Android: awesome 3D games are coming up, why do productivity suites stay behind?

Posted on February 15, 2011

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With “productivity software” we refer in general to: “word processors, spreadsheets, database management systems, PIMs, schedulers and other software packages that are designed for individual use” – from an online dictionary.

In the past month, several games are introduced on the Android platform using the Unreal engine. Allowing full fledged (and quite gorgeous) 3D on your tablet or phone.

What makes me wonder is why we see so little of good quality productivity software. Is the Android market not interesting enough? Too small a niche? Or are they simply not up to it due to budget, lack of talent or lack of focus in that direction?

[Update: Februari 23, 2011]

This video shows what QuickOffice will release for HoneyComb. Much more like what you are used for desktop functionality. Watch the video.

In the next two years, after Motorola, more two- and multiple-screen “Android” systems will hit the market, capable of running full Linux next to the (Android) base-system, making the phones and tablets into full fledged Netbook / Laptop competing systems. So the question is: should we bother at all about this lack on Android or simply wait one year more until we can install and run MS Office 2012 on Wine under Linux or on Windows 7 for ARM devices on our 2 GHz quad core, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD ARM Cortex X powered tablets/phones?

Quick Overview

Starting with my mobile phones and then moving towards several Archos tablets my aim last year was to find out what the possibilities are to use tablets for productivity / for replacing the laptop for simple tasks. Below you find a very personal overview and set of comparisons as a result. Note that I am an individual user and the tests were done when time was available.

Aspects of productivity suites on Windows, Linux, Mac and Android summarized

On Windows, MS Office 2007 (released in 2007) and MS Office 4 (released in 1994) are – in functionality richness – close contenders. In the years Microsoft added a lot of functionalities and improvements, including sharing and reviews / versions, but the core functionalities have not changed much.

The simple and most basic version of productivity tools by Microsoft is the MS Works suite, of which Wordpad was / is a part. MS Works allows for the very most basic of operations and fails if you need to go beyond writing notes.

On Mac, iWorks is the second best choice after MS Office (in my personal opinion). It is quite OK on functionalities and “better” than Open Office but does not beat Word or Excel. The only true gem on the iWorks is Keynote, the Apple variation of PowerPoint.

Available on Linux is Open Office and variations and branches and alternatives of Open Office. Open Office and its brothers and sisters comes very close to what you can do with MS Office and is a reasonable replacement in most of all use cases. For all clarity sake: Open Office is also available for Mac and PC but I wanted to keep the overview clean.

On Android, the four most known Office Viewers also come with edit-functionality, but the first two completely fail at productivity and very likely the same is to be expected of the last two. Looking at all other factors, the only positive thing is that each of these suites have a very small footprint.

As productivity suites are mainly created to be practical tools, the look and feel scores average. In other works: the user experience will never be mind-blowingly awesome. The look and feel of Office 4 is measured against that period and much much worse than Open Office. Placed against there respective time periods, they score the same.

Improvements on the Android Platform

Looking at the improvements I have seen on the Android platform, the possibilities of the OS and the speed, quality and availability of the hardware is steadily increasing. Each new version is faster, better and improved. The choice of devices is increasing and prices of relatively – to last years choice – powerful android devices are moving more and more to the 100 euro level.

As 3.0 is not out yet, the bubbles are speculative, based on videos and demos I saw online.

The general quality of apps is slowly rising. Yes there is a lot of crap, but as the months pass also more nice stuff is added, increasing the possibilities of the device itself.

The biggest increase is in gaming. With better hardware also more serious players and engines entered the field, including the Unreal engine.

Online social networking has not changed much. The interfaces are quite simple and as long as no-one comes with a new mindblowing concept, it will remain fairly stable. With 3.0 the biggest improvement is more screen real estate on tablets.

Productivity tools are – in my eyes – a flat liner. Nothing exiting happens. New updates I received on OfficetoGo and OfficeSuitePro show hardly anything new. The state of these tools under Android 3.0 is a guess, based on the lack of innovation and improvements until now. I hope to be proven wrong.

Motorola Atrix: Buzz but no delivery due to software

With all the buzz from Motorola, showing their awesome new Motorola Atrix 4G gadget, being a phone that can do much more than a phone, we still have no Android software to match the promise of that device for ultra-portable productivity. And until someone starts to seriously invest in something better than the pre-installed Quick Office and the other 3 main packages we have right now (see list below) it is nothing more than some geeks showing off their new super cool productized toy from the laboratory and salespeople selling yet another piece of useless vapor-ware that will not deliver the promise.

Seen that, been there and has been done before.

We do not need an expensive super-phone to tweet and send e-mails. Like we do not need a $12.000.000 euro airplane to bring our kids to school and still have to drive the car to do our groceries. We can tweet and e-mail on anything that has a screen. We want a super-phone running solid software to totally get rid of that extra 1.5 kilos to 2.5 kilos that is our Netbook or Laptop.

Without the software it is like having a bike, but no legs to paddle.

