Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tablet Aspect Ratios

One important issue with tablet computers that is getting little attention is the screen aspect ratio. Some time ago I wrote about "aspect ratio hell" while trying to decide how to crop holiday photographs. The answer seems to be that you have to crop each photograph independently for each way the photograph is going to be output or displayed. For photographs, the variety of different aspect ratios is a perplexing problem that has no good answer.

Tablet computers have the same problem except that the responsibility lies with app developers who need to make their app work well with the aspect ratios of their target platforms. Aspect ratios for a tablet needs to take into consideration that it will be used in both portrait and landscape mode. The iPad has an aspect ratio of 4:3 (AR 1.33...), which is the same as the iPod Classic while the iPhone and iPod touch have an aspect ratio of 3:2 (AR 1.5). Anyone trying to develop apps for Apple products needs to take this difference into account. On the other hand, both Blackberry and Samsung has announced their Android based tablets with a 7 inch screen which has an aspect ratio of 128:75 (AR 1.706...), which is close to 16:9 (AR 1.77...).

When we look to media, television uses 16:9 and most cinema has a higher ratio like 2.40:1 except for iMax (AR 1.44) which is much squarer. Books and newspaper use a 3:2 ratio (AR 1.5) while magazines tend to be broader with a lower aspect ratio. Frankly, anything with an aspect ratio of more than 3:2 tends to look unnaturally skinny when viewed in portrait mode. A cell phone can get away with a higher aspect ratio because it has to be pocketable, but larger devices meant for viewing both media in both landscape and portrait mode needs to keep its aspect ratio to 3:2 or less. For example, the Kindle, which is mostly used in portrait mode has an aspect ratio of 4:3 (AR 1.33...). From this point of view, the Samsung and Blackberry tablets seem to be designed to be used in landscape mode and not in portrait mode. I hope that other tablet makers do not make the same mistake.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Understanding the iPad

Some people still struggle to understand the iPad. When it was first announced, there were shrieks of outrage from techies, complaining that it was not a free and open computer system and so nobody should buy one. Then it came out and was adopted by the millions. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, expressed dismay that the iPad is easily outselling any tablet computer that Microsoft and ever had a hand in. More recently an executive from LG told the Wall Street Journal that they would bring out a Tablet that would be better than the iPad because it would be oriented towards content creation rather than content consumption.

Then there are many people who get it. For example, Jerry Kaplan, founder of Go Computing, an early slate computer in an interview with Chris O'Brian of the San Jose Mercury News understood that the iPad is oriented for media consumption as opposed to the more general purpose Go slate computer. My belief is that the iPad is a new category of device that addresses a new market.

Last year I wrote about Media Convergence, the idea that in the past, each type of media was different. Books were bound paper sold by booksellers, video was delivered as movies in movie theaters and broadcast as television, records were vinyl goods sold in record stores and heard over the radio, magazines were sold by booksellers or delivered by mail, newspapers had their own content delivery network to ensure that everybody got the previous days news by the following morning. With the digital revolution, all these different types of media are now the same. They are all just buckets of digital bits that are delivered through the Internet. Given this, the next thing we need are devices for consuming all this media. Audio just needs a device the size of your thumb and headphones, whereas video, books, magazines etc. need a screen that is big enough to see, and that is what the iPad is for.

When thinking about these things, I find it useful to draw up some requirements and use cases and then see how the offered devices match those requirements. Here is what I want from my Personal Information Appliance (PIA - remember that acronym).
  1. Light enough that I can lie in bed and read or view media with it.
  2. Instant on, long battery life, able to handle all media types.
  3. Get media without having to plug it into anything else.
  4. A screen large enough to read or view and small enough to make the device portable.
So how does the iPad match these requirements? At 1.5 pounds it is a little heavier than most "light" reading, but there are plenty of hardback books that weigh more. For the second requirement, Adobe Flash is the major missing media type, however there is probably an app to do that. As for screen size, we are going to have to resign ourselves to having multiple devices with different screen sizes until they work out the technology to project images directly onto the retina.

The funny thing is that even although the iPad is speced as a device for consuming media it turns out to be capable of much more. Computer games are the newest type of media and the iPad is a great games platform with a lot of future as Steve Jobs boasted in the recent iPod announcement event. There are many instances in the business world where it will be useful, for example in sales and marketing for giving a presentation or demonstration to an individual. The other day I was astonished to find my boss using his iPad for email while waiting for his laptop to be repaired.