I noticed a recent BBC news report stating that more women than men in the UK now own a tablet. It seems that the days when an iPad was most frequently coveted by middle-aged men such as me have long gone.
One question this raised in my mind though is why tablets are particularly popular with women in a way that laptops and netbooks were not. Does this tell us anything about the mobile revolution? Does it tell us anything about men and women? Probably not! Perhaps it is just natural that something as convenient as a tablet computer is popular with both men and women.
However I’ll ignore that perfectly reasonable explanation and speculate on the gender angle.
So, certainly in my household the opportunity to sit down at a laptop for, say, thirty minutes uninterrupted is a luxury mostly enjoyed by, well, er… me. My partner has commented that my ability to filter out bickering kids, ignore a saucepan boiling over, forget I started the kids’ bath running and completely not hear the important information she is telling me about the school run tomorrow is nothing short of a supernatural gift. An ability to remain sitting down at a computer when all that is going on is certainly not something I’ve observed in her or other women I know.
So my theory is that tablets are popular with women because they are designed to cope with interruptions (the tablets I mean, not the women). Or at least, the smartphones from which the tablets inherited their OS were designed to be interrupted – by phone calls specifically.
People think of operating systems such as Android as a set of Apps, but really they are a set of interruptible views called Activities (View-Controllers in iOS). The only difference is that the initial Activity in an App has an icon on the Home screen.
Developers are required to implement life-cycle methods on each Activity (AppDelegate in iOS) to ensure that if the OS interrupts the action at any point, the user can pick up again exactly where they left off. This is so critical that in Android the transition from one activity to another is encapsulated in a class of its own called an “Intent”. The name reminds the developer that they might be intending a change in application state but the OS can butt in at any time – so they must make sure it stores everything from the previous Activity first.
This explanation is helpful to me in understanding the success of tablets. When the iPad first came out I have to admit I didn’t think it would be anywhere as popular as the ubiquitous iPhone. At the time, I thought the meteoric success of smartphones was down to their portability and geo-location capabilities. I loved the shiny beauty of the iPad design but couldn’t help thinking it was a bunch of iPhones stuck together. I wondered why I’d want one when I could get a more powerful netbook with a proper keyboard built in. But netbooks are less portable, they take more time to boot up and you have to save what you are doing to ensure you don’t lose your data. The batteries do not last as long and using a keyboard and mouse requires you to sit down. Not good for the interruptible computer user.
This all could be seen as a reason to avoid web apps or hybrid apps that use a WebView embedded into the app. As the Web View or Web Browser uses the stateless HTTP protocol, there are no activity life-cycle methods for developers to honour and maintaining the state between activities is much trickier to get right. So web-based apps could break the interruptible App and annoy users. Especially those who are being constantly interrupted.