Being a study of trade-offs in the design of mobile devices, with a view to avoiding dystopias and promoting creativity.
The current tempest-in-a-teapot about background apps (Androids do, Apples don’t) is instructive. Robert Love’s Why the iPad and iPhone don’t Support Multitasking is useful in explaining why this is actually hard: memory starvation. (Having said that, I’m quite sure that Apple will come up with a solution that’s competitive with Android’s, that’s probably what they’re pre-announcing later this week.)
It turns out that this issue makes a lot of other things hard, too. For example, I’d love a touch interface on the two most complex apps in which I spend any time, namely my photo editor (currently Adobe Lightroom) and my IDE (currently Eclipse/Android). These apps’ screens are infested with controls, and I’m pretty sure that I’d be more productive if I could get more intimate with my photos and classes and methods.
But these would also suffer grievously if starved of memory. My intuition tells me that something like Lightroom could be made to run acceptably on the kind of 1Ghz-or-so processor the iPad has, but never, I’m pretty sure, with only 256M of RAM and no swap.
This could lead to a very nasty future scenario. At the moment, more or less any personal computer, given enough memory, can be used for “creative” applications like photo editors and IDEs (and, for pedal-to-the-metal money people, big spreadsheets). If memory-starved tablets become ubiquitous, we’re looking at a future in which there are “normal” computers, and then “special” computers for creative people.
Should this happen, the “special” computers would lose the economies of scale have made it possible for me to type this into a circa-$1,500 device that would have been regarded as a supercomputer only a few years ago, which happily runs my whole authoring system, a combination of Perl and Java and Ruby components with a relational database, an image-manipulation-suite, and a Web server.
I dislike this future not just for personal but for ideological reasons; I’m deeply bought-into the notion of a Web populated by devices that almost anyone can afford and on which anyone can be creative, if they want.
So, let’s not do that. What does something like an iPad need to be seriously useful as a creative tool? Well, a keyboard, but that’s easy. And of course an application ecosystem that doesn’t exclude controversy, sex, and freedom. But I think that’s inevitable; even if what Apple is trying to do were a good idea, it simply won’t scale, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to have to unclench in the fullness of time.
But what it mostly needs is a butt-load of good old-fashioned high-performance random-access memory.
At this point I have to admit that my understanding of computer-system design issues is very basic. I have no idea what factors led to Apple’s decision to equip their device with a mere 256M of RAM; to my eye, this number seems seriously out-of-balance with a 1GHz CPU, a large high-resolution display, and an advanced application framework. Is it simply the case that they decided long battery life was more important than a big address space? Or is there some other constraint that comes with the form factor that I’m not clueful enough to know about?
In any case, I’m optimistic. Moore’s Law is on our side, and every class of popular-computing device in my lifetime has exhibited a monotonic increase in the amount of onboard memory.
I’m all for tablets, given the addition of keyboards, RAM, and freedom.