Flip Tablet

Given that nobody seems to have a screen technology ready for market that’s both (a) daylight-readable, and (b) comparable to an AMOLED or IPS LCD indoors… an interim solution would be a single device with both a conventional tablet screen and E-ink.

My original vision is for a tablet with a conventional 7″ screen, but on the back, it has a 6-7″ E-ink display. I’d expect that only one of them would be active at any one time; the device’s motion sensors could detect when you flip it over, plus it’d also have some other mechanism to select a screen – maybe a hardware button, maybe a particular touchscreen gesture. But however you do the flip, it’s basically just deactivating the one screen and activating the other; if they don’t have identical resolutions, that’d probably involve a configuration change, but that should be no big deal.

So the use model is basically, when you’re indoors you’d generally use it like any other 7″ tablet, with the conventional screen. But when you’re outdoors, you could use the e-ink instead; sure, you’d be somewhat limited by the constraints of E-ink, but you could still do a lot more than you can with a conventional tablet outdoors. E-book reading is the obvious killer app, but most web surfing would be fine – especially reading long-form articles – as well as email and chat.

Apart from the two screens, I see it being a pretty conventional tablet in other ways. It’d be nice if both screens were covered in Gorilla Glass (or equivalent), since the device doesn’t have a back to set it on. And since it’s meant for outdoor use, waterproofing would also be a bonus. Possibly it would make sense to optimize a few apps for E-ink, but I suspect there’d not even be much of that needed.

Cameras might be interesting – again, since the device doesn’t have a back, the question of front- or rear-facing gets a bit muddled. Maybe it has two intermediate-res cameras (say 3-5MP), one on each side, and you just use whichever one’s appropriate for what you’re doing. Or maybe the E-ink would be so lousy as a viewfinder that we can effectively ignore it – but I’d see some interesting use cases if that’s not the case.

Moving beyond the original form factor, the same idea could theoretically work in both larger and smaller sizes. The 9.7″ screen from the Kindle DX would sit nicely on the back of a 10-inch tablet, for example. Thinking about it, it’d also be really handy to have this tech just in a phone – you wouldn’t get full smartphone functionality in direct sunlight, but it’d be a heck of a lot easier to place and receive calls, send & receive texts, and do email than with current displays. [I’ll need a different name, though – “Flip Phone” has too much baggage.]

Another variation is to arrange the two screens in a clamshell, something like Sony’s Tablet P. I’d like to see a 180-degree hinge, personally, so that you could close it with the screens on either the inside or the outside, meaning that you could still use it like an ordinary tablet or E-reader. This form factor would obviate the need for Gorilla Glass, as well as enabling some interesting use cases – such as using it like a mini-laptop, with soft keyboard on the E-ink side serving as IME for whatever’s running on the LCD/LED. But it also introduces some awkwardnesses: other than specialized use cases like the keyboard, does the device still only drive one screen at a time? Or does it get into the same kind of split-screen craziness that the Sony did? And it obviously increases the build complexity.

What would it take to build any of these devices? Obviously, I’d require a hardware partner, some company with experience making white-label tablets but willing to build something outside the conventional box. And it’d take some Android firmware hacking to organize the “flip” – theoretically, I could do this part, but in practice, it’s not an area of the OS that I have any experience with. And finally, it’d require all the overhead that a hardware business always does, like inventory, distribution, marketing, and so on.

IOW, it’d need capital – either conventional venture, or maybe crowdsourced. But either way, you’d need to convince the backers that you had the means to pull this off.

I also suspect that a small, indie hardware venture like this would have trouble competing on raw specs with the big boys, and thus this device would be a tough sell to the average consumer. It’s already going to have higher manufacturing costs, just from the extra screen, and it’d also be at an automatic disadvantage in today’s thinness wars. It’d have the one really unique hook, but would that be enough to hang a device on?

So ideally, this device should be made by an existing hardware player, who can get that stuff right. The obvious candidates are Sony and Amazon – they have the E-ink experience.

But I’m afraid that I’m not the guy to drive it; it’s just too far outside my areas of expertise. And as a WAG, it’d take 18-24 months for someone like me to bring to market – by which time screen technology may well have overtaken it.

TreadBrightly

The vision here is satnav for pedestrians. Given a route (potentially just a GPX file), it would:

  • Show it to you on a map
  • Tell you where/when to turn
  • Include a “background mode” that would vibrate/ping you when you need to turn, or when you’re off course
  • Show nearby services

Could be fed by either raw GPX, GMaps walking directions (I’m assuming the APIs are compatible), or GPX + auxiliary data. This last case could involve things like written directions (Turn left on Oak Street, go through the hand gate, etc.), specific nearby attractions (restaurants, bars, hotels, …), or whatever. They’d either be tied to specific points in the directions, or just geolocated so the app could show & tell you about them.

So initially, this app could be fed both by existing crowdsourced GPX repos, and by GMaps directions. For directions augmented by aux data, this could either be crowdsourced again, or could come from professional writers in the form of an e-guide that you’d buy and download. For the crowdsource option, I envision it being run quite like an app store; essentially anyone could register as a “publisher”, upload e-guides, set a price, and sell them. Buyers would get to rate and comment on them.

