It’s Mobile World Congress 2011 this week, and amongst the throngs of Honeycomb tablets, Nokia and Microsoft square dancing on the showroom floor, there are a few announcements that may not be hugely exciting to the general public, but that the tech community should be giggling with glee about.
I’m talking about this:
Kal-El benchmark, courtesy of Anandtech
This is Nvidia announcing the Kal-El SoC (System on Chip), a 12-core Tegra 2 GPU mixed with a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU, all on one chip. Even better yet, this chip will be seen in tablet computers in 6 months time. That’s an incredibly aggressive timeline considering the brand new Tegra 2 chip is only 9 days old, and yet it’s performance has already been doubled.
The even bigger news that has slipped by, is that that’s not all.
Tegra 2 roadmap, courtesy of Anandtech
Notice the scale on the left hand side. Whilst the new chips are rising in a linear fashion, that’s a logarithmic scale, so every year, these chips will double in power. By 2014, we should have SoCs in mobile computers that are 4 times as fast as a Core i7 CPU and 25 times faster than a Core2 Duo. That’s an amazing amount of computational power in a chip the size of a peanut with a TDP of ~1W.
Modern UIs need this power
So what are we going to do with all this power? Whilst it’ll be like having an XBox 360 in your pocket, games aren’t the only thing that will use this power.
Just take a look at Microsoft’s Beauty of the Web demo site, showing off IE9’s hardware acceleration enabling it to make blizzards with HTML5 web technologies. That’s just the start of what we’ll be able to do with this power. Think how useful Honeycomb’s 3D Google maps will be, and think how it can be used to empower a mobile workforce, being able to take your entire desktop with you and have it work like your desktop pc. It will enable the mobile user to process huge data sets which previously would have been a server job, letting the workforce make complex decisions quickly and on the move.
Of course, don’t expect things to change overnight. The first things to happen will be “true” multi-tasking, then a proliferation of HD video including Skype. It’s taken years for web developers to embrace CSS3 functions, it’ll take another few years to truly embrace canvas, SVG and WebGL.
The future vision is coming
At CES 2009, Microsoft showed off a video for their Office of 2019 concept (below). The hardware announced today will drive this forward and enable developers to make these UIs of the future. I can’t wait to be part of this future
I’ve never really understood the netbook craze. I can see the benefits of having a lightweight, low-power computer that performs 90% of the tasks you use a personal computer for; it just hasn’t appealed to me, or my wallet.
I can understand that it’s a very cheap way to get online (even though they are double US$ the price in the UK), but I’ve been perfectly happy with a 13″ Macbook I bought 4 years ago. I haven’t seen a purpose to re-spend the money that I invested all those years ago on a laptop that can do half as much.
Other things worry me about netbooks though, they’re a stop-gap. Since the iPhone, the dream has been to have a fully-fledged PC available in your hand, that works quickly and has a long battery life. Netbooks bridged a gap by providing a long(er) battery life and smaller screen, but have left it to the big boys to sort out the proper way of interacting with these smaller devices. See my post on netbook touch screen usability for more on how infuriating it gets.
So, in the next two years, netbooks will die completely. They will be replaced by what these users have wanted all along: a tablet PC with a good touch screen interface. For the first year, pretenders to the throne may have to carry a small bluetooth keyboard whilst the niggles are worked out, then the revolution will come, prices will drop and all those people who shelled out their hard-earned money will happily spend again to get a tablet.
If it is not beyond my power, I’d put the whole netbook format on deathwatch. Its death will be prolonged by price, but it will soon fall. The netbook’s time will come, and we’ll be a whole lot better off with its sucessor.
Last weekend I was sat on the tube (London underground to international readers), picadilly line to be exact, heading into central London. A young man got on and sat down opposite me. He got out a little ASUS netbook, turned it on and swivelled the lid to use it as a touch screen. “Awesome”, I thought, “he’s got one of those cool touch screen netbooks running Windows 7, I’d love one of those, it’d be so convenient”.
I watched the man use the laptop for a while, tapping at the screen, using two fingers to scroll on a page and it looked ace; it looked simple. Soon, the experience turned sour.
I watched as the man pulled a stylus out from the side of the computer and starts to tap at the screen. I had thought styluses had been banned by international law since the introduction of the iPhone nearly two and a half years ago. Still, if there are some things that can’t use the OS zoom function then maybe a stylus has to be used.
I then received an even greater shock.
I watched in amazement as the man lifted up the screen to try and use the keyboard. Upside down. A control + something command that was not present in the touch screen menu.
Naturally, as a usability practitioner, I was horrified but continued to watch the bloke struggle. It took five stabs and glances back at the screen to confirm the action was successful. By this time, the man looked thoroughly frustrated with his program’s choice of shortcut. Soon after, he packed up his laptop and got off the train.
What appears to be the moral story, is that no matter how advance your OS is, the applications that you run can still scupper the experience, especially with tablets. There are two solutions to this problem:
1. The iPhone way – touch is the only interaction option. No legacy apps are allowed. It’s an OS designed for touch and for touch only.
2. The full screen keyboard way – Windows 7 may have a good touch screen keyboard, but it isn’t implemented in all apps (the iPhone way). You would need a true full-screen multi-touch keyboard, adaptable to different screen sizes, to make it function correctly.