Android tablets must balance freedom with functionality

Graham Morrison
Graham Morrison is editor of Linux Format magazine

Who'd have predicted that overpriced slivers of silicon, covered in oleophobic glass trying its best to repel your sticky fingers, would become the first great technological innovation of the 21st century?

Most of us thought this would happen decades ago. We were promised by those mouldy second-hand sci-fi books of our youth, and I've since wasted far too much time and money pretending the time has already come.

It started with a calculator watch in 1983 that played Eine kleine Nachtmusik on my birthday, and it's going to end in tragedy. I'd spent those intervening years memorising the Palm Pilot character input tables, squeezing my handwriting into small squares on a Windows CE Jornada and strengthening my arms to hold up a WristPDA, all in preparation for the future.

Those 30 minutes of battery life, a lost stylus, volatile memory and even a broken screen wouldn't stop me. I was ready for the future.

But why did it have to be Apple? That purveyor of the proprietary. The creator of a world where we all pretend there's no file system, no operating system, no user access or modifiable code. If you get to the files, they're encrypted and hidden.

It's a world where you need something called iTunes, and where software comes from a package repository called the 'App Store'. It's a world where, if you want to develop software, you have to accept an open source-repelling licence and a business model that gives you little ownership and no freedom to share.

Third-party APIs were banned, then befriended, then adopted, then replaced. Some new apps were accepted, then removed, then reinstated, then quickly forgotten, all at the whim of Apple. But it's too late.

iPhones and iPads have already won, and they're so much better than the competition, people don't care about the consequences. Its touch devices are the closest yet to those mythical devices of my youth.

Their user-interface is almost latency free. Their brilliant use of global gestures and a new touch-based widget toolset have transformed our expectations of such devices. It's Minority Report in your pocket.

Hard to swallow

The main problem is, that, despite the dozens of touch devices being touted, Linux tablets are going to be a bitter pill for most purchasers to swallow. That's going to put people off the platform in the future, and the challenge facing these devices in the face of Apple's overwhelming success is the same for both Windows and Linux.

Apple has had too much time to push its advantage, and that advantage is usability. Building usability into these shiny new things can't be done while you're chasing a runaway success. It needs to be done outside of scrutiny, and it needs enough time to develop without the pressure of a release.

Android tablets often feel like badly fitted clothing. They look the part and they're priced competitively, but they're uncomfortable to use, they chafe and they tear at the seams. They were designed to fit something else.

Android is a mobile phone operating system that's only just started to find its feet in the usability game. It's the same problem with Windows-based devices, albeit without the mobile phone bit, and short of copying what Apple has done, it's difficult to see a way out that's not going to take either platform another two years to catch up. And that's another two years for Apple.

But there's still a lot that can be done that doesn't need massive innovations on usability. Google should start with a standard specification for its phone and tablet platforms - one that includes a minimum CPU capability, an amount of memory and an equally divisible screen resolution. Only by doing this can the user interface be tailored for a single layout that will make working with Android intuitive and predictable.

It's so much harder when every Android device is different, because it means we'll all have to learn how to use each separately. That's not the future I was sold.

Google also needs to negotiate with the manufacturers so that Android updates, for both phones and tablets, are universal and free. At the moment it's usually down to the manufacturer or the network provider, and this is unpredictable and unacceptable.

But most of all, Android tablets have to succeed if people are to avoid the temptation of the forbidden fruit.

Android needs to balance freedom with functionality, because Apple has made an executive decision and freedom wasn't part of it. Only then can we avoid a tragedy of science fiction proportions.