Over the years I’ve used a variety of devices and come to the conclusion that you can approximate how successful they are in the market with two of their features. That’s it, just two. Device manufacturers spend a lot of time copying each other but it really comes down to:

  1. Does it turn on?
  2. Does email work?

If you can do these two things, you’ll make a billion dollars.

It might sound like most computers, phones and tablets are capable of this. But no, they aren’t. Most devices die pretty quickly and even today most aren’t capable of talking to an Exchange server or have a unified inbox.

Let’s start with the most disappointing.

Ubuntu

The latest Ubuntu 13.10 wouldn’t even install on the ASUS laptop I have (which is a year or two old). After half an hour playing with BIOS settings I gave up and downloaded 14.04 pre-release. That installed, but something called “compiz” sat using 100% CPU and draining the battery. Using a decade’s worth of experience, I fixed that. Neither Thunderbird or Evolution email clients will talk to Exchange out of the box, but there is a variety of contradictory documentation on the web about how you might one day get that to work. When you send an email in Thunderbird it sits there with a server communication dialog rather than getting out of the way and sending in the background. Upon closing the laptop and reopening it, it crashes and sends a bug report to Canonical (the makers of Ubuntu).

Does it turn on? No. Does email work? No.

Surface & Laptop Windows 8.1

Same laptop as above, installs fine. Updates itself. Can turn on and off and even hold battery charge when closed. Modern email client looks great but for some bizarre reason doesn’t have a unified inbox. Surface dies within days of sitting on a table top.

Does it turn on? Sort of. Does email work? Close, but, no.

Nexus 7 with Android Rainbow Sandwich (or, whatever)

The battery dies within a few days of leaving it idle on a table. No unified inbox I could figure out, pushes gmail on you.

Does it turn on? No. Does email work? No.

Kindle Fire HDX

Battery life is better than the Nexus 7 but still dies quickly. Unified inbox! Exchange works out of the box! But, for some reason, the email client keeps switching away from unified and in to each individual inbox when you tap on email. Maddeningly, you have to keep going back to the unified inbox to see all mail. Amazon have done a great job with this, but it’s just not quite there.

Does it turn on? Almost! Does email work? Almost!

iPad

You can leave the iPad for weeks and it will still have some charge. Unified inbox works smoothly and Exchange works great. If you have 10 email accounts and you’re offline the thing will spam you with (at least) 10 dialog boxes saying it can’t connect to your email servers. My Powerbook is just as good.

Does it turn on? Yes. Does email work? Yes.

Conclusion

The worth of computers and tablets really comes down to their ability to help you communicate. To be able to do that, it has to be able to turn on. Email is the primary way we communicate today and it has to work flawlessly. Few people are down to one email account and Exchange is the best-selling (and only, really) email server you can buy. If it can’t do unified inbox and Exchange, it doesn’t work.

Amazon and Microsoft come very close to getting there. Amazon’s customer focus shines through on the HDX and is a hair away from having a device which works. Modern Mail on Win8 is similarly close but probably self-restricted to make sure it doesn’t compete with some feature or other in Outlook.

Why am I willing to pay two or three times as much as those devices for an iPad or a MacBook? It’s not for Pages. Office is great, OpenOffice is acceptable. It’s not because it’s shiny; there are shiny Ultrabook PCs now. It’s not because the iPad is a great piece of hardware; the Dell Venue 8 is a very comparable tablet.

It’s because they turn on, and because email works. All the UI stuff, the APIs, the app stores, the marketing budgets… All that stuff it secondary or tertiary and I’m back to my MacBook and iOS devices.