Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Info Pad Creeps Closer

It's hard to believe that it's been four years since I first wrote about the idea of an info pad.  I thought for sure we'd have one by now, but to my immense frustration it's still not here.  We're gradually getting closer, though, so I think this would be a good time to revisit the idea.

As I explained in my original post on the subject (link), the info pad is a small tablet computer designed not for consuming content but for managing the information needs of a knowledge worker.  It's a business tool, not an entertainment device.  It has a stylus, so you can take notes and sketch on it, but it also acts as an extended memory, letting you access your old files, messages, contacts, and other important documents.

Mike Rohde drew a picture that captured the idea well (link):

For people who work with huge amounts of information, the info pad is a Holy Grail device.  It's the extended memory that captures what you're doing during the day, and lets you easily recall anything you need to know, whenever you need it. 

We studied the info pad idea when I worked at Palm.  There was a big audience for it, very distinct from the people who buy mobile devices for entertainment or communication.   Unfortunately, Palm got into financial trouble before we could do anything about it.  Since then I've tried twice to pull together a startup to build one.  The result was always the same: many people loved the idea (I can't tell you how many venture capitalists wanted to be beta testers).  But no one wanted to fund it, because hardware startups are viewed as incredibly high risk in Silicon Valley.  I was told to go to the big hardware companies and convince them to build it, but when I tried they were all focused on copying each other rather than creating anything new.

So I settled back and waited, figuring someone would eventually build it.  And I waited.  And waited. 

I'm still waiting today.

Signs of hope

Lately we've started to see some devices that raise my hopes.  The info pad isn't here yet, but I wonder if we're starting to see the first hints of it on the horizon.

The first is the Boogie Board, a tablet device that's literally a replacement for a dry-erase board.  It has a touch-sensitive monochrome screen, so you can write on it with a stylus, finger, or any other object.  Like a dry-erase board, you can't save pages or do much of anything else with them.  So it's not even close to an info pad.  But it currently sells for just $40 on Amazon, showing that basic tablet technologies can get to extremely low prices (link). 

A step up from Boogie Board is NoteSlate (link).  It's a tablet note-taker that works a lot like a piece of paper.  Like Boogie Board, it has a monochrome screen (no grays) and you write on it with a stylus.  Unlike Boogie Board, you'll supposedly be able to save pages, and share them with others via wifi.  The online illustrations of the NoteSlate prototype look nice, although text on its monochrome screen looks a bit blocky (I'd be a lot happier with smaller pixels and grayscale, so you could do some subtle anti-aliasing of lines).

This closeup shows the graininess of the writing in the mockup device.  The right software, and a better screen, can fix those jaggies.

The price will supposedly be $99, although that model may not include wifi.  It's hard to tell exactly what NoteSlate will do because it's not shipping yet, the developer is located in the Czech Republic, and the company's website is written in broken English.  Here's a sample:
Sorry if we were not able to response sooner all the great emails. When we have been preparing year ago all this, about bit weird NoteSlate device, we hoped this kind of exciting story becomes real, real product. We are going to make this thing real, also thanks to you, to produce open-source NoteSlate device and create unique NotesLate handwritten network. For 99$.

You don't have to speak good English to create a great product.  But the fact that the company can't afford to get an English native speaker to edit its website implies that it has very few resources.  That will make it hard to finish the product, let alone get it into retail distribution.  I'm amazed that such a small, early-stage company has managed to get so much press coverage.  Some websites even speculate that the product may be a hoax (link).  I was able to find an interview in Czech with the product's designer, Martin Hasek, and he gives some more details on the plans.  You can read Google's translation here.

NoteSlate has been nominated for an Index award, a design competition based in Denmark.  The online nomination gives more details on the product (link).  Reading between the lines, it looks like Martin is a designer who cooked up the NoteSlate idea.  He's apparently working with Albumteam, a Czech company that sells an electronic photo viewing tablet (link).  And there was a hint that the manufacturing might be done by another Czech company, Jablotron (link).  At this point I'm struggling to interpret auto-translated Czech blog posts, which is not a great way to get information, but that tells you how difficult it is to find hard details on NoteSlate.  (If anyone reads Czech and can give a better translation, please post a comment.)

The bottom line, I think, is that NoteSlate may be real, or may be caught in limbo.  When I was trying to get the info pad idea funded, I toyed with the idea of announcing it, getting people excited, and then using the excitement to get someone to fund it.  That felt too much like a pyramid scheme to me, but it's a possible approach.

