Why web pads, internet tablets and ultra-mobiles aren't the same thing
Screen Media FreePad, from a Norwegian outfit. The FreePad had a 10.4-inch screen, 800 x 600 resolution, built-in WiFi and “cordless telephone services”; and it ran an embedded Linux. No disk drive; if you wanted, you could attach a USB keyboard.
The rest of FreePad's hardware was feeble by today's standards but practical for 2000. Even back then the group I was working with expected to buy the FreePad for just $800 (in quantity).
Eight years ago, and only $800. WiFi was in its nascent stages then, but if you were describing an organization-wide device (as we were) and not a personal weblet, that probably wasn't what kept the FreePad from succeeding.
Or maybe easier to answer now, from the perspective of time: What is a walkaround-web tablet? What does it look like, what can it do, what is required of it?
I've tried to identify the critical aspects that explain why a FreePad with its prescient feature set failed to spark a revolution but the Nokia Internet Tablet hasn't faltered.
And sure, the Internet Tablets provide the basic blueprint for my description. But that's because their development provides the best clues to deciphering this slippery market, the one for ultra-mobiles that Bill Gates expected would have sales of 100 million by 2008.
I think what makes a true walkaround weblet can be reduced to these essentials:
- Shows the full width of a web page without scrolling sideways. Regular cellphone screens will never make it.
- Handles Flash and video. No YouTube, no qualify.
- Always on. The 770's cover not only turned off the display and protected the screen, it also broke the WiFi connection. “Instant on” seemed good enough at the time, but today we realize the net needs to be able to reach out and signal us.
- Pocket size. The original 3-pound, book-size UMPC is like business-gear — it fits in a briefcase but that doesn't mean it's right at hand when you need it. I say: if you can't carry the weblet on your person, it's just a lighter-weight laptop.
- Can be used standing up. Or when walking around. Almost a life-changing experience the first time you cross the street and follow a link to a new webpage at the same time.
- Affordable enough to be considered personal electronic devices. Me, I want to pay about $75. We'll be there soon enough, I expect (actually, the price on eBay for a used 770 is already there). I think the $200 price point is significant for a lot of people, which may be one reason the N800 didn't dip moderately, to $299 or $249, but instead dropped all the way down to the $200-$229 range when the N810 appeared.
Is the N810 too expensive to be a true walkaround-web device? Not compared to what else is out there. But I don't think you're going to see weblet sales in the hundreds of millions (where they belong) at the N810's current price.
- Thinks like the web. Maybe that means open not proprietary. Maybe it means hackable, or even encouraged by the maker to be hacked, a la Google Maps. Maybe it means thinks like Google. By that, I mean all of the above and more. The guiding principle is more along the lines of “the more usable the weblet is, the more money we make” instead of “the more we can get you to use our version of things, the easier it is to make money off you.”
Looking back at the Internet Tablet predecessors and would-be competitors, this requirement forces embedded-Linux devices off the table. Ditto devices with Windows CE/PocketPC as an OS. Maybe even big Windows if the price stays way up there. Really, the lesson of the internet that applies to the walkaround web is that the flow of software and uses has to be unimpeded.
Even more than that, a Flickr or Facebook or other instant-social-phenomenom has to work on the weblet even easier than anywhere else.
That ain't so easy — works great with what hasn't been invented yet is a pretty steep order. It means devices have to be flexibly designed and quickly incorporate new features (see webcam, GPS). And the new features ought to be stimulating the creation of those suddenly-huge phenomena: Things like voip cam calls or location-based to-do lists, what we used to think of as “killer apps.”
I like to read (and surf) in bed. I've found that even the 6-ounce 770 (without cover) is enough to tire my arm if I read or browse too long. Someone else will have to graph iPod and mp3-player and cellphone sizes/weights to identify how little and how lightweight a device needs to be for people to carry it around.
It's not the hardware
These and a couple generations of UMPC's and ultra-small laptops seem predicated on the belief that desktop users want desktop power in their carry-everywhere tablet.
Yes, of course, “faster, smaller, cheaper, more powerful” has driven computing progress since the days of Apple II computers. It's logical to extend that thinking to web tablets. But I think the walkaround web probably requires two more developments before it is the web we will think of first when we hear the word “internet.”
The first is connection-ubiquity. Always on really means always on the net. Ari's story about not realizing his daughter was doing the internet thing as they drove on the highway — because her NIT paired silently with the cellphone in his pocket and put her online — meant the walkaround web was real. At least if you worked for a telecom who provided unlimited data calling.
And WiMAX will bring connection-ubiquity — the drivearound web — to many others. Well at least to those living in Baltimore, Washington and Chicago.
For visual-IMing to shake the ground, you'll have to be able to reach your friends at any time, wherever they are. If their weblet doesn't answer … well, you get the picture. Just as email didn't transform our lives until everyone had email, the walkaround web won't fully emerge till we all have it.
The other development I think must occur is something along the lines of “divergent convergence.” Not the fixed convergence we've seen with every cellphone has a camera, but not unlike what we've seen with the variety of uses on the Internet Tablet. I suspect that the essential precondition for purchasing a weblet is not “just as powerful as your other computer” but instead “fills one of your needs, plus the walkaround web.”
The “other” need a weblet meets is going to be different for different folks. The Nokia Internet Tablet screen is big and displays maps better than all the original small-screened GPS devices, so I want to use my NIT for GPS too. Or: I like to read e-books, so I want to use my NIT for e-reading and the web. Or: I like to watch movies. Or: I like to play chess (or: other games). Or: I need to be able to read that update in Word/in PDF/in Excel when we go away this weekend. Or: I want to stream music from my PC. Or: I want to draw on a touch-sensitive tablet. Or: I want to program. And so on.
I'm just naming things we already have, of course. Each of you reading this (and me too) have one or another of these other needs already, and so we have already bought our Nokia walkaround weblet. Every time I get excited in this blog (such as here and here), it's because I see another convergence for yet another group of people.
And so the walkaround web spreads a little wider.
 A few years later the price was even lower.
 The FreePad marketing always showed the user with his or her shoes kicked off, in a non-business setting. But its size never said Take me everywhere.
 Sort of a Kerensky and not a Lenin, if you will, to stick with the revolutionary conceit.
 And more RAM and bigger storage: you know the litany. For forty years, Moore's law has conditioned us to think this way.