Saturday, April 2, 2011

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

Alright, they're everywhere now. I've seen them in San Francisco for the past year, but San Francisco doesn't really count - it's sort of a technical data point outlier. (What other city can you safely say that you've seen not one, not two, but 10 guys biking around town with webcams on their helmets "lifecasting" for Christ's sake?)

Now though, I see them in downtown New York: walking around the streets, in restaurants, bars, browsing in stores, on Wall Street... you see them too, I know you do: In Milwaukee, Amsterdam, Sydney in east bum-f**k Minnesota...they are everywhere: the Tableticians. Like Moses coming down from the mount, they're consulting their tablets for everything from the weather to local restaurants. Business travelers are trying (struggling in most cases) to slim themselves down to just their tablets. People who don't have one, want one.

You can get your television on them. Your music. Your social net. The New York times just erected the first "holy crap this might actually work" paywall, and USA Today and CNN's apps are available on iOS and Android. Books and magazines have already begun the switch. (Although, I've written about my own issues with reading on one, but these problems haven't really stopped anyone from adopting tablets as readers.)

The world is turning into an episode of Star Trek. Finally.

For the record, it's not just the iPad. To be sure, the Jobsian Tablet is the dominant force, of course, with its overwhelming share of the market, and will be for at least the next year. However, its no longer the only game in town. About every 10 tablet users I've seen walking around the NYC are pulling Galaxy Tabs out of their pockets. I personally own a Xoom, and have talked about it ad nauseum.

OK - so They Live Among Us. Got it. I've accepted it. I think its fair to say I've embraced it. But seriously, what the hell are they?

Are they, as some people purport, oversized phones? Not really - the use case is much different. (Even if they had voice service, a tablet is something you take out to study, to ponder over, to read...not something you take out to quickly use and shove back in your pocket.) Are they an evolution of the PC, as Steve Job's is trying to proclaim? Not really - try to use one as for business document creation, for instance. I can't really write this blog post on the Xoom without dragging along a bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and stand to hold the screen...and then, what's the damn point?

It's this last idea that is the most interesting - and probably the most salient. Back in the last decade, tablets were attempted before by none other than Microsoft. They weren't a failure....well, not exactly...but they weren't very popular either. Confined to specialized niches, like hospitals and factory floors, these early tablets never caught on with the general public for one very important reason: Microsoft tried to force the laptop use case into a portable form factor.

Microsoft tried to train people, both through marketing and through their operating system extensions, that these devices were just like laptops, except they had a screen you could interact with directly. So, in the public's mind, these machines had to perform like laptops - which, very few of them did. To keep the cost down, at least a little bit, the raw computing power of the machine was reduced in favor of the electronics for the touch screen.  For those who may have seen the benefit of them as portable devices, this resulted in a device that was far too expensive - many of them topped $2500 - and even at that price point they were not powerful enough to perform tasks normally attributed to laptops. 

People thought twice: even in 2005 you could buy a hell of a laptop for $2500. 

When Apple entered this space in 2010 - and, sorry, but I chose my words carefully: Apple entered the space, they didn't create the space - they did so with a sense of redesign that they learned from their previous years of making the iPhone: Keep the device simple, and to the point. This is not something to replace your laptop, nor is it something to augment the laptop. This was to be something that had the same relationship to a laptop that a book had to a typewriter. This was a device for you to consume your media, not create it.

I misunderstood this basic principle myself. Back in early 2010, I wrote a commentary about the iPad called the MacBook Air, Mark II. I pegged the device as a "tweener." Neither iPhone, nor MacBook. And as a tweener, I reasoned, it was confined to that simple content consumption space - and therefore destined to satisfy just a niche market.

What I failed to recognize was that content consumption on a larger-than-iPodish-screen was exactly what people were looking for. I also failed to realize that it came about at exactly the right point in our history - the iPad would have been a niche product back in the early 2000's because there wasn't a lot of content to consume on it. There was digital music, but digital video hadn't yet caught on the way it has, and digital books were just a niche market confined to glowing PDA screens. In fact, tablets back in the early 2000's had no choice but to be full-featured laptops: other than MP3s there were no tiny, digital media files to consume. There were no app stores to deliver small, tightly integrated applications and wifi speeds were too slow to stream anything meaningful over the air.

So what does that make tablets? I don't buy into the "evolution of PCs" theory - but perhaps it is the evolution of something else. I just confessed to being wrong back in 2010 about consumers wanting a content consumption device. I also suggested that we are in a unique time in history - we are at a point where all media - printed, recorded, photographed - is digital. Gone is papyrus and printing presses and kodachrome and beta max. Everything is bits. Everything every written is available online, every note warbled can be found, every movie...every television show.  What if tablets are not just a media consumption device, but they are the penultimate media consumption device?

What if tablets - in all of their flavors - is the evolution of all things informational? All things entertainment? Is that how historians 100 years from now will write about this moment in time? Probably - but chances are they'll write it with something other than a tablet....

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