The Coming Tablet World


Earlier this evening a friend sent out a request on Twitter:

@[redacted] needs a new laptop. Any recommendations? She needs win7 and not too expensive.

I found something that met the criteria and quickly sent off a reply. There wasn't much too the request. Desktop Computers (including laptops) haven't changed much for the last few years. Even the specs have for the most part stabilized: 2 to 4 cores, 1.5-2.1 GHz, 4 - 8GB of memory, Hard Drives up to 750GB... Getting a new computer is simply no longer exciting. 

Contrast this with mobile devices. Smartphones and tablets have come to such an amazing prominence that they now consist of the majority of Internet traffic today. Most people in the US consume content on websites, blogs, and social media on these devices from the sofa while watching television. I too, have succumbed to this madness last summer and bought one myself. Yet, they are rarely considered machines on which you "can get work done". Just try to develop a web site on an iPad.

And that's the shameful part of it: you should be able to develop a website on a tablet. Hell, you should be able to write and compile software on it. My HP TouchPad has more CPU and memory power than the computer I used in college to write my assignments and compile my C++ code. Spec-wise, there should be no reason why a tablet of today could not supplant a desktop-class machine. The problem is the industrial complex including both the hardware manufacturers and the OS developers.

Apple championed the ideal of "owning the entire stack". They build the hardware, they code the software. This allowed Apple to integrate the two with spectacular refinement since the late Steve Job's return. There's also the opposing edge to that sword: You are at their mercy. If they decide to no longer support your model -- as Apple has with their recently announced Mountain Lion -- you're out of luck. Fork over another $1500 and you'll be reinstated into grace.

It's with distaste that other manufacturers have taken up the same methods, hoping to swell their coffers in the same manner as Cupertino. Since the original Droid, we've been fighting locked bootloaders on Android phones and tablets. The strategy hasn't worked. Samsung, Motorola, HTC; you're not Apple. You don't have the same fanatics or the legacy of a charismatic figure promising us a skeuomorphic Rapture of the Hipsters. What you can do sounds simple, but requires more thought and much more risk.

HTC is a prime example of Doing It Wrong. They seemingly put out a new smartphone model every month. None of them are distinct, and the modifications to stock Android, HTC Sense, provides only a minimal visual flare at the cost of increased pace of obsolescence. More than once, a firmware update has been held up because Sense couldn't be shoehorned into a popular device. At least once, a device that had an announced upgrade was canceled because Sense wouldn't fit. The subsequent outcry called for a a Sense-less upgrade, but HTC's response was lukewarm.

Apple did have it right with part of their formula: The number of models should not exceed the fingers on one hand. The times those models are replaced with a newer version should not exceed once a year. Customers like it simple. Do it right; don't rush anything out the door and make sure it's solid.

This is why I've watched developments in Windows 8 with great interest. Microsoft is trying to create a tablet experience in which you Can Get Work Done. While the hybrid Metro/Aero environment is abominable, their aim really does seem well thought out, if unsettlingly different. For the first time, ARM will be supported as a major Windows platform. Furthermore, the experience is "touch first". Microsoft hopes the touchscreen will be standard computer equipment going forward.

What is possibly more interesting to me is what open source developers will do. With Microsoft pushing touch interfaces, the tablet form factor will become the de facto standard. The two most popular desktop environments are already gearing up for this change. GNOME3 is taking a radical unified approach, casting off old mouse-centric WIMP interfaces and aiming for a blend not unlike Windows 8. KDE is remixing their astonishingly flexible DE into Plasma Active. For the moment, it is difficult to find a touch device on which either of these open source stacks will run. I hope that with the release of Windows 8, this will change.

That is, if Microsoft doesn't screw it up.

They already are, sadly. As part of the Windows 8 operating system, Microsoft is pushing "secure boot". If this sounds like the return of the Android locked bootloader controversy, you're right. This time it's bigger and meaner. While x86 based tablets will have no requirement to use secure boot, any ARM based tablets will. Furthermore, Microsoft will deny manufacturers the right to apply the Certified for Windows 8 sticker if an ARM tablet allows the user to disable the secure boot feature. One may think the solution would be to stick with x86, but the venerable CISC architecture was never designed for low power operation -- something critical for a mobile device. ARM, on the other hand, is specifically geared to function in an embedded context.

There are several technical discussions elsewhere on the 'net highlighting why "secure boot" is little more than DRM in disguise. Microsoft intends to create a technical vendor lock, preventing the upstart Linuxes from whittling away their overwhelming marketshare. It's petty. It'd devious. And they probably can get away with it. Universe knows Apple has for years.

Is there no hope for those of us that wish to run on an open source stack? If the open source community has shown anything, it's determination. Despite smartphone manufacturers best efforts, bootloaders have been cracked and hardware wrested from their control.

A famous hacker once put it thus: If a thing can be decrypted, it can be stolen reclaimed.