Building a Better Tablet Browser Part I: The problem

I have an iPad and a TouchPad. I also had a Samsung Galaxy Tab for a week but didn’t find Honeycomb good enough to warrant a permanent spot in my collection.

One thing that strikes me is how awkward tablet browser interfaces seem to be.

Stretch Armstrong can go back without moving his hands. You and me, not so much.

What the tablet makers have done is take the exact same browser paradigm popular on desktops (with Honeycomb even going so far as to bring desktop browser tabs) and shoehorn it into a tablet screen. Since all the buttons are not within the range of where the fingers are, the user has to move their hand from where it was naturally and extend it up to hit the buttons. Instinctively, this just doesn’t feel right. I’ve tried to break this down into more definable reasons:

  1. Economy of movement is good, and the tablet browser as is does not minimize movement well. The less a user has to move to do something, the better. All the more so on a touchscreen, which requires more movement to get from point A to point B (it’s a 1:1 ratio of movement in life to movement on the screen, whereas a mouse/trackpad amplifies the movements you make in a few inches of space to cover a much larger screen). While it may require an inch or so of movement to flick a PC’s cursor 6 inches up to the back button, it requires the full 6 inches of movement for your finger on a tablet. Bad.
  2. Unlike desktops (or even laptops), the hands are not just used for interacting with a tablet; they’re also used for holding it and supporting its weight. If the user has to move their hand to do something, they have to shift how they are holding the tablet every time they need to use one of the browser’s buttons. Bad.
  3. Accuracy suffers. Pick a key on your keyboard and try hitting it with your wrists resting on the hand rests. Now lift your entire arm and try zooming into it with your finger. It’s not difficult (unless you’ve been hanging out with Jack Daniels), but it does take somewhat more effort than the former. I think this is because when your wrist is stable, you only have to move your fingers whereas you have to use your entire upper arm for the latter, which involves more “moving parts” and takes more effort to get the same level of accuracy. Bad.
How can we fix this? I have my ideas which I’ll discuss later. What about you?

Setting a Straw-man Argument on Fire

Now that HP is “exploring options” for webOS, speculation has run rampant about the future of webOS. Some ideas are thoughtful, others well-meaning but boneheaded, and then some are oddly malicious posts that seem to be actively hoping for webOS’s death (I’m guessing these people also hate adorable puppies, sunshine, and their father, but I digress).

There’s one argument against the desirability of webOS for future partners that I want to address in particular because, as with many wrong ideas, it seems quite reasonable on first glance. It has appeared in a handful of places, and I won’t quote any directly, but the argument is along the lines of:

Why should any company be confident making hardware for HP’s webOS when HP itself isn’t confident enough in webOS to make hardware for it?

Seems pretty reasonable, right? Well, no.

The problem with this argument is that it presumes if something is not optimal for one company to do, it’s not optimal for any company to do. If HP contracts with an external catering company to run the employee cafeteria, does that mean catering isn’t a viable business? Of course not. It just means that HP knows where it can best focus its limited amount of time, money, and corporate focus, and running the kitchen and cash register is not among them. It is far better to leave it to a company that lives and breaths catering, which will always be able to deliver a better product at a lower price. Or there is the fact that the most popular OS in the world (Windows) comes from a company that doesn’t make its hardware. Does that mean Microsoft never had any confidence in Windows? No, it means they knew their strength was software (clearly) and they should leave making the boxes to companies that live and breathe sourcing operations and sales.

It’s the same deal for mobile hardware. While there are always exceptions, new state-of-the-art hardware comes at a fast and furious pace from a variety of world-class manufacturers in Asia. They live and breathe hardware, going from conceptual design to manufacturing and shipping at incredible speeds, and every part of those companies staff structure and corporate culture drive them to do it even better the next day. It would require an enormous investment of time and money to try and match the Asian giants in hardware manufacturing prowess, and with no certainty of success

(it’s also worth noting that the corollary of this is also true–the hardware giants all suck at software)

HP just realized it can do a better job with webOS if the webOS team laser-focuses on just that–webOS–and leaves other people to live and breathe the hardware on which it will run.