Competing Objectives - No One Device Can Win

22 June, 2012 10:21PM ยท 5 minute read

There is no one device that can do everything. All engineering is about balance and choosing the right trade-offs. The more generic a device is, the less it is specifically useful for the task at hand. When creating a new device it’s critical to understand what purpose it is intended for, and choose your compromises carefully.

Since mainframe computers it was the dream to take computers portable. Eventually the laptop was created when people desired a portable computer to take with them wherever they needed to go. All of the benefits of portability immediately demanded a smaller screen size. Also without a power point (aka power strip) to connect to you needed to include batteries. Unfortunately those batteries went flat very quickly if you used desktop components, so they came up with lower-power CPUs, hard drives, smaller fans and so on. Unfortunately to get their power consumption down they had to slow things down so laptops became slower and less powerful than their desktop counterparts. Unfortunately even then they had to cut the weight of the portable down even further because it was too heavy to carry around easily.

If we choose portability over power there must be some sacrifices. The pinnacle of portability in the industry today, judged by its popularity, is the Apple MacBook Air. It’s thin, light and whilst it is not as powerful as desktops there is very little further it can go in terms of weight, thickness and battery performance. Certainly they will improve but so too will the desktops and the laptop will remain forever behind the desktop in terms of raw power.

The two key players in the industry: Apple and Microsoft, have chosen two different paths with respect to their software on desktops and laptops. Microsoft expounds Windows Everywhere, such that the interface does not change in any way for laptop devices over desktop (they have multiple versions of Windows but these do not change the user interface methodology). In the past few years Apple have chosen a more tailored approach by introducing full screen modes and multi-touch trackpad gestures for laptops (neither of which are as useful on a desktop where the larger screen area allows multiple larger windows and where a mouse offers more speed and precision than a trackpad). The same operating system for desktops is used for laptops but with tweaks that acknowledge the limitations of the smaller screen size of a laptop and provide a more tailored experience for laptops not just in hardware but software as well.

The “new” devices in the computing space are the tablet and the smartphone. (By new perhaps I should say recently popular entrants to the personal computer space - both smartphones and tablets have existed for over a decade) Again there are two approaches by the leaders in the industry (Google is not a leader in the desktop space and Android only has a reasonable presence in the mobile space). Apple tailored their operating system to be touch only without a stylus and a totally different set of rules for navigation that do not require a mouse. Microsoft again says Windows Everywhere and says that Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 will share the “Metro” interface first developed for the Zune, then Windows Phone 7 and this will apply to desktops, laptops, tablets and mice with only selected tablets, all laptops and desktops able to run the more classic Windows 7 interface. (Metro has evolved considerably in that time but the issue is their common use of the same interface across multiple hardware platforms).

Apples iPad and iPhone have sold very well and there are many theories as to why. In the end the software has been tailored specifically for a touch interface and accounts for the hardware limitations (no Virtual Machine layer, small amounts of RAM, low powered CPUs, use of hardware acceleration and hence restrictions of permitted software decoders). In trying to compete Microsoft has created a compromised experience for some users. In so doing they are guaranteeing that one of their fronts will falter: given Metro is designed for touch one would think that the desktop experience will suffer. Perhaps this is okay given that tablets are beginning to sell in volumes comparable to PCs in the consumer space. Perhaps soon tablet sales will exceed desktop sales. Then again, why compromise in the first place if you already have a successful desktop operating system?

Some may argue that Microsoft are hedging their bets by providing their classic Windows 7 interface if required on some devices. If they truly believe that Metro is the future they clearly lack enough conviction to put their interface where their customers face is. Catering for legacy has hamstrung Microsoft in the past and at the moment where they could choose to break free and think different, they fall back to their old mantra and something that could have been greater is now diminished.

Apple chose to have different user interfaces on its products and still succeeded - so too could their competition. Microsoft however are pushing one interface for everything and with four different device classes it’s clear that one or more devices will be disadvantaged by Windows 8. With these sorts of competing objectives, it’s clear that no one hardware device can win, nor can one software interface over different hardware devices win on all fronts either.