There's been much to say about the growing rift between tech startup Fusion Garage, maker of the JooJoo tablet PC, and spurned partner and tech site TechCrunch.
(Fusion Garage said earlier that it had no legal contract with TechCrunch.)
But I'm not writing here to microanalyze the he-said-she-said between the companies. I'm writing to talk about the device itself, a "slate" tablet computing device that sits at the center of the lawsuit.
Born from the ashes of the failed CrunchPad project, the rather heavy JooJoo tablet PC is what I consider the first "slate" tablet device.
Eschewing buttons and wires for a seamless look, the JooJoo is in many ways a 12.1-inch iPod touch: it's a sandwich with one side all-glass glossy capacitive touchscreen, the other side curved metal shell.
There's one button, to turn it on and off, and other than a few ports, such as USB, power and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It also has an ambient light sensor and an accelerometer, so you can switch between horizontal and vertical views.
The JooJoo has one connection option: Wi-Fi. It is truly a cloud computing device, and its homegrown operating system is, for all intents and purposes, an Internet browser. It's optimized for touch, and the "home screen" is made up of two-inch square tiles -- bookmarks, really -- arranged in topical categories: news, social media, for run, and so on.
Strangely -- and this may change, I'm told -- the home screen renders in a different colored tint each time you access it. I understand this was to "shake up" the white space, in the company's own words, but it comes off as a malfunction.
The JooJoo does have a virtual keyboard with a novel ".com" button, but other than typing URLs for non-bookmarked pages or entering data into fields, you really don't use it.
Navigation is done entirely by gestures. A pinch gesture moves you from the home screen to your web window and back, and the device includes support for multiple windows. Side swipes move you back and forward, and you close a window with an upward swipe motion, just like a Palm Pre.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
The appeal of the device is simply how it renders a webpage. Ever want to read ZDNet like a magazine? This is the way to do it. A web page displays in full vibrant color and, when turned vertically, in a surprisingly spacious way (programmers with dual-monitor setups with one arranged vertically will understand what I mean).
Last night, I sat down with Fusion Garage CEO Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan to walk through a pre-production version of the device. Here's an uncut, unedited video of his demonstration:
As you can see, it's a good looking device, but there are plenty of software kinks to be worked out: scrolling can be choppy, the home screen is rather happy-hands-at-home, and the lack of feedback (animation?) for the gestures means you have to know what amounts to a secret language before you use it. I also thought the USB port cover was cheaply implemented, but that's fairly nitpicky.
Many bloggers have complained about the lacking business sense of the JooJoo, both as a tablet PC and as a $499 device, deemed too expensive compared to netbooks. But those same bloggers express continued excitement about the rumored Apple tablet PC, which is rumored to function much in the same way for even more money.
Ever want to read ZDNet like a magazine? This is the way to do it.The way I see it, the tablet PC only partially replaces the netbook. The netbook was a surprise force in the PC market because, for the price, people found uses for it: Internet surfing device, inadequate backup productivity device, inexpensive and cute toy for the kids.
But a netbook is just a simplified, dumbed-down computer. It's not purpose-built. The tablet PC is.
I can see the successful implementation of a tablet device at this price point or even higher. Anyone who owns an iPod touch -- and there are an awful lot of you out there -- knows that sometimes it's easier to sit in front of the TV with it and swipe, rather than pull out the laptop or netbook and type. But iPod touch owners also know that using the 3.5-inch device can be a cramped experience.
That's the space in which a tablet PC would play. Lots of folks buy the largest-capacity iPod touch, priced at $399. Is it so hard to believe that a consumer would pay another $100 and get a full-size device that works much in the same way?
The problem for the JooJoo, aside from pending litigation, it's that it's not nearly there yet, developmentally. The hardware seems nice enough, but there's no instant-understanding that occurs when using the device. In its haste to sell the product and perhaps get the jump on Apple, Fusion Garage has put forth a device that's half-baked. There's no clear set of usability rules that govern the device. Its simplicity is not evident.
That's not to say that it needs to be more fully featured, however. Many blogs have complained about a lack of ports or other amenities found on netbooks. But that hasn't stopped the Macbook Air from achieving success, or the iPhone, which is hardly the best smartphone on the market, from a technical specifications point of view.
What the JooJoo could use, by the way: Skype. IM clients. Native support for corporate e-mail, rather than relying only on Microsoft Outlook Web Access. (Everything else, including games, can be handled through a web page.) A better way to know what tabs/windows are open and what's running. The ability to download a news site and read it offline.
Basically everything that the Android ecosystem is learning right now in the mobile space.
The key to success of the Macbook Air and iPhone? Two things: Apple's ability to engineer usability so transparent you don't have to read a manual to use it (see: PureDigital Flip camcorders), and its ability to tell a compelling story about how the device can help your life despite some shortcomings (also see: Motorola Droid).
For now, Fusion Garage has neither of those things. The "home" screen right now is a mere wireframe of what it needs to be, and the gestures must be consistent with current practices on other devices, as well as understandable during use.
The company also has to tell a compelling story. Right now, it's the first slate-style tablet PC out there that's built expressly for the purpose, as far as I can tell. Fusion Garage needs to show consumers what the device can do and how it can fit into their lives, lest it be doomed to anonymity forever.
In fact, here's a suggestion: this is the next newspaper or magazine. Reading Esquire or Sports Illustrated on paper? A thing of the past. With a tablet PC, reading magazines digitally is way, way better than using a traditional computer. (And as an aside, puts the pressure on publishers to throw all their developmental resources into building out their websites, which will become the primary publication.)
It's not that Fusion Garage is an unknown entity, either. (Hardly Nikon or Canon or Sony, Pure Digital did it with the Flip camcorder.) But there's got to be less focus on the device and more on how it solves a problem -- even one people didn't know they had (also see: netbooks). It's got to be painfully easy to use and useful enough that a customer will recommend it to another.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Is the JooJoo the answer to the tablet PC? I can't say. It's got a lot of bugs to work out, but so did the first iPhone, Android handset, netbook and other devices. The onus is on Fusion Garage to bone up, hire a human scientist and the next Regis McKenna (Arrington ain't it) and work out the kinks in its software.
The JooJoo's potential failure is hardly a reason to shun the sense of a cloud-based, touchscreen tablet computer. With one of those, I wouldn't bother with an e-reader or netbook at all.