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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Gaming Tablet Suggests New Form Factor

Project Fiona is the first glimmer of true innovation in non-Apple tablets

  • January 10, 2012

Aside from their inability to match Cupertino on either price or (real world) performance, the main problem with most of the tablets trying to compete with Apple’s iPad is that their definition of innovation is to slightly tweak the dimensions of the device and call it revolutionary.

Yet it’s been abundantly clear from the outset that the way firms will beat Apple at its own game is not by churning out iPad-like tablets, but rather by attacking the problems that the tablet itself addresses, and coming up with their own solution to them, whatever it might be.

Or, as Haiku master Matsuo Basho put it:

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Project Fiona is an attempt to seek what Jobs sought, only for gaming. It’s a tablet form-factored PC with dedicated game controls on either side. That might sound like a niche product, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As the most recent report from mobile analytics firm Flurry reveals, mobile users are now spending fully half their time playing games. Social networking takes up another 30 percent of their time, with “entertainment” and “news” coming in at just 7 and 6 percent, respectively. Which means, as Sarah Perez put it at TechCrunch, that what mobile app users really do with their devices is play. It’s almost certain these trends hold true for tablets as well, with perhaps more focus on “entertainment” (movies, etc.).

What’s interesting about the original iPhone is that its interface wasn’t designed for gaming, and yet it has spawned an endless succession of other devices from countless manufacturers that are. In the same way, it’s hard not to wonder, watching the Project Fiona trailer, whether or not dedicated gaming controls could work in concert with a touchscreen to provide a more-complete tablet experience.

Gaming sticks could improve cursor dexterity for users who want to actually get things done with their tablets, and even typing could be improved through the use of those physical keys. Moreover, while most of the “innovation” at CES seems to revolve around attaching an optional keyboard to a tablet – something else an iPad can already do with countless ad-ons – Project Fiona marks one of the first departures from the conventional conception of how a tablet should operate.

Imagine, for example, that the gaming controls on either side of this tablet were swappable, for a touchpad or trackball and a chorded keyboard. Transforming the tablet back into something with which we can create with the same ease as a laptop isn’t far off.

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