The Apple tablet and its potential
When rumors of an Apple tablet started surfacing again, I thought, “Why would I want that? I have a 15″ Macbook Pro and an iPhone. What could a tablet do that my laptop and phone can’t?” The idea of a tablet seemed pointless and cumbersome. We have laptops, feature-rich mobile phones, eBook readers and netbooks – why would anyone want another device to throw into the mix? Instead of acting like a crotchety curmudgeon, I gave it some serious thought and realized that I was being just as shortsighted as Joe Wilcox of BetaNews where he sums up what I used to feel:
So I’ll assert what should be obvious to anyone thinking rationally and not emotionally: Tablet is a nowhere category. For all the hype about an Apple tablet , it is at best a niche product. The world doesn’t need an Apple tablet, no matter what the hype about rumored features or regardless of what actually releases (if anything).
If I had read that two months ago, I’m sure I couldn’t have agreed more. But things are different now and I see far more potential than Wilcox does, especially when he says the world doesn’t need a tablet regardless of rumored features. I take that as saying, “It doesn’t matter what kind of potential this thing has, we don’t need it.” Clearly, the author isn’t seeing potential, he’s seeing only limitations. He says, “I haven’t read any online analysis or commentary seriously asking what an Apple tablet would be used for or what is the addressable market.”
Well, Joe, allow me.
One of the big arguments is that an Apple tablet falls into a “nowhere category” because much of what it is expected to do overlaps with the functions of existing devices.
Dalrymple couldn’t give me any good functions that can’t be done with iPhone. He can surf the Web, run applications, send e-mail, share digital content, consume digital content and more using iPhone. Apple’s rumored tablet — if there really is one — can’t functionally be all that different from iPhone, which also is a tablet.
If you’re checking email, browsing the web and computing, there are laptops and smartphones that can easily handle that. Reading electronic books? Sony, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are all over it. But if there is one thing Apple has always done well in the past, it’s to innovate. I’ve often found myself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone else think of that?” So, what could a tablet possibly do that current devices can’t?
More than just another iPhone
Ten years ago, almost no one imagined that it would be possible to carry tens of thousands of songs, movies, pictures and TV shows in your pocket on a single device. When the iPod, iPhone and iTunes came along, the way we purchased and consumed media, and the devices we carried, dramatically changed. An Apple tablet can cause just as much of a revolution as the iPod and iPhone.
Imagine, instead of going to the book store, purchasing books on iTunes like you can on Amazon for the Kindle. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but what if you could do the same with a magazine subscription? Esquire recently put out an interactive, augmented reality magazine but it was still made with paper. How about interactive magazines, with video and sound, on a tablet? Sure, magazines are already available online, but many articles are truncated unless you pay to register or subscribe. I’d like to see a podcast-style subscription where you pay, just like you would for your magazines via snail mail, and your magazine automatically downloads every single month when it’s available. If I can get all of my monthly copies of Fast Company, Wired, Time and Esquire packed into a 7″ or 10″ tablet, sign me up. Think of all the paper that can be saved!
Some Apple tablet defenders will write in comments about the publishing possibilities, such as ebook functionality to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook or the Sony Reader. Amazon had a great holiday season selling Kindle, which would seem to validate the idea that an Apple tablet supporting ebooks could sell as well or better. But most everyone is looking at Kindle the wrong way. The question shouldn’t be “How many Kindles did Amazon sell?” but “How many more Kindles could Amazon have sold if its ebook reader software wasn’t available for iPhone?” For many users, iPhone is good-enough ebook reader.
I’ve obviously gone beyond books, but let’s tackle the other issue here: the iPhone.
The iPhone’s size wouldn’t be ideal for browsing a magazine, and I find reading books on the iPhone is a chore. No, it’s not a “good-enough” eBook reader (and I highly doubt the iPhone directly impacted and limited Kindle sales; give me a break). Devices like the Kindle and Nook use e-ink and can’t display color or video. (Some people say using a LCD screen would make reading difficult for extended periods of time, but I’m on my computer reading all day without any complaints.)
Not Portable? Quite The Contrary
Another issue that Wilcox takes against the an Apple tablet is portability. At either 7 or 10 inches, it’s too big.
That brings me back to my assertion that iPhone is functional enough, more portable and better connected than could be any 7-inch or 10-inch tablet. Would you buy an iPhone and iPod touch? I expect that for most people the answer will be “No.”
Okay, ignoring the iPod touch non-sequitur, would a 10-inch tablet really be all that cumbersome to lug around? I can think of several instances where I’d rather have a tablet to surf the web, watch TV and movies and read eBooks instead of my big, heavy laptop (like relaxing on the beach or sitting through a long flight). I’ll argue that anywhere my laptop can go, which I consider quite portable, a tablet can. Can the iPhone just as easily do the same? Sure, but I don’t like reading on it or watching videos of any kind – the screen is just too small.
Education and Enterprise
We spend so much time talking about entertainment, media and the Internet that it’s easy to forget about business and education. A few days ago, I was speaking with Rosa Golijan of Gizmodo and she mentioned the idea of getting textbooks on a tablet. Imagine that! Instead of purchasing heavy and enormous paper books, we could get them digitally onto a tablet. Textbooks could potentially become cheaper this way since there is no paper or printing necessary, and a “rental” option could be considered: you pay for your textbook at the beginning of the semester, and like renting a movie on iTunes, it expires after a certain amount of time. When the quarter or semester is over, your textbook vanishes from your tablet. This is also good news for the environment: books and subsequent editions and updates can easily be made electronically.
For business and enterprise, a tablet could easily replace POS machines (no, not that “POS”) and handsets, clipboards, notepads that take up space in supply rooms, organizers and so much more. The question isn’t “What can a tablet do?” It’s “What can’t it do?” Pointing out its limitations, well before it has even hit the market, I might add, is just as foolish as everyone who lambasted the iPhone. No one wants a smartphone without a keyboard – who wants to type on a screen?!
Redefining Personal Computing
Joe Wilcox insists that an Apple tablet has no real market, saying, “For all the hype about an Apple tablet, it is at best a niche product.” Okay, maybe I can agree with that much but does it necessarily imply that it won’t succeed if or when it is released? Surprisingly, he doesn’t stop there:
The smartphone, a category where iPhone already redefines “the experience of personal computing.” The smartphone is good enough and it’s affordably priced. In most mass-market product categories, particularly technology, good enough defines success.
No. “Good enough” does not define success, especially in technology. What was Wilcox thinking?! Would we have the iPod today if Apple thought most MP3 players were good enough? Would the iPhone exist if cell phones were just good enough? I mean, they made phone calls and sent text messages while some even did email and music, what else did phones really need? Would the unibody Macbook exist if plastic Compaqs of yesteryear were good enough?
I don’t mean to sound like an Apple fanboy here, but we are talking about an Apple tablet and the company’s ability to innovate. With all the copycats and other companies playing catch-up in the past, it’s clear that Apple destroys the notion that success is being just “good enough.” Innovation, not apathy, breeds success.
It’s very easy to see where a tablet’s limitations might be, but that’s because all we have to go by is history. Most of us look at laptops, netbooks and smartphones and we can easily say what a tablet might offer and what it can’t. That’s what separates innovators from the rest of us: they can see things most of us don’t and many of them are proud to boast, “No one has ever done this before.” And that is precisely why I’m glad folks like the ones at BetaNews report on technology rather than develop it.