 8. And I mean everyone, the management team, everyone that has to use office, powerpoint, email, MS Project, all the development team, including people using WinDbg and Visual Studio. I can’t believe they are because the loss in productivity would be huge.

I have to conclude the only people eating the Windows 8 dog food are the home consumer testing group that want a tablet/phone/home-user user interface.

Productivity

I hope that having read this far you realise that the problem with Windows 8 Start Screen is not the start screen itself. It is the drop in productivity and the horrible context switch from Desktop to Start Screen (which itself is a productivity issue) that are the issues. We know what is productive for us. And, although you think you know best for us Microsoft, you don’t.

I’ve already experienced Windows Vista/7 search and hate it. I don’t want to have to use Windows 8 search even more than I already have to use Windows 7 search.

Keep search as what it is good for and allow me to browse for my files, productively, using the Start menu.

Windows 8 #fail

I hope that when Windows 8 finally debuts people can look back at this article and think “Thank God, it didn’t happen, Windows 8 is still productive”.

Otherwise we’ll all be walking around in T-Shirts with the slogan “Windows 8 #fail”.

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A new take on tutorials

By , October 5, 2011 3:47 pm

We’ve been making changes to how we present our tutorials for our software tools.

First Steps

Our first tutorials were downloaded with evaluation versions of our tools. When the tool started for the first the tutorial would be shown.

Full versions of the tools did not come with tutorials as we felt this was wasted bandwidth and wasted time downloading material that rarely changed. The tutorial could be downloaded from the website when needed and installed alongside the software.

Second attempt

We recently decided it would be better to host the tutorials on our website. This would allow the tutorial content to be updated at will and thus always provide a better tutorial experience than downloading. This would also make the downloads smaller and thus faster to download.

In addition to this change we have started to introduce video versions of the tutorials. We hope you like it. At present these video tutorials are for C++ Memory Validator. We intend to cover all tutorials for all our software tools.

Creating the videos is interesting – some new tutorial videos have been created as a direct result of creating videos to accompany existing tutorials.

The present

Our latest change is to change how the tutorials are shown to the user of the software tool.

Tutorial tab

The change is that each software tool now has a dedicated tutorial tab. The tab lists the tutorials that are available, with a title, text indicating if the tutorial is text and/or video and the expertise level required for the tutorial. Double clicking on any tutorial topic takes you directly to the correct tutorial on our website.

Each time an evaluation version of a tool is used (and the first time a purchased software tool is used) the tutorial tab is displayed. The tutorial tab can be closed if desired. If the tutorial is later needed it is available from the help menu.

Tutorial close buttonTutorial help menu

We hope these changes will make the tutorials more appealing and more accessible than our previous attempts to inform and educate about effective ways to use our software tools.

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