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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why the polarisation?

Perhaps the biggest problem is that it's difficult to know who exactly the Nokia tablets are primarily aimed at. Are they for the casual user who just wants to look at some websites while lounging on the sofa, or the enthusiastic user who wants a pocket-sized alternative to their laptop with a full range of computing features?

Obviously both of these people would get a lot out of the Nokia tablets right now. The tablets have an excellent and easy to use browser which can display almost all websites, even Flash and AJAX ones, but they also feature an open software platform that can give you most of the functions of a full-size computer.

However, going on from here, which direction should the tablets go in?

Until now, Nokia has favoured the more computing-oriented user as they've spent years courting the open source community, and deliberately made the tablets very open and "hackable" to appeal to serious hardcore computer users. The Nokia tablets have become cult devices, with very dedicated fans doing all kinds of things to push the hardware to the limit. Is this the future of the tablets?


If Nokia stick with the current Hildon interface for the tablets, there's a risk that more casual users will buy devices such as the iPod Touch, whose interface emphasises a small number of the most popular functions.

If Nokia step away from Hildon and go for a more simplified tablet interface such as Canola (which the ITS advocates), they risk losing most of the devoted fan base that they've built up since the very first tablet in 2005.

Neither option is particularly attractive, because casual users represent a very large potential market, while dedicated fans represent a lot of goodwill towards a particular product.

If Nokia tries to move in both directions, they run the risk of annoying everyone and pleasing no one.

So they're stuck. Or are they?


Can you please all the people all the time?

When we talk about the tablets we're actually talking about two things: the tablet itself, and the operating system and interface that runs on it. These aren't tightly bound together, you can change the OS and interface on your tablet if you want to.

In theory people could install whichever OS and interface they liked, and everyone would be happy. At the moment this is a pretty difficult thing to do, but it could be made simpler, especially if it was done using Nokia's official firmware update software.

That would be messy though, and potentially very bad PR. People might feel like they were buying a cheap half-finished build-it-yourself kit, the tablets would become the Ikea furniture of portable computing. It would also possibly make life very difficult for the Maemo software platform which Nokia has spent so much time promoting, especially if people changed the operating system as well as the interface.


What everyone needs

Nokia needs the tablets to be a complete "straight out of the box" product, where you can just buy it and use it straight away with a minimum of fuss, like a DVD player or a toaster.

Casual tablet users need an interface which lets them get to the features they use the most as quickly and easily as possible, without lots of junk they never use getting in the way.

Serious tablet users need an open device which lets them run as much software as possible and access as many settings as possible. They don't want to be shut out of anything by a nanny interface that spoon-feeds them unnecessarily.


Here's what the Internet Tablet School suggests

Casual users probably don't want to install or alter anything on the tablet. They just want to go ahead and use whatever comes with the tablet, and they want it to fulfil their needs straight away.

Serious users on the other hand are extremely enthusiastic about installing and altering stuff, the whole attraction of the tablets in the serious computing community is how open they are to alteration.

Given this difference, it would make sense to pre-install a Canola-like interface on the tablet to cater for casual users, but include something in the sales package (a booklet, a CD, a memory card full of software/firmware) to help serious users install a more serious interface.