In defense of phablets


A while ago I wrote a "manifesto" on mobile devices. My idea at the time was that a mobile device should be a real computer, and anything less and we'd never really be happy with them. Further, I theorized that as computers got faster, eventually we would each carry a device that would serve all our (local) computational needs. This "phone" for lack of a better term would tether to your display and keyboard at your desk. A folding keyboard elsewhere for lack of other input devices, a heads up display if that was desirable etc. This is the ultimate convergence device. One device to rule them all. It's simple, it's small, you can carry it anywhere and interact with it directly, or tether up to a screen at work to get down to business.

At the time what I didn't understand was that it's very few users who care if their data is local or not. To me, the ubiquity of wireless connectivity was no-where near sufficient to warrant putting all my data in the cloud. I often couldn't get it! Some of my data sure, but not all of it. It still isn't anywhere near that level, but what gets built is decided by silicon valley, not by people living deep in the Rockies or in the rural hills of the east. If data is stored "in the cloud" (ugh, I hate that phrase), then there is no reason you *need* all these devices to be the same device. And if you don't need them to be, it's both easier and more lucrative to sell you lots of devices.

All of this is to say, I got that one wrong. Although, at the time I made this prediction desktops were still commonplace, and it is now common to use a laptop that wirelessly tethers to an external display and keyboard, I was at least partly right. Anyway, I don't think my vision was a bad idea, it's just not where industry is going to take us if we sit back and watch.

I hate dealing with 15 devices. I don't like buying them, charging them, storing them, setting them up, etc. The last thing I want is 8 devices to do what one device can do. As a result, I've resisted first smartphones, then netbooks, then E-readers, and then tablets. A laptop can do these things, why push around another device? But I want to do mobile computing. I want to find something that fills those useful niches, but doesn't just add a device.

Mobile computing
I have been privileged enough to get the opportunity to try a lot of different mobile devices over the years. Here, I'm taking laptops for granted, and focusing on things smaller than laptops.

In highschool I had a newton 2000 with a keyboard. That was a really great device. I carried it to school and typed up homework on it. I used it a lot. Back then most of the useful work I did on a computer was word processing, and this actually filled that need quite well. I often wrote papers and printed them off without ever using another device In this sense the Newton was "real computer" in that it allowed full content creation without use of another device (for the needs of the time).

Later on I inherited a Jornada 720. The clamshell form-factor was wonderful, and the 0.75 pitch keyboard was a good size to still be typable, but not good enough for general word processing, especially with the heavy screen tipping the device over all the time. Also Windows CE was useless. I eventually got Linux running on it, but it didn't have enough ram to every really work well with the Linux UI at the time, even for someone like me. It was a great idea, and came very close to being really useful, but missed.

While working at Google they gave me a G1, the first Google smartphone. It was very cool, but I immediately bemoaned it being only kind of a computer. It was a single user system. Word processing on it was almost impossible. It was a phone, and could do maps and such, but it was massively frustrating to know I had that computing power in there but couldn't really get to it. It was neat to own, but I never would've purchased it.

Next they gave me a Nexus 1. This device had a large enough screen to conceivably do real stuff on it, but had no physical keyboard. Eventually they released a version of android that could handle an external bluetooth keyboard and I got one. This gave me a device kindof like a tiny newton. Android still felt like it was making itself a second class citizen, more so than the newton did. I never did "real" work on it because the OS was too hobbled. I eventually got a real gnu userland working on it, but even then the screen was just too small. Close, but this still didn't fill the niche I'd been looking for since I was little, either in form factor or software.

Eventually they gave me a galaxy nexus. Now that was a real change. By this time android had reached it's tween years. It had started to realize that eventually it was going to be a real OS, but had no idea how to get there yet. While I had this device I quit my job at Google and went on the road.Living out of a car the combination of a bluetooth keyboard and the galaxy nexus was incredibly powerful. Plopping down a laptop in a cafe is a statement "I'm going to be here a while", setting a cellphone and a little keyboard down? Not so much. I was able to write emails in internet cafe's when out of cell range up near Yosemite. I didn't need an inverter to charge it. I could charge it over and over off the car battery without worrying about killing the battery, or I could use a solar charger. I wrote a lot of email on that device. It felt kindof like I had a newton again, but with too small a screen. It had grown up enough that I could do real work on it, finally. Still though, it felt hobbled. Posting to a blog wasn't really feasible.

