Nov 20, 2010
I'm a gadget guy, as anyone who follows me knows, and as a gadget guy I have naturally been keeping up with the development of the Galaxy Tab from Samsung, which finally became available for purchase last week after a long build-up. It's a gorgeous 7 inch Android-based tablet device that, in my Goldilocksian view, is not too big, not too small, but just the right size. Perhaps best of all, it runs on an open platform, requires no "mother ship" to use, is available with 3G access on a variety of carriers, and has been widely reported as the first real contender to Apple's iPad (which is certainly not my favorite product - but that's another blog post.)

When the official Engadget review of the device was posted a few days prior to the Tab's release, I was all over it. A thorough breakdown of the pros and cons, plenty of pictures and media, all-in-all an excellent piece of reporting. And in the end, as I sat there watching the video on my netbook, reality set in: I still want one, I just don't want to pay for it. And by "pay" I mean more than just in dollars (although that certainly is a big factor).

Don't get me wrong here, I love Android on my Evo 4G. It's a fantastic phone that does everything I ever wanted my phone to do (well, for now at least). In short, it fills my needs for a ultra-mobile device. Put another way, it is an ideal solution that works well within the context for which it was designed, and the price/performance more than meets my expectations. Keep those two in mind as we move on: context for which it was designed, price/performance.

The Galaxy Tab and Apple's iPad are certainly beautiful devices. They exist in an ultra-portable space along-side netbooks, somewhere in-between mobile phones and full-size laptops/desktops. Many have suggested that they are harbingers of doom for netbooks (a fantasy that is simply unsupported by the numbers, by the way) due to their similar size, battery life, and certain assumptions about usage patterns. But as I watched the Galaxy Tab review and reflected on it and the inevitable comparisons to the iPad, one word kept coming to mind: hoops. As in, "how many hoops would I have to jump through to get this thing to do X" where "X" is some simple task that I do regularly on a netbook. Now, before you even say it, let's get the "comparing apples to oranges" argument out of the way - we all know that it would be silly to carry around a Tab/iPad and a netbook, so let's stop pretending that they don't fill the same relative space to justify our purchase, OK? OK.

So back to the hoops. As I said before, I love my Evo, but I wouldn't want to sit and work through more than a few emails or type anything lengthly (like this blog post) on it. Why? Because the email application kinda sucks compared to a full featured client on a netbook or laptop, and typing on a touch screen keyboard anything beyond a few sentences is a lousy, inefficient experience - an opinion that is widely shared and well proven, regardless of the size of the device. Great for the context in which it was designed to be used? Absolutely. But lousy for anything beyond that. Yet, I'm pleased because my expectations are in line with the context and I only paid a couple of hundred dollars for the thing. I'm not going to try to force it to work outside the context for which it was designed to meet heightened expectations brought on by a high price and/or hype and conjecture. The context for which it was designed is in line with the price, which sets reasonable expectations and leaves me happy with the result.

But for Tabs and Pads (let the feminine product slurs commence), our expectations are naturally heightened due to the high cost ($500-$900) and the hype surrounding them. We naturally assume that a larger screen is going to afford us greater capabilities and a wider range of flexibility, therefore the cost is justified. The problem is, the context for which the product was designed is not aligned with that assumption. Both products run the same software as their mobile counterparts, and were designed to be primarily devices of entertainment and consumption. But because our expectations, driven by price and marketing, are so great, we find ourselves willing to jump through a tremendous number of hoops in an effort to force these devices to do something outside the context for which they were designed. We put up with lousy keyboards and lame email applications. We buy "apps" to consume content that would otherwise be free if we only had a full featured web browser. We subject ourselves to endless work-arounds, often requiring two to three times as many steps to complete a task that we know we could do with half the pain with a full featured application, web browser, etc. In short, we poke ourselves in the eyes with sharp sticks because we so want this device to do more than it was ever designed to do; to meet heightened expectations brought on by high prices and marketing hyperbole.

Case in point: I was speaking with a colleague of mine just the other day about this great app he wants to use on his iPad that would enable kids to do some digital storytelling really easily (he thinks). The way it works is you bring up your photo library and narrate as you flip through pictures. The iPad records your voice and the timing, and produces a movie that is ready to post in your blog. Sounds great, right? But lets look at what this will take. First question: how do we get the kids' pictures into the iPad? Oops. Well, I guess I could fill up my iPhoto library on my laptop/desktop with all the kids' pictures, sync to the iPad, and then pass it around to the kids to do their presentations. I couldn't do this all at once of course, because I would run out of space on the tiny iPad, so we'd have to do it in batches. Or we could post them online (from the desktop) then do screen grabs on the iPad, then import them into the app and make the video. Then, I have to figure out how to get the video back out and post it on the blog. Sure would be nice if I could go straight to the blog, but alas, the web browser in the iPad doesn't support the rich-text entry tools of the blog. Maybe I can find an app for that? And so it goes... sharp sticks. You see them every day in the twitterverse. "Does anyone know of an app that does layers like Photoshop for the iPad?" I know one, it's Photoshop, and I can use it or any of dozens of free/open-source applications on my netbook, which I purchased for half the cost. And the applications I run on the netbook will be full-featured, not some overly simplistic, "just the basics" tool that barely meets my needs.

