Stop, stop. The technology you want for this product isn't ready yet

8 December 2009

For a product that nobody wants, the JooJoo tablet launched yesterday by Fusion Garage has done pretty well. There cannot be many technology blogs and news outlets that have not given the video demonstration a once-over, if not a quick caress of the product itself, which is supposed to go on sale on Friday. But they did not come to praise it.

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One day, something that looks like a JooJoo will sell in its millions. Probably billions. But not today. Why? Because, frankly, the technology needed to make it workable just isn't ready yet.

When Fusion Garage says it cannot sell the JooJoo tablet for less than $500 I have little doubt the company is not joking. Whatever it is, it's the wrong price. Even at $200, the original CrunchPad was probably a bit on the expensive side for what was basically a web reader and nothing else. The cost is only one of its problems.

If you could make enough, then it should be possible to get a basic ARM-based processor module, WiFi and 12in display to retail for $200. But you need to be darn sure it will sell in the millions at the very least. That's the only way you can put together the custom chips and tooling for the case that lets a high-volume production slam these things out like plastic toys for Christmas.

For a small company to do it with little investment, a lot has to be hand-finished. Oops, there goes the price tag. But even at $200, I've got to ask whether even that is too much for what the JooJoo is meant to do.

As analyst Michael Gartenberg pointed out, it's a web browser. That's all it does. It goes onto a WiFi network and fetches web pages. And it has a battery that lasts no longer than five hours on a full charge. It's useless on a plane, unless it's one of the few services with WiFi onboard. If the battery life is anything like a laptop spec, then five hours assumes you don't actually have the backlight on so that you can actually read the screen. At a weight of around 1kg all in, that's not unreasonable. Battery technology just isn't good enough to drive a bright LCD screen for a long time. As far as power is concerned, it works just like a laptop. Except it's a laptop that doesn't do much else.

For its demonstration tablet (pictured above), nVidia had the good sense to put conductors on the back so that, most of the time, the display sits on a powered plinth. That way, it could still play video while being handed around in a demo without suddenly running out of juice. But, one thing is clear, that nVidia unit is just a demonstrator for the Tegra processor that might, one day, make it in a commercial tablet-like thing.

One thing is for sure. Battery technology is not going to suddenly get a lot better. The only way a consumer tablet is going to work is by changing the display technology itself. That means either going for an organic LED-type display, much like the itty-bitty Sony TVs you can now buy for a mere, um, $2000 in high-end electronics stores. Or a full-colour e-Ink display which sounds ideal but, unfortunately, doesn't actually exist. OLED efficiencies have to improve quite a bit to deliver better battery life than backlit LCDs anyway - and may not actually be based on organic transistors but some inorganic/organic hybrid. Whatever it is, you will have to wait.

The funny thing about the JooJoo is that Fusion Garage has low-balled the price. The company has tried to go for the average consumer who, one day, might fancy an oversized One-For-All remote control. However, with a different software load inside, you can cheerfully charge more than $1500 right now for a device that is not all that dissimilar. Take a look at the JazzMutant Lemur: it's a multitouch tablet made for musicians. There is no browser in it. Instead it runs funky graphics software and a very effective multitouch interpreter that lets you use it as a mixing desk or build custom instruments.

I regret to say that JazzMutant will, at some point in the future, get killed by a stampede of multitouch tablets once the displays evolve to the right point. At that point, I hope they find a way to sell their software separately and make a living that way. But until then, by staying away from the poseur-tech fanboys who seem to harbour fantasies of carrying around a Star Trek pad for no other reason than it looked cool in Star Trek, is arguably the best move for any wannabe tablet maker.