MS’ Tablet Experience

Last week, I introduced “Tim,” a tablet running Windows 10. I’d like to talk about him more.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about a couple of areas where Microsoft’s concept of what we might call the “tablet experience” falls short.

Apple, Google, and Amazon have promoted the tablet as an “always on, always ready for you” device. Pick it up, unlock it, and you’re right back where you were when you last set it down. Even more, until recently all three didn’t require you to set a password in the initial setup. Even now, you’re not required to set any kind of lock, although you may have to dig a little to figure out how to go passwordless.

But Microsoft has gone in a different direction. Because the initial setup is identical to setting up a desktop system, you must set a password. Not a PIN, not a gesture. A password. Using an on-screen keyboard.

Once you complete the initial setup, you can add a PIN or a gesture*, but it’s an addition, not a replacement, and Windows will occasionally require the password instead of your preferred alternative.

* Microsoft has given us the “Picture password,” in which you draw on top of a picture you select. There’s an interesting, and very readable, article about the security of the technology at Sophos, but the gist is that they’re arguably more secure than a four digit PIN, but less secure than a six digit PIN or an Android-style gesture unlock. From a strictly practical perspective, I have to wonder how well a picture password set up in portrait mode will work in landscape mode or visa versa.

If you’re willing to accept the security risk, you can also set your device to log you in without a password and to not require a password to unlock. But a tablet is certainly more accessible to potential evildoers than a desktop system, and possibly more so than a laptop. That might tip the decision against auto-login. But even if you choose to take the risk, Windows will still occasionally request your PIN or password when you turn on the tablet.

I think that’s a bug. It’s too random for me to think Microsoft has designed Windows that way–it’ll sometimes go for days without requiring the PIN, then demand it on three successive unlocks–and frequently one of those three will ask for the password instead of the PIN. But whether it’s a bug or a feature, it still betrays a desktop-oriented focus: entering a password isn’t particularly onerous on a physical keyboard, so falling back to the more secure option regardless of the user’s preference isn’t a big deal.

And that, right there, is where Microsoft’s version of the tablet experience runs head-on into user expectations: in Windows 10, Microsoft has given us a much more “father knows best” design than ever before. Consider how upgrades are installed.

As I said earlier, users are conditioned to expect their tablets to give them an “always on” experience. When Google and Apple release updates, the user is in charge of installing them. Don’t want to go from iOS 15.6.1 to 15.6.2? Don’t install it. Don’t want the August Android patches? Don’t install ’em. But if you don’t want next Tuesday’s Windows updates, you’re out of luck. You may be able to delay installing them for a couple of days, but Windows will give them to you eventually. It’ll try to do the installation at a time when you’re not using the machine, but that’s not guaranteed*. Amazon also forces updates, but there’s a critical difference between Android and Windows.

* You can set a range of times during which Windows won’t install updates, but the range can’t be any longer than twelve hours. OK for desktops, where, even with the expansion of work hours you’re probably not sitting there for much more than twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch. Less good for laptops, where you’re likely to bring work home. Not good at all for tablets where you might pick it up for a couple of minutes almost any time.

Android was designed with the preservation of state in mind. Reboot your phone or tablet, and you’ll not only find the same apps running, but in most cases they’ll be in the same place: a web browser will be displaying the same page, for example. (iOS behaves similarly, though to my mind, not as thoroughly.) And Amazon’s Fire OS inherits that state preservation from Android.

Windows doesn’t worry about state; the onus is on individual developers to save state in their own software. Reboot and none of your programs are running. Launch them manually, and, unless the programmer has implemented state preservation on their own, you’re at a default screen.

So consider the experience: you pick up your Windows tablet to, say, check what time a movie is showing. In the worst case, you’re greeted with “Windows is preparing to install updates.” You wait while the updates are installed–a process that can take fifteen or twenty minutes, or more if it’s a Windows version upgrade–and then get your login screen. Enter your password and wait for the programs that run at login to load. Launch your browser and check the movie time–you did bookmark the theater’s page, so you don’t have to type the URL again, right? By the time you get through all of that, it’s probably too late to make the show.

To be clear, this isn’t a wrong design. But it prioritizes security over user expectations, and subordinates the user’s desires to Microsoft’s vision of how people will use their computer.

That may be acceptable in a desktop or laptop–as is so often the case, Your Mileage May Vary–but it’s not going to fly in the tablet space. Unless Microsoft loosens up a little and gives tablet users the always on experience the form factor demands, they’re never going to be more than a tiny niche player in that space.

Whoops

Engadget has a story up which claims that “tablets with detachable keyboards” are the new hot. Or at least, the only thing that’s hot in an otherwise ice cold tablet market.

They cite fourth quarter shipments of 8.1 million devices, more than double last year’s number.

There’s only one little problem with the story they’re telling. It’s almost completely wrong.

See, the thing is, they’re counting the 1.6 million Microsoft Surface tablets and the “over 2 million” Apple iPad Pros. Neither of those are tablets with detachable keyboards. They’re both tablets that can work with an attachable keyboard.

Let me say that a little differently. In both cases, the keyboard is sold separately and can be connected to the tablet. That’s no different from any other tablet out there. Any iPad or Android tablet can use a Bluetooth keyboard. Heck, most Android tablets can even use a USB wired keyboard!

I have to wonder what percentage of the Microsoft and Apple buyers even shell out for a keyboard. Especially the iPad Pro owners, given Apple’s marketing spin.

Contrast that with something like Asus’ Transformer Book line, the Dell Latitude 7000 series, or any of the other true “2 in 1” devices: the keyboard comes with the tablet and the two devices function as a unit. In many cases, they even work when the keyboard is detached.

Take away those 3.6 million Apple and Microsoft devices and the remaining 4.5 million units shipped doesn’t seem nearly as hot. If it’s true that last year’s number was around 4 million, then this year’s number is still an improvement, but it’s not the kind of sexy number that really makes hardware companies sit up and beg.

Full disclosure: I have an Asus 2 in 1 and, despite a couple of annoying design glitches*, I like it quite a bit. It’s lighter than my old laptop, despite the much larger screen, and I love the ability to rotate it into portrait mode so I can see a whole page at once when I’m editing. Try that with a regular laptop. On second thought, don’t–even with an external keyboard, it’s not a good experience.

* In particular, I had to buy a third-party stand to use the device in portrait mode. A built-in kickstand would have been nice. But the biggest problem is that it only has one USB port. Really, guys, would it have killed you to put in two ports so I could simultaneously connect one of the three zillion non-Bluetooth mice running around the house and an external drive?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running down the iPad Pro or the Surface 4. By all reports, they’re both pretty darn kickass devices. I am running down Engadget. Next time, how about you limit your comparisons to citrus fruits, without bringing in those apples?