Around then I gave Jess an Asus transformer. It could run Linux dual boot. Sadly while a friend of ours had it working, she never *quite* got it there. This device was a really interesting form-factor. A small and light tablet, and a keyboard. She used it as her primary computing device for a year. This made it painfully clear that Android was indeed not a real OS yet. For example, every browser available for it was highly unstable when you *really* used it (not just poked at it like you would on a phone). There were websites that simply didn't work. Many websites have apps for phones that you can use instead on android, but these were almost always missing critical features. Gmail for example to this day is still missing half the features that are available on the website. For certain things she still needed a "real" computer.

Somewhere in the middle of all that I also got a kindle 3G. This device let me carry around a ton of books with me, yet still read the in full sun, and almost never recharge. It also gave me a backup way to check my email from almost anywhere for free. I rooted it of course, like everything else, but even with console while It's an amazing device, it's just too slow and clunky to use for anything real. I love it, but fundamentally it's not in this class of devices at all, so we'll toss it aside and discuss it no further.

One other thing I discovered though on the road with the galaxy nexus... Why is it a phone? Eventually I realized how much gas I was burning trying to find wifi and purchased a Verizon hotspot to save money. This got me the coverage of Verizon at $50 a month for 5GB, far cheaper than I could get Verizon phone plan (I needed Verizon for the coverage). I had a $2 a day plan (only for days I used it) with T-mobile on my galaxy nexus. After a while though I got data calling working on the hotspot and it was more reliable. At some point, I realized I didn't need my cellphone to be a cellphone. It was just a tiny tablet.

My latest laptop was yet another attempt to hit the middle-ground, but from the top. I got a Dell XPS12, this is a flipscreen convertible laptop that turns in to a tablet. It's a neat idea, but for the most part I haven't used it as a tablet. Only recently did the drivers finally work for gestures on the touchscreen under Linux. I now have a tablet but... I'm not entirely sure what to use a large heavy tablet for. A light tablet is comfortable to hold in one hand and read on, to hold over your head lying on your back, etc. With a large tablet the only use is while standing, but... unless you need a large screen a small light tablet is still better for that use too.

Recently, I went to purchase a smartphone. My Galaxy Nexus is bordering on ancient at this point at 4 years old. The screen is shattered, and it's just not working that well. It makes me sad that this is how technology works, but it is. So, I went looking for a new phone. I realized that what I wanted was a 6" tablet... but, those don't exist. 8" is too big, I can't carry it around in a pocket, it would have to be in a backpack. 5" is too small, I can't edit real text and use it like a real device.

So, I got a 6" phone. I actually do have the Tmobile plan on it, for emergencies and getting paged for work. I'd prefer not to have the radio as it uses power. I'd also prefer not to have it since the radio makes the device accessible to the NSA for domestic spying (no, it's not a conspiracy theory, this one is real). But... oh well, 911 support is nice. Overall, paired with a folding keyboard, it's getting really close to what I've been looking for since I was a kid. Android has made it to it's teen years now, it's growing in to a real adult operating system, with multi-user support and all the basics, but it's not actually there yet. It's gotten easier to run a GNU userland as well now, though I'm running a nightly build of a bleeding edge rooted open source image right now (cyanogenmod) so I haven't gotten it working yet.

So, I still have a kindle, a camera (for low-light pictures), a HAM radio, a car, and a verizon hotspot, but for my computing needs I have 2 devices. My Nexus 6 phablet, and a Dell XPS 12 (the convertable laptop).

Both the phablet and the laptop can make phone calls. Both can do text editing, run a terminal, run SSH client and server, run a decent web browser, etc. 2 devices that can basically do everything is getting pretty close (strictly speaking I also have a camera, a HAM radio, and a car, but you get the idea). I find myself grabbing the phablet frequently to use as a reading device, even inside the house. I don't have to plug it in and can just carry it around my 750 square foot house.

The next step is to finish making android into a real OS. Apps either shouldn't exist and the web versions tested on a browser, or should support the full set of features. Alternatively, we could just get really good at getting gnu/linux to run on these devices, so we can actually use the full sweet of software available.

Exciting times. I have a folding keyboard coming in the mail, and I'm excited to try writing blog-posts on the Nexus as soon as it does.