It’s that time of year when Steve Jobs comes down from the mount and shares with us the latest impending Apple gadget. I followed this more closely than usual with an interest in multi-touch and was less surprised by the product and more intrigued by the lackluster response. Though apparently this is the drill with our volatile relationship with Apple products (noted by HuffPo and NYT amongst others).
However, thinking through a tablet and the best possible execution and positioning for the historically awkward platform, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something better. Lack of flash support isn’t great. Apple’s closed system has it’s downsides, but being an elitist control freak is what begets such holistic superior design. No multitasking has its advantages. They’re choices, trade-offs. If you’ve ever made anything you know you have to make hundreds to thousands of them, and few make them as well as Steve.
What’s notable in the iPad is less what’s emerging as what it’s ending – specifically, print and point & click. By introducing it as standing on the shoulders of Kindle, it’s clearly positioned to do what iPods did for music and CDs. The past few hundred years of books, magazines, and newspapers is over and a new, super easy digital ecosystem is being built to take their place. This is the last nail in the coffin for analogue media and something no general-use tablet has been positioned to do.
The other significant feature is that it is the first completely multi-touch computer designed as such, as opposed to a laptop with a keyboard and trackpad and a few awkward touch functions. This challenges the 25-year dominance of the mouse as primary computer input device. With the iPad being largely experiential and not in release, there’s much missing in live blogcasts of a product release keynote and even more lost on its most important potential audience – casual users. ‘Everyone’ is definitely a much larger and viable market than those sought by traditional tablets (realtors and doctors in TV shows?) or even of Apple computers (design/media professionals, rich hipsters?).
If the feel truly is as natural as early reports indicate, this awkward platform may emerge for the vast majority of people who just want computers for a few basic tasks and were never totally comfortable with the traditional computer platform. It’s like an anti-computer that is more out of the way than in your face. Given their prominence, hardware experience, and lowish price point, Apple may use portables success to sneak in the back door to personal computer dominance.
This is not to say there’s aren’t shortcomings, but dissecting its feature set may prove as irrelevant as doing one for mp3 players where “iPod” brand ubiquity borders on that of “Kleenex”. That’s why I think the reaction is interesting. The tech community’s judgment of tech and what comes to pass may or may not be related. Tech addicts can pull out potentially game changing features where others just don’t get the implications (Twitter always comes to mind), but there’s also ecosystem, integration, price point, and product narrative/positioning. When you read about tech all the time it’s easy to get very cerebral about it and forget about actual experiences – what made it to release, what works well, what users will or absolutely will not tolerate, what real-world relationships are involved in getting it right. But all of these things are crucial for market dominance and create the chasm referred to in diffusion theory.
Given the frenzy of disruptive technologies of the last decade I think we’re in for ever higher expectations and diminishing returns. The ironic thing is that what makes a movie or future visions ‘futuristic’ is that it’s weird to us, but common to the subjects. People’s everyday is mundane, effortless and natural. It becomes invisible not because of failure but by surpassing all its clumsy predecessors. What’s big and new never stays that way and is sometimes opposite of what’s just right.