High hopes for the Flyer.  There are several other upcoming tablet devices that bear watching, including the mySpark education tablet (link), and the Kno dual-screen device (link).  It's very hard to tell if any of these will actually ship.  But the device that has me the most excited is one that I know exists: the HTC Flyer, a new Android-based tablet computer previewed earlier this month.  The Flyer is a seven-inch Android tablet, very similar in looks to the tablets coming from Samsung and Motorola.  But there's one crucial difference: the Flyer comes with a stylus.

That sounds like a simple change, but actually it's a profound difference.  The iPad and most Android tablets can't tell the difference between a stylus and a finger.  If you try to write on them with a stylus, the screen will also sense the places where your hand touches the screen, and you'll end up with multitouch confusion.  HTC has paid extra for a touch sensor that can distinguish between the stylus and your hand.  Touch it with the stylus and you'll get ink on screen; touch it with your fingers and you can swipe, pinch, or do anything else you'd expect from a touch tablet.

HTC has also added a note-taking application to the tablet, so you can write on the screen during a meeting and save your notes to Evernote.  You can also record sound during a meeting, in a process that reminds me of the LiveScribe pen.

None of this is completely new -- Microsoft has been pushing Tablet PC systems for note-taking for the better part of a decade.  But they were extremely expensive, complex, heavy, and had very short battery life.  If you want an example, check out Asus' new $999 tablet PC, the EP121 (link).  In contrast, the Flyer looks to be the first product that marries the good ergonomics and usability of an Android tablet with reasonable note-taking.

What's missing.  Unfortunately, the Flyer has several very significant drawbacks.  The first and most significant is its price.  There have been several reports that the Flyer will see for about 700 euros in Europe, which is about $950 in the US (link).  That's an outrageous price.  When we studied the info pad idea in the US and Europe, the top price most people were willing to pay was about $499, and the demand sweet spot was $299.  At $950, the Flyer is going to be compared to full-function notebook computers, and it won't come off well in those comparisons.  Next to a notebook, it has very little memory, no keyboard, and few apps.  The price makes it an interesting curiosity for technophiles, not a mainstream product.

Maybe HTC is hoping for a big mobile operator subsidy that will make the Flyer more affordable.  Or maybe it's planning to strip out some features.  The announced version of the Flyer has a 3G cellular radio built into it, which increases its cost.  HTC says a WiFi version will come out later.  That might cut as much as $100 from the parts cost, which could translate to a couple of hundred dollars retail.  But still that would leave the device at $750, which is vastly too expensive.

I am also worried about the marketing of the Flyer.  HTC is positioning it as an ideal device for gaming, browsing, productivity, communication, and just about anything else except making espresso (link).  The message reminds me a lot of the old Palm LifeDrive (link), and we know how that worked out (link).

It's very easy for tech companies to fall into this sort of kitchen sink marketing, because they don't want to give up any possible customers.  But the messages tend to cancel each other out -- if the device is great for gaming and music, it sounds inappropriate for business productivity, and vice versa.  This also leads to bad design decisions.  If you build in graphics acceleration, 3D, HDMI video, dual cameras, and a stylus, the device gets too expensive for any single use.

Would your boss reimburse you for buying this?

It doesn't help that HTC has a clear case of iPad envy.  Their website even echoes some of Apple's iPad language:

Apple:  "A magical and revolutionary product."
HTC:  "HTC Flyer's magic pen transforms anything...Work or play, it's magic for the whole family."

The trouble is that Apple's already cornered the market on people who want a magical tablet experience.  HTC needs to play counterpoint to that, not imitate it.

Where the heck is Baby Bear when we need him?

I feel like Goldilocks.  Papa Bear (Tablet PC and Flyer) is too expensive and too loaded with features.  Mama Bear (Boogie Board and NoteSlate) is too limited.  What I want -- what's required to kick off the info pad revolution -- is a product in the middle on both price and features, optimized just for managing information.  At its current price, the Flyer is destined to sell very poorly.  When that happens, I hope HTC won't cancel the product.  Instead, it should strip out the 3G and the entertainment features, focusing it into a business tool that could sell for less than the magic $499 price point.  If Flyer doesn't survive, maybe NoteSlate or one of the other note-taking tablets will make it to market. I can always hope.

Once we get the right hardware, all we'd need would be the right software to make the info pad a reality.

We don't have the info pad yet, but we're getting closer. I am cautiously hopeful that I won't have to write this post again in another four years.

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