Unreal

Watch this video of Unreal running on a Tegra system and notice the gorgeous and smooth rendering. We have waterfalls, reflection on marble floors, trees, landscapes, atmospheric light fall.

Honeycomb

From ARMdevices. Here you see Charbax clicking and swiping through Honeycomb on the Samsung 10.1 tablet. Honeycomb has a task manager and several others nifty new things.

Linux : running 2 operating systems on “Android” hardware

Again from ARMdevices / Charbax. This video shows the Texas Instruments OMAP4 running Android and Linux at the same time. Something that makes complete sense to me and should be part of the up and coming tablets too. (See my rant on Android and the lack of productivity software below).

This is where stuff becomes interesting.

With Linux comes Open Office, but also Wine, which allows you to run many Windows applications on Linux. And by the time we see these kind of hardware hit the shops, Windows 7 for ARM might be there too. Hopefully with MS Office for ARM devices to buy.

Office Suites: Intel 80386 on 16 MB RAM could do it, why can’t Android?

With Office 4 in 1994 you already had about 85% of what you know of Office up and until Office 2003.

With Word 6 you could do mail merges, columns, pagination, creating chapters and sub-chapters using styles, placing and formatting images (bitmap and vector), create tables, format those tables and print everything to paper in different ways.

Excel allowed you to do calculations, charts, using values from other sheets, adding programming code to build applications inside the spread sheet.

MS Access 2.0 (and MS FoxPro) allowed you to build entire relational database applications including complex reports with sub-forms and sub-reports and – again – coding to build more complex applications. All visual. All in WYSIWYG.

These suites would come on 10 to 15 3.5 inch disks, each 720 KB of size, adding to a whopping total of about 10 MB of files before installation!

Even though these first versions were very basic, they had more to offer 17 years ago than what you can find on Android today.

A closer look at four major Office Suites for Android

For Android there are 4 office suites available that try to make a difference:

  1. OfficetoGo by DataViz – I have tested it in the past months, tried what it can and can not do and was quite OK-is with it
  2. OfficeSuite Pro  by MobileSystems – Same as OfficeToGo
  3. ThinkFree Office by ThinkFree – very similar to the OfficeToGo and OfficeSuite Pro, rates less
  4. QuickOffice by Quickoffice – very similar to the OfficeToGo and OfficeSuite Pro, rates less

What is wrong?

A shortlist:

  1. Phone – Each of these applications are made with the phone in mind.
  2. Limited – They are very limited in their possibilities
  3. Dysfunctional – They leave the impression of desperately trying to use a screwdriver to drill holes in a wall due to a total lack of better tools

More concrete:

  1. OfficeToGo Word viewer / editor:
    1. Requires a lot of steps to format text (bold, italics, colors, font choice, font size)
    2. Can not insert images in a Word document
    3. Does not allow for easy selection of a part of the text
    4. Has an Excel-ish app, but lacks
  2. OfficeToGo – Excel viewer / editor
    1. Does a great job on viewing Excel sheets
    2. Editing and creating Excel sheets is nearly impossible due to the soft-keyboard
    3. Formatting cells (fonts, align, border) is possible but limited. Setting cell color is not possible
  3. OfficeSuite Pro Word viewer / editor:
    1. Requires a lot of steps to format text (bold, italics, colors, font choice, font size). It is a bit easier than with OfficeToGo, but still a drag
    2. Allows you to insert an image, but you can not format that image
    3. Allows you to select text and change the drag-area
  4. OfficeSuite Pro – Excel viewer / editor
    1. Does a great job on viewing Excel sheets
    2. Editing and creating Excel sheets is a lot of work as the basic finger / touch interface is not really made for this kind of work
    3. Formatting cells (fonts, align, border) is possible but limited. Setting cell color is not possible

“Word” on Android: the same, but at the same time less than Wordpad

If you ever opened Wordpad on your Windows computer (go to “Start”, “Accessories”, select “Wordpad”) – it is a very basic text editor allowing you to do Bold, Italics, indentation, tabs, bullet-lists and numbered lists.

In the available Android apps there are no rulers, no easy-to-access functions to format your text (solved in Office by button bars), no indication of page breaks. There is just a blank space with your text.

While the Android applications allow for most formatting and insertion options (OfficeSuite Pro is the winner here), you have to do a lot of effort to get something there and still you have not much to mention.

Using the soft keyboard

The Android Soft keyboard overlaps about 40% to 50% of your vertical screen real estate. Nice if your text is the length of a tweet, unusable if you want to write a document.

Using a tablet with keyboard

On a screen real-estate of 800 x 480 or 1024 x 600, using a mouse and keyboard, you would expect some improvement on production speed and usability. The improvement is close to zero.

The menus – created for phones with limited screen real-estate – and the way drag/drop is implemented makes even the simplest actions, like making text bold, a lot of work. You can not use keyboard-shortcuts like <CTRL> C and <CTRL> V as the Android platform in general doe not seem to take the keyboard as input device serious yet.