Target markets would be hikers, as well as pedestrian travelers of any sort. [Visiting Munich? Buy the e-guide to the best beer halls!]

From a tech side, it’d require:

  • A good mapping app, including offline maps – for use in the backcountry, or foreign locales – as well as a selection of different basemaps (GMaps, OS, USGS Topo, etc.). It’d also be cool if it had some high-contrast option for better direct-sun readability.
  • The various navigation modes. Background mode seems particularly interesting, because you’d want it to work something like: wake up every 5-10 minutes, get a quick GPS fix, make sure you’re still on course, then go back to sleep to save battery. Wake time could be adaptive, so it’s awake more in the vicinity of turns you need to take, for example.
  • The e-guide store, perhaps just in the form of a mobile-optimized website. This store should also be accessible from the desktop web, including:
    • facility to buy e-guides and send to a registered device. As a first step, this could just be an email with a clickable link to the download
    • management of the e-guides you own
    • publisher tools (especially if we go the crowdsourced route)
  • On-device management of e-guides

Could the on-device client be built entirely as a web app? Possibly, but this introduces additional challenges, like offline storage of maps & routes, and fine-grained control of GPS. I don’t know that a web app can set an Alarm in Android, for example. Might make the most sense as a hybrid app; do some bits in HTML5, for easier portability, and then code fully native bits where you need to. And yes, this one really should be cross-platform, not just Android.

But I also have this vision of a hardware aspect, running Android (of course), as the Kindle to my e-guide books… I see a waterproof/semi-rugged device with a 5-6″ daylight-readable screen, and packing enough battery to run GPS+Glonass for 10-12 hours continuously. Heck, my ForeRunner can do that, why can’t a phablet?

Even if I don’t do my own hardware, there definitely seems like an opportunity to pitch it for OEM inclusion on devices like the Motorola Defy series.

Android Tablet Sales

It’s been a great meme in 2011 that Android tablets are selling a tiny fraction of what iPad is. And the conventional explanations mostly seem to be along the lines of “Android can’t compete. ” So here is a different take.

It IS difficult to compete head on with both the iPad and iPhone, because they are really good at what they do. But I think the main reason Android is out-selling iPhone (in phones) is choice. The iPhone is resolutely one size fits all; the gospel of Jobs says that it’s the perfect form factor. If you agree, then the iPhone is a great handset for you – but if you don’t, there are a hundred Android handsets offering you alternatives. Bigger screens, hardware keyboards, lower price points, unusual form factors, dedicated Facebook buttons, you name it. Not to mention choice in carriers, something the iPhone is only recently improving on.

OTOH, the first wave of Honeycomb tablets were all aimed directly at the iPad’s form factor and, if you were lucky, the iPad’s price point. So then Joe Customer walked into a shop, looking to buy an iPad (because of Apple advertising, and because his friends had iPads). And he saw what amounted to this: the iPad, and a bunch of iPad wannabes – with all the wannabes costing as much, or more. Which do you think he’s going to buy?

But change is coming, and it will come when Android tablets offer real choices. Hardware keyboards, unusual form factors. Lower price points – and not just due to cheaper construction, but due to different value propositions.

And of course, different screen sizes, probably the most obvious differentiator of all. Sure, Android has had 7″ options from the start – but until recently, these have fallen into two groups. There were the bottom-feeders whose low quality was evident the moment you picked one up. And then there were the big-name entries, like the original Samsung Tab and the HTC Flyer; fine tablets in their own right, but again, costing at least as much as an iPad. And that’s a really tough sell. Unless you really want a smaller tab, why NOT buy the one that gives you twice as much screen real estate for the same price?

But again, the landscape is shifting. In addition to the hybrid reader-tabs, the Flyer has dropped a bit in price, and Samsung is back in the ring with second-gen tabs that undercut the iPad in both size and cost. And other contenders are coming up as well.

And what about LARGER screens? How long until we see an Android tablet with an 11″ screen, or 12″? Samsung seems the obvious candidate here with 4 different sizes of Tab already, plus the 5″ pseudo-tablet Note. What are the chances that they’ll repackage the excellent LCD from the Series 5 Chromebook into a Tab 12.1? It’s not clear that consumers want even bigger tablets, but it’s not clear that they don’t, either.

Asus is another manufacturer to watch, with their netbook heritage and their demonstrated willingness to take risks in the tablet space. They’re already becoming a front-runner with their acclaimed Transformer series; again, the key here is offering some variety in terms of form factor.

So from where I’m sitting, everyone proclaiming the death of the Android tablet is just way too early. Android tablets are where Android phones were in 2009 – remember that? When everyone was pronouncing how Android was a failure, simply because the G1 and original Droid weren’t “iPhone killers”? What a difference a year or two makes.

The Android tablet army is just beginning to come over the ridge. Patience, grasshopper.