Let's all crowdsource a product nobody really wants

22 July 2008

Techcrunch's Michael Arrington wants a web tablet and, not only that, he believes it will only happen if the design is crowdsourced, claiming that the machine doesn't exist. Oh really? I've seen loads of them. It's just that they tend to be prototypes in places like the Philips HomeLab.

If you look at the Philips Research site and poke around a little, you will find pictures of a device not a million miles from the Techcrunch mock-up being used as an oversized remote control. You can see an example below. Philips Electronics has a heavily stripped-down screen-based remote that you can buy in the shops as a kind of souped-up OneForAll.


The problem is not making a web tablet. I don't think it's even a case of getting the price down. It's working out whether you have a big enough market for the device to ship in high enough volumes to justify the wafer-thin margins needed to deliver a $200 price on a product that has something like a 10in colour screen, processor, WiFi and a few gigs of storage.

Crowdsourcing can absolutely get the design done: hardware and software. Open-source hardware design exists. People have already worked out the licensing for that and mechanisms to make it work. The problem comes when you get to volume. Openmoko's Neo FreeRunner is a niche product - a mobile phone for Linux hackers - but in incredibly short supply. Distributors reckon they might - just might - get some by the end of July.

To get a product like this off the ground, you have to attract the attention of someone who has the money to get thousands slapped together and shipped over from China. And this is where you come face-to-face with the demand for a product like this. Or the lack of it.

If this thing has a regular LCD screen, it doesn't matter how little power you want from the processor, it will eat batteries for lunch, then sit plugged into the wall until it's ready for dinner. The only way to avoid that problem is to use a screen that does not depend on a backlight, which is what Amazon did with the Kindle, which is not all that far from the Techcrunch spec. Unfortunately, Firefox won't look that snazzy on the muddy greyscale screens of today's e-ink technology. But at least the batteries last.

OK. Let's take on the usage model. To be more than an iPhone, you need to work on it. So, Arrington postulates a virtual keyboard. That pushes the size of the screen up to around 12in and still leaves you with a problem. The optimum angles for viewing and typing are quite different, even if you can somehow touch type on a surface with no tactile feedback.

I get worried when the mock-ups from OLPC look feasible but, if you are going to have a screen-based keyboard, the XO-2 is likely to be more usable than the Firefox tablet that Arrington proposes. At least you can tilt the screen you use as a display to a decent angle without bending your wrists at unnatural angles. But, by the time you get that far, you are back at the good-old subnotebook, simply having replaced the keyboard with a second screen. And that, of course, is the product that Palm killed off last year, following several other attempts into obscurity.

The Firefox tablet looks great in principle - up to the point where you start thinking about whether you want to cough up the money needed to pay for one.

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