Your Mileage will Vary

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Full disclosure: I work for Intel, we make the silicon that powers servers, desktops and laptops, but not the Apple iPAD, though this article isn’t really about Intel, it is about the Ballard family.

People both in and out of the computer industry have been blown away by the success of the Apple iPAD. Think of your best possible sales projections, then triple them — that’s how well the thing is selling. But is it all things to all men?  Of course not, but then again, nothing really is.

My house is festooned with gadgets; I do like to try new technology and will often buy the Mk1 of anything knowing full well it will ultimately suck the big one. When I lived in Europe, I had drawers stuffed with failed PDA’s from an assortment of manufacturers, including Apple’s over-ambitious Newton. With each new generation of PDA it was apparent that things were being learned, a novel approach here, an improved LCD technology there. And that’s exactly how industry ‘imitators’ literally follow leading brands; they wait until the Cadillac product appears, buy it, take it to pieces, copy what isn’t patented, add a little variation and call it good. ‘Initiators’ and innovators, on the other hand, start with a blank piece of paper and a sharp HB pencil, then seek to redefine the art of the possible. These people have the first mover advantage and brand leadership, and their increasingly savvy customer base knows who first brought feature X to the market, despite someone copying it and calling it feature Y! And so to the iPAD, which is darn hard to find fault with. It feels great, looks great, is elegant in operation and has a lot of battery life. Yet there’s one thing I don’t like about it, and that is I have to prop the thing up with one hand while I peck at its pseudo-screen keyboard with the other. We’ll get back to that one.

I was heavily involved with the development of tablet computers and PDA’s way back in the Neanderthal days, circa 1994. I owned the first shipping PDA model, and no, it wasn’t the Apple Newton. I worked on the development of the Palm Pilot, a hugely successful product. I worked on the Magic Cap tablet device for Sony, amongst many others. As European editor of a PDA magazine, I reviewed tablets for the magazine and learned a few things; well at least I thought I did! We believed at that time that the secret to marketing success in this particular category required you adhere to a few constants, namely:

  1. The tablet computer is designed for stand-up computing. The perfect example is a hospital setting, where patient notes are taken bed side, no indecipherable doctor’s scrawl, just secure digitized notes that can be instantly viewed by all authorized persons, perfect. Seemed obvious back then, so why has the iPAD racked up 25+ million in sales, but not to healthcare? Is it the art of redefinition, I wonder?
  2. The only PDA worth owning is one that can be held and operated with one hand, the scenario being that you’re holding on to a transit safety rail with the other hand.  So the itty bitty plastic pen had to go. It holds true for the PDA and it holds true for the SmartPhone, which is basically a PDA with an integrated phone. Anyone remember the IBM Simon?  So why did Apple just put in a patent application for a smart pen? Maybe they’re bucking the trend again.  For my part, the only time I want to be bothered with a pen interface is when I’m drawing a curiously childlike flower on a friend’s Wacom tablet!
  3. If the device won’t fit in a jacket or shirt pocket, then it isn’t going to find favor with customers. The Newton development team went around San Jose men’s stores with product dummies made out of wood to see how many pockets it would actually fit.  So, it must be small enough to be taken everywhere and the current smartphones adhere to that rule. But along comes the iPAD and breaks the rule; all of a sudden people are toting these things in slick leather pouches to meetings, on mass transit, and on every flight I see loads of them. Are they in lieu of a laptop, or are they a companion device, I wonder?

I’m still trying to decide if there is a fashion element, to be seen as a hip embracer, to be in with the in crowd to paraphrase Brian Ferry. Or am I witnessing a functional work computer sans keyboard?

Maybe all these people are in fact ‘consuming’ data as opposed to ‘creating’ it, so all they need is a connected window to things created elsewhere. But as I’m surrounded by iPAD toting consumers, where is that creation occurring?  I’m entertained by the vision of acavernous hangar full of monkeys sat at keyboards hammering away hell for leather!

Maybe Apple inadvertently invented the first computing fashion accessory. Either way, everything I thought I knew about successful pocketable computing it null and void thanks to the Cupertino innovation engine.  I know it’s hard for some, but you have to give credit where credit is due.

If I were asked to bet long term on the form factor, I’d put my own money on smartphones and laptops, with everything else trailing someway behind.

If you travel to the remotest regions of the emerging world, you’ll discover a man wearing a faded Coca Cola t-shirt with a mobile phone in his pocket.  There is a reason Coke is the #1 brand globally, they are truly ubiquitous.

This man’s phone won’t be very smart today, but he’ll upgrade it like we all do, and his next phone will be smarter, it may even have a data plan and a browser, then what previously inaccessible information will begin to pour over him?  Daily crop prices, where the safe drinking water is, where the rebel fighting is, how to be a more efficient farmer, how to apply for a grant or a microloan, details on programs to help educate his children.  Really, a world of opportunities will open up very fast once he gets that new phone, and the apps he downloads could well be truly life changing as opposed to just cool. What we take for granted will help to set him and his family free.  My glass of Coke you will observe is clearly half full.

Here in the US, I’m observing those pocketable and powerful smartphones decimating the simple phone market, as even grandma now wants access to the app store. I don’t see the laptop going anywhere except becoming thinner and lighter. Retaining their awesome displays, great audio reproduction, speed and storage. Should you have a grain of creativity in your body, they even allow you to create content with ease, what a concept!

Now back to my pet peeve, and the reason that in my household of four laptops users, the shared iPAD sits largely unused except for slicing melons and chasing disgruntled birds around the screen. In our house, our personal data resides increasingly in the cloud; I ditched managing my own POP account because I couldn’t keep up with the spam, now thanks to Gmail I don’t have to. And the ability to access those Emails from any computer has been a revelation to family members still in school. Last but certainly not least, my 18,526 MP3’s are now living away from home thanks to the Amazon Cloud Player.

My kids like social networking, spending lots of time on YouTube, perusing Tumblr, chatting with ‘boys’ on Skype and that appears to be about it, except to point out they type REALLY fast, Mavis Beacon would be so proud. And yes we have the Kindle. The girls have one each, yet the 12-year-old insists on kicking it old school at the library for the most part.

I, on the other hand, read blogs, and maintain a personal web site (http://www.joejava.com) that nobody ever visits. I Tweet, well you have to don’t you? I do the social networking thing; tracking the minutia of life with hundreds of people I’ve never actually met and mostly can’t recall how they ever came to be ‘friends’. And now with Google+ I get to start a whole new circle of friends, casting aside those less than friendly friends, for shinier, newer, hopefully even friendlier friends, you know the shtick! So in all of this surfing and posting and watching, all four of us naturally do it on our respective laptops. Why? The laptop seems to sit comfortably on the lap or at a table; it manages to support its own screen leaving two hands free to type fast, sip drinks, prod a sibling or to gesticulate wildly with Jazz Hands!

The iPAD, on the other hand, sits there on the coffee table with its amazing battery life and impressive apps store and its trick cover with the cool magnets, but nobody is picking it up much in our house. Is it a fad or are the Ballard’s just weird? “Long live the laptop!”

We say.

Your mileage will vary.

-In this Story-

Nigel Ballard