Don't dismiss Atom-based tablets yet

TR member dcolbert doesn't think that the tablet battle has already been won by Apple and Google. Find out what he thinks consumers require from a tablet device, and why Atom-based devices built on Windows 7 might actually be able to compete in this space.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the shortcomings of the Apple iPad, but I also admitted that it exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways I hadn’t even considered before I purchased the device. In fact, that might be one of the most frustrating aspects of the gadget. I love the advantages of a well-presented tablet format on quality hardware when used for the right purposes. However, the arbitrary, imposed limits on the iPad drive me nuts.

I found myself surfing for Jailbreak solutions, reading about loading Chrome OS, and daydreaming about putting Android on the iPad and unleashing its full potential. When my head cleared, I realized that if I am honestly considering such drastic, warranty-voiding solutions that have the potential to brick my $850 device, there’s something seriously wrong.

While waiting for a more robust, full-featured tablet to hit the market, I came across an Australian company that plans to release an Atom-based tablet with impressive specifications: capacitive touch screen 7” display, two USB host ports, a SD slot, 16/32 or 64GB installed SSD storage, 1GB of RAM that’s user upgradeable to 2GB, and up to 5 hours of battery life. It will release with Windows 7 Starter (this was the focus of a lot of negative comments in the article’s discussion thread) but can also run Android (although only in a demo mode – and Android 1.x, not Android 2 OS).

Recently, I spoke with Peter Biddle, head of Intel’s new Application Market initiative, AppUp. I asked Peter some tough questions about Intel’s future viability and relevance in mobile platforms, and he generally had some pretty good answers for me. I’ve been playing around with the AppUp store since the interview, and although it’s still immature and lacking a lot of the apps I would like to see, I’ve already found one that is a potential “killer app” for Atom-based platforms.

You may be familiar with Boxee, the Internet Media Streaming service, which does a lot of different things for managing and presenting your digital media content – but the killer feature is the ability to search the web and queue streaming video from a variety of sources, including TV shows and movies.

Boxee offers a hardware device and an app for IA/86 architecture machines, including Windows, OS X, and Linux platforms. It even offers apps for iOS to turn your iPhone or iPad into a Boxee remote, but for some reason, it doesn’t offer the full-fledged Boxee application on those platforms.

On Windows 7, Boxee has an elegant, touch screen-oriented interface that makes the device look and feel like a purpose-oriented personal media device (and it still works with the keyboard and mouse). My Lenovo S-10 netbook lacks a touch screen interface, so I’ve only been able to observe the touch-oriented interface of the Boxee app and not interact with it directly.

This one little app illustrates the potential of Intel architecture-based machines in the mobile device segment. I could see Boxee becoming a killer app – and the lack of support for it on the iPad is yet another major shortcoming of the iOS model.

Now, the problem with Windows 7 is that it has a bloated interface that’s not designed for lightweight computing devices. We all know that. But the advantages of Windows 7 with Intel architecture include power and flexibility.

You could easily run a stripped version of Windows 7 with a custom, touch-interface shell and yet still have the flexibility to hook up a wireless mouse and keyboard and revert down to a traditional desktop OS interface for more common types of work – all in one device.

Atom-based devices built on Windows 7 have the opportunity to provide a “best-of-both-worlds” experience. What they’re missing is a unified source of quality software to add value to the IA/86 tablet portion of the equation. This is where Intel is stepping up to bat with the AppUp store.

When it comes down to it, the iPad has taught us some important lessons about tablets:

  1. They need to be instant-on devices. If I can’t quickly get the system to a desktop state, I’m less likely to load a simple app on impulse. If I have a tweet in my head, I need to be able to turn on the device and be in my Twitter client within seconds. If it takes longer than that, I’ve forgotten what I was going to tweet about. Boot times are disruptive.
  2. They need a long battery life. A tablet should be able to sit on the coffee table at the end of your couch for days at a time, ready to spring into life at a moment’s notice, without constantly being hooked to a power source. It needs to be able to travel across the country by plane on a single charge, feeding full-screen video the entire way.
  3. They need to have the right apps – not twenty billion apps, but the right subset of apps that are in high demand, such as Netflix, popular Twitter clients, Facebook apps, and DropBox. Cross-platform apps that look, feel, and work the same across multiple platforms are great too.

Windows 7 and Intel architecture devices are behind the curve, especially in the first two areas. But that doesn’t mean that Microsoft and Intel can’t catch up, or that they can’t leverage the advantages of their platforms to add significant value to the experience these devices deliver.

I honestly don’t care if my mobile device is built on Google, Apple, or Microsoft platforms as long as it can deliver a respectable combination of the three requirements listed above. If you can level the playing field on those three key selling points, what remains?

Ease of use and reliability are important, but users should also be empowered to control their own experience. As I mentioned earlier, Apple’s restrictions in this regard are too heavy-handed. I should be able to mount a USB thumb drive or SD card and copy and manipulate almost any kind of file. The inability to do so creates a severe limitation in the usability of the machine. I should be able to see a browseable file structure, even if I’m limited from Root access (like with Android).

When these restrictions exist – as much to limit the user’s potential of circumventing the manufacturer’s copy-protection and anti-piracy schemes as to enhance the user experience – then there’s a huge opportunity for someone else to come in and compete on this point.

I can pirate music, but I choose to purchase it instead – most often from iTunes. I’d rather deal with a reputable company that offers a reliable product at a reasonable cost without imposing unreasonable limitations on my “license to use” than crawl through the dangerous back alleys of the Internet, hoping to get the same thing for free.

I feel the same way about apps. Some people don’t like Apple’s restrictions on the ability to “side-load” files, so they jail-break their devices and pirate iOS apps, getting a more fully-realized device in the bargain. Apple is hurting their honest customers by trying to make it more difficult for the people who are dishonest, and their solutions aren’t effective in stopping what they’re trying to prevent.

I’m not positive that Windows 7, even with a custom-skinned shell interface, can overcome some of the inherent design limits and flaws of that platform. In particular, the ability to provide an instant-on experience with something built on a Windows desktop OS kernel (or OS X or Linux, for that matter) seems elusive to me. I suppose iOS and Android are both built on a base *nix kernel, so it is possible.

One advantage of a Win/IA86 architecture machine is also one of the major liabilities – the ability to run legacy code also introduces the vulnerability of all existing Win7/IA86 viruses and exploits.

Having a forked set of apps and interfaces on one device could be a mixed blessing too. There’s a balance between flexibility and specific purpose-driven design that’s hard to find. The narrow focus, the “simplicity” of the iPhone on what it does well, is part of the success. Still, it’s a multi-function device that can be easily customized by the end user, depending on their desires – just like any other traditional PC.

Ultimately, it seems like people are already convinced that this battle has been won by Apple and Google, and that the other players are too far behind to catch up. I don’t believe it. I think the battle is just getting started, and it will be interesting to see what kind of innovative gadgets will materialized over the next few years. I think some of them might be every bit – if not more – as magical and revolutionary as the iPad has turned out to be.

Disclosure of Donovan's industry affiliations: Donovan Colbert works as an IT Manager in the Healthcare Industry for a privately owned, medium-sized Managed Solutions provider. His opinions and articles are not endorsed and do not reflect those of his current employer. Donovan previously worked with MCI prior to their acquisition by WorldCom and then Verizon, with Legato Systems prior to and during their acquisition by EMC, and with Intel Corp. He owns insignificant amounts of common stock with both EMC and Intel Corp.