Why would we subject ourselves to this? The most common answers: because it's cool! It's forward thinking! This is the way things will be in the future! What we're really saying is, "because it makes me look/feel cool - because it feeds my ego." Think about it. How many times have you seen someone pull out their iPad in the dumbest place and say, "hey, have you seen the iPad?" or "look at this cool thing I can do on the iPad." I've even seen guys try to use their iPads as a pickup line. How about those panels at education technology conferences where everyone is holding an iPad? Was that really the best investment of the school district's scarce dollars? What is a presenter trying to say/show about himself when he uses an iPad as a remote control for his presentation? "Look at me, I'm cool" perhaps?

Am I over-simplifying? Maybe. But how else would you describe paying twice as much (as a netbook) only to be able to do half as much? And I haven't even broached the subject of DRM, ownership, and vendor lock-in that Pad/Tab users are subjecting themselves to - I'll leave that to people like Cory Doctorow. In essence, you pay, and you get to keep paying. If you dare to leave, kiss all your stuff goodbye - you get to start over with nothing.

We need to stop kidding ourselves about these things. Tabs and Pads aren't designed to exist in the spaces we are trying to force them into. If they were, then the vast majority of apps designed for them wouldn't be games and content [more stats]. Lets stop playing games and get serious about transforming education with practical, flexible, reliable solutions, designed to operate within the context we seek, with the expectations we have, at a price we can afford.

For more thoughts on Netbooks, Open-source, and Learning 2.0, see Netbooks and Open Source: Rethinking Laptops and Learning , When Do Laptops Become School Supplies , and Learning 2.0, Netbooks, and Open Source Resources


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  1. One big limitation from my perspective is that these tablets are ironically worse than earlier tablets (and tablet pcs) for note taking / drawing / etc.Capacitive screens are great for touch input, but the older ones or cheaper ones with resistive screens that come with a stylus are better for note taking / drawing. That's why medical devices are sticking with the stylus.Another broader limitation is that it is it is still just as hard to create apps for it - it's not something a teacher could easily pick up, for example.There are at least 3 tablets out or out soon that were designed somewhat with students in mind: the Kno Tablet (which uses some unknown HTML5-based OS, not android, and seems to revolve around textbook-centered courses), the Entourage Edge and Pocket Edge (android, with stylus and both an e-ink screen and lcd resistive screen, but heavy and still a bit pricey and also they haven't updated the OS), and finally I might also include the upcoming Notion Ink Adam android tablet out of India which looks very interesting. But we'll see how they do.There are also some "cheap" netbooks with touch screens, like the ASUS Eee PC T101MT or Gigabyte T1028X. It's a shame that computers for education have to be solely driven by consumer interests, where in other fields (like I mentioned medical) and industries (like Amazon kindles and others) they create custom devices designed to better fit their needs. Without some major government-funded hardware initiative, I guess this won't change. Maybe the textbook vendors will standardize on some device or type of device sometime, since they control everything it seems.

  2. Excellent points Doug! Vendors have been trying to make flexible tablet platforms for years, with little to show for it. The shift in focus to a less flexible, consumer-centric model has brought this old technology back into the limelight with great success, and has created a "me too" fervor among vendors to create similar products in the hope that they can also ride the (profit) wave of the hype curve. As a result, we are seeing some innovation, however the focus has shifted from flexibility to making money by bolstering old distribution models with new technology. I've often wondered if Apple intentionally crippled Safari to create additional incentive for users to purchase apps/subscriptions and to generate revenue using models that make traditional media outlets more comfortable. Perhaps, in the long run, this will save some of our most valued knowledge producers from extinction and drag them into the 21st century. And perhaps increased efforts to participate in the consumer space will drive innovation in the touch space that will result in more powerful, flexible touch platforms. I can certainly see that scenario playing out in the long term. I'll definitely be watching closely for that player to emerge - am betting it will arise out of the open-source community.

  3. Jim, I was thinking about the future and am sure that you have thought of this, so here is my question: Assuming we are in the early stages of mobile app driven gadgets, do you think the future king will be Apple software, Android software, or a yet-to-be developed open-source free app based os? I know I might be thinking to far ahead, but I am sure you can relate. -Kathy @ RSF

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