A cut-price tablet computer? Whatever Next...
I didn't quite believe it until I saw it in the catalogue. Next, the UK fashion retailer, is selling a tablet computer, and at £180 it looks like an attractive alternative to Apple's iPad, which starts at more than twice the price.
The pictures in the Next Directory made it look just like, well, an iPad, with a 10-inch touchscreen, wireless networking and plenty of applications. It runs on Google's Android operating system, has all sorts of connectivity options - something you won't find on Apple's tablet - and all in all looks like it could be a hot new gadget from an unlikely source.
I had to have one to try out, and, after a bit of scurrying around, the Next PR team managed to get a tablet to me. Joy was unconfined in my household as I opened the box and took it out.
First impressions were fine. Sure it was light and plasticky, but it looked not dissimilar to its weightier Apple cousin. Then I turned it on - and everything started to go wrong.
First of all, it takes an age to boot up. The Next symbol appears first, then the Linux penguin and an Android logo. And finally you are at a homescreen and can get going. But not until you have swiped a padlock symbol to unlock the screen, which took me several minutes to master, during which the tablet kept going black.
Once I'd managed that, I tried to scan my way through the various icons - mail, photos, music, e-reader and so on - but found the experience a bit like trying to find a light-switch in the dark with gloves on. Whatever I touched, the icon next to it seemed to wobble.
Of course the whole experience really depends on getting online and, after a lot of tapping and a little cursing, I eventually managed to connect to my home wireless network and start surfing the web.
The screen continued to prove maddeningly unresponsive but at last I found my way to the BBC News website. There I hoped to watch some video - after all, one of Android's main selling-points over Apple's mobile operating system is that it does work with the Flash video-streaming technology. No luck - just a message asking me to download the correct version of the Flash player.
And as I switched off to go out I noticed that I had already used a good chunk of the device's rather meagre three-hour battery life.
But from then on, my day with the Next tablet got even worse. I took it along to a lecture by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and showed it off to a number of other technology journalists. They laughed unkindly, and got even more giggly when they tried to make it work.
Then when I took it into work to film it, the wretched thing began behaving like a spoiled child and refused to respond to any of my commands. Whenever I tried to tap on the settings icon to connect it to the office network, the screen just sat and sulked. Even turning the thing off proved impossible and I had to find a paperclip to insert in the reset button to power it down. All in all, a disastrous piece of gadgetry.
To be fair to Next, I suppose there is a possibility that I got a faulty version. A spokeswoman for the company was concerned that might be the case and promised to find me another one. But looking at various comments online, it appears I'm not the only one who found the tablet deeply disappointing.
What are the lessons from this? First of all, plunging into a hot new area of the technology market without any experience of what consumers expect is full of perils. I'm sure that Next would not sell an item of clothing without testing it thoroughly and taking a view on whether it will work in the market. Now the fashion retailer has found that slapping your label on a cheap piece of kit from a Chinese supplier (though it does say "designed in the UK") works no better with a computer than with a dress.
But Next is unlikely to be too worried about a product which is far from its core offering and can be quietly dropped without too much damage to its brand. It is Google which should be concerned. Its Android operating system has been going great guns lately, overtaking Apple in some smartphone markets and now popping up on a number of good-looking new tablet computers like the Samsung Tab. But Google has no control over who uses the open source system, so when someone produces a tablet which gives users a dreadful impression of Android there is nothing it can do.
Apple, by contrast, has complete control over every aspect of its devices and the way they work. The company has taken some stick lately for its determination to impose such a rigid template even on outside developers. I wonder whether Google is regretting being quite so laissez-faire. After all, Android is now a key brand for the search company. Does it really want it tarnished by a succession of tired tablets or feeble phones?