A startup which called itself TabCo has been teasing the world about its upcoming tablet in recent weeks while remaining stealthy and mysterious. (Among its PR tactics: Delivering pizza to journalists such as me.) Today, the company came out of hiding–and it turns out that it’s not a new startup at all. It’s an old startup named Fusion Garage, known until now as the company which worked with Michael Arrington of TechCrunch on his CrunchPad tablet idea before cutting Arrington out of the project and releasing a spectacularly disappointing, unsuccessful device called the JooJoo. The TabCo ruse was intended to drum up interest in the company’s post-JooJoo products, a tablet called the Grid-10 and a phone named the Grid-4. I met with Fusion Garage founder Chandra Rathakrishnan today to get demos of both gadgets.
You can’t accuse Fusion Garage of lacking ambition or shipping me-too products. The Grid devices are built on Google’s Android 2.3 kernel, but Fusion has put together its own user interface and apps, none of which have much of anything in common with the ones on Honeycomb tablets. The desktop (seen above) is a scrolling plane of tiles which you can shuffle around and merge into groups. (It’s very fancy-looking, but it’s not immediately apparent how it’s better than more run-of-the-mill approaches.) The browser hides its entire interface until you need it, and when you pull controls up they’re nothing like the ones on Google’s Android browser. Some menus are circular rather than rectangular. The search engine, deeply integrated into the operating system is…Microsoft’s Bing.
In many places, the Grid operating system feels a little like it’s departing from Android primarily for the purpose of departing from Android. The equivalent to Android’s notification panel slides in from the left, not from the top. When you flip the tablet from one orientation to the other, the image on the display does a 3D swivel as if it’s spinning around to reveal its back, not the 2D rotating effect shared by every other tablet on the market. Not better, not worse–just different.
What I saw of Grid was, um, on the ugly side: colors and design elements didn’t seem very consistent from screen to screen, and there were places where text butted up against edges with little or no margin. It’s far, far less aesthetically pleasing than iOS, Android Honeycomb, RIM’s QNX as seen on the BlackBerry PlayBook, and WebOS. Building a mobile operating system that’s polished and easy on the eyeballs is proving to be tough even for huge companies; it appears to be harder still for a small outfit such as Fusion Garage.
There is some stuff in the Grid software that has potential. When you tap a word in the Web browser, you get a context-sensitive menu that attempts to give you relevant options for the word in question. (Rathakrishnan’s demo involved highlighting the word “Inception,” then pulling up a menu that let him watch a video of the movie.) The Grid e-mail client–which, again, looks nothing like the stock Android one–integrates Twitter and Facebook. The OS is designed to remember what you’re doing and let you pick up where you left off on any Grid device–for instance, you can stop watching a video on a Grid tablet, then continue watching it on the phone. (Of course, this feature will only interest people who are so impressed by this software that they buy a Grid tablet and a Grid phone.)
So are these an Android tablet and phone, or not? I got mixed messages from Rathakrishnan. On one hand, he started his presentation by knocking Android for being uninspired, and repeatedly said that Grid isn’t Android. He also told me that the Grid gadgets won’t ship with the Android Market. (Fusion Garage plans to start a Grid application store of its own and work with third-party developers to help them design apps for the platform.) But Rathakrishnan also told me that the Grid devices will include Amazon’s Android AppStore, and that they’ll run standard Android apps, including ones designed for Honeycomb. My take: It’s a dramatically reworked version of Android–even more so than the one on Barnes & Noble’s Nookcolor–but Android nonetheless.
The Grid-10 runs on Nvidia’s Tegra 2 platform and has what Rathakrishnan says is the highest-resolution tablet screen on the market: a 10.1″ model with 1366 by 766 pixels. It has a camera on its front but not on the back, and supposedly runs for 7 to 8 hours on a battery charge (which would be a major upgrade fromt the JooJoo’s apparent alarming real-world life of 2.5 hours). The industrial design is decent enough, with a pleasantly curved back: it weighs 1.5 pounds (like the original iPad) and is .55″ thick (slightly chunkier than the original iPad).
The tablet is available for pre-order from Amazon now and is supposed to ship in a month in two versions: Wi-Fi-only for $499 and Wi-Fi and unlocked 3G for $599. Oh, and Fusion Garage says that people who bought the JooJoo during its brief time on the market will get Grid-10s for free. (The Grid-4 phone is due in the fourth quarter, in a $399 unlocked version.)
I hope that the Grid-10 that shows up in September is much, much, much more polished than the one I saw today. I asked Rathakrishnan if I could try it for myself. He turned it over to me. And…almost everything I tried to do in the few minutes I had was extremely sluggish, and ended with an operating-system error. So I turned the tablet back over to him without feeling like I’d really used it.
I can’t give a final verdict on a pre-release product, of course. But given Fusion Garage’s extremely idiosyncratic history to date–not to mention the fact that it’s a tiny company with an erratic history competing against giants–it’s clear that the Grid platform and products built on it are going to have to be mighty impressive if Fusion Garage’s second tablet is going to have a longer, happier life than the JooJoo did. Like every other tablet, it needs to be a coherent answer to the question “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?“
Are you the least bit intrigued?