The moments I tried working with these “Office Suites” I got fed up by the amount of actions it requires to get something done.

What the interface roughly looks like (“Word” on Android)

Soft keyboard (WTF!?), kittens and some colored text - 30 minutes to produce (click to enlarge)

Formatting – The only way to do some formatting is via a menu on the bottom that offers you various options including “formatting”. When you select an options (“formatting”) you get a new menu which you have to scroll down if the options are more than fits your screen.

Buttons and menus – All buttons / menu options are scaled the “telephone way”, so larger screen real-estate means larger buttons.

Creating a simple document with some kittens and colored text takes you about 30 minutes, due to all the clicking you have to do.

No adjustments for larger screens – Even though phones with 800 x 480 pixels screen real estate and Android tablets with similar and bigger screens are on the market for over 4 months, no adjusted GUIs have been released for OfficeSuite Pro and OfficeTo Go. We see the exact same useless menu and interaction model.

Archos: keyboard and mouse input on Android – I used the Archos tablets for these tests, so I could attach a mouse and keyboard to my device. Although this is not a common feature for Android devices until end of last year, other Tablet builders will follow Archos at some time.

“I want Linux” when docked, or: Touch interfaces are different from mouse driven interfaces

Once you start using the tablet as a Netbook replacement, you will start to notice the differences between Touch and Mouse driven interfaces.

Dragging windows and clicking small areas do not work for touch. Using Touch on a Windows-driven interfaces is awkward. I tried with Windows 7 on the Archos 9 and on the Acer Touch screens in the shop. Things which are easy with a mouse, like dragging windows around and clicking on small areas, are a pain with Touch. Even when using a stylus making mistakes is easy.

Android: no scroll bar for the mouse. When using a mouse on a Touch driven interface like that of Android, you will find scrolling pages the biggest challenge. Mainly the lack of a scroll bar is a big handicap.

Large buttons and input areas. Where large buttons and input-areas are beneficial for Touch, they look stupid when using the mouse and a keyboard.

No toolbars. Mainly due to screen real-estate and the origin of Android as a mobile phone platform makes that you will not find tool bars on applications. For touch, tool bars can be a pain, unless you use a stylus. For mouse driven work, toolbars are heaven as everything you use on a regular basis is simply there.

Linux. Working with Android and a mouse for several hours make me long for something else than Android. As Linux already has distributions for the ARM platform, it is the first logical weapon of choice.

Panels, not windows. The concept of application windows was super awesome when first introduced. For tablets, they suck, unless used for notifications. For tablets, application panels – as used in Android and iOS – are equally functional when using the mouse. Combined with a panel-manager (like the task bar in Windows, Linux and Mac OS and probably Android 3.0) you have a solid platform to go for the next several years.

Something gotta change

If a bunch of very smart nerds are capable of porting the Unreal engine to Android and make it work (and look) like a dream, why do the community of people producing Productivity Suites fail in this account?

Yes: the platform is limited. Yes: there are many different screen resolutions, going down from a hardly usable 800 x 480 to a complete crappy 480 x 240 pixels and even less (Archos 28).

But: you can make applications and interfaces fluid and adaptive by having them “listening” to the device types it runs on.

And: If Microsoft (Office), IBM (Lotus Office Suite) succeeded in making a quite elaborate Office Suite (PowerPoint, Word, Excel, MS Access) work on a 40 MHz 80386 16 Bit processor with 16 MB of RAM for the OS AND your apps (using tricks like dumping stuff from memory to the hard disk) , you can certainly do something more on 1 GHz with 256 of MB RAM, of which about 40 MB is to spare for your stuff.

The only reasons I can imagine why things are not happening are these:

  1. Lack of motivation – basically you do not care
  2. Lack of funding – basically you do not have the money to do it

Well: whatever. Go to Google. Make a case out of it. Tell them not to waste 10 Billion on Twitter – they already bought Jaiku in 2007, which was smarter and better than Twitter and then killed it completely by neglect. Get 30 million. Assemble a good team. Do some serious coding.

(Android) Tablets remain expensive toys until some seriously good applications show up, allowing me to do 95% of the things I can do on a laptop or Netbook. And Android will get some serious competition as a mobile platform from Linux once systems like the aforementioned / showed Texas Instruments OMAP4+ systems hit the mainstream with something like Ubuntu.

The really exciting stuff will hit 2012

As I understand TI product line manager Brian Carlson in the Charbax video below, OMAP5 – which will allow for display on 4 screens, 8 GB of RAM and having multiple processors running – will hit the market in 2012, offering high-end laptop-power in devices the size of a mobile phone.

No doubt I will pay over 600 euro, but with what I saw already in the videos in this post, that is a no-brainer for me.

To give you a hint of where we are going, see the Motorola Atrix demo on CES2011. It is basically a tiny computer with which you can also make phone calls.

Meanwhile I am waiting…

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Posted in: Android, Tablet PC