Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

I recently read a piece on why consumers won’t buy tablet computers by Rafe Needleman of CNET.

Apple Orginal iPad

The points that stuck out for me are:

  • High cost for a new technology that many will be unwilling to pay for
  • Typing on a touchscreen keyboard is an ergonomic nightmare
  • It’s a tween device, more powerful than your smart phone, but not as powerful as a current computer, making it an optional third device

Needleman’s sum-up statement: “Tablets need to cost a lot less and do a lot more before they establish a foothold in the consumer market.”

In the short term, Needleman has a good chance of being proven right, but I think beyond a year or two he’s missing the mark.

For product evolution, the one that always comes to the front for me is the creation of the automobile. When they first appeared, they were literally horseless carriages. They took a horse buggy and fitted it with a motor, and a tiller for steering not unlike guiding a boat. They used the things they knew to create the first version.

automobile evolution

The relatively slow pace of design and prototyping being what it was back then, it was many years before the last of the horse carriage design language was eliminated from the car. Into the 1930s and many cars still had spindly tops and partial wood construction. By the time we started seeing continuous moulded metal bodies, the car design lineage becomes recognisable to us in our time. The car had found its form.

The thing is, the people who built the first horseless carriages had no idea what form factor would ultimately be the best for the car. All they did was say “carriage + motor = faster – horse shit,” and they were able to sell that. Not many at first, but eventually it caught on.

It took time to use these things, to integrate them into our lives, to get user feedback, and to adapt to changes in culture, economics and technology. Who we are and how we think about the world were directly tied to the results of shape, size and cost.

For the mass use of the computer, most of our first experiences involved a typewriter attached to a television. These were things we were mass producing at the time and were readily understandable by the public. Before that, I doubt anyone would have invested in a tape drive the size of a refrigerator, or would be willing to check programming errors on punch cards.

Early home computers ranged from hot toys that grew out of the home video game market (TRS-80, Commodore 64) to amazingly expensive we’re-not-sure-what-its-potential-is-yets (Apple Macintosh). But they built them, and they sold in ever-increasing numbers.

In the broad category that is the computing world, we’ve all been through the cycle a number of times now. Prototyping and design evolution now happen in time periods measured in months, not years or decades. The first version isn’t perfect, but early adopters jump in for their reasons. They figure out if this is a worthy addition to our lives, or something to be ignored. Then they tell a lot of other people and we end up with (mostly) useful things. Successive iterations are generally better.

So by the time the iPod came around, I wasn’t going to be sucked in immediately. It had too little space, cost too much, and the display was ugly. The second one (with the buttons) was even worse. I did eventually purchase a Mini, and finally the last, biggest Classic they made.

Apple iPod Evolution

iPod evolution by Alex Kleinschmidt

You don’t produce a product these days thinking that the first version is a home run. Early sales fund the revisions that user feedback gives you, and you keep moving forward.

There are a number of reasons why you hold back a portion of a larger feature set. It’s often financially less risky to do a phased roll out, starting with a core feature set before you add the next layer of functionality. You can avoid confusing potential buyers that way, getting them used to the idea of a new product or form factor. If the product takes off, then you can start adding more functionality. And the manufacturer can make money on all of them as they release version after version with incremental improvements designed to keep us buying. What we see in tablets right now is only the beginning of their idea.

In part, I agree with the article in that it’s a bitch trying to type on an unsecured surface. You’re going to need to brace a tablet on your lap, a table or a wall and endure a fair amount of muscle cramping and sore things to use it that way.

But who said typing on a keyboard is forever? I’ve never driven a horse-drawn carriage.

We cannot know what the form and function of keyboard-less computing will be until we don’t use a keyboard. That needs to continue to be tested. What kind of manual input is the future? I don’t know. Will it still be necessary? I don’t know. Hopefully, someone’s thinking about that.

Needleman is also correct in his sum-up statement saying that “tablets need to do more.” Yes, tablets do need to do more. They will as we figure out what we can do with them. Computing power, versatility, connectivity. These are all things that we’ve proven we can do when we put our minds to it.

“Cost less” is a non-starter used to scare people that are easily scare-able. Early adopters pay higher prices. For the most base of consumer items, you’ll end up with the WalMart version eventually. Professional items still cost what they cost because they work and we’re willing to pay for that performance, because it costs less in the long run. The manufacturers won’t price themselves out of the market, but they will always try to make us pay the most they can get.

Ultimately, the sum-up statement is rather tired and obvious and could be said about a multitude of emerging products. But, damnit, give me a frikkin’ tablet a couple of versions down the road and let’s get on with it. That’s the next step and I want to see what happens after that.


Update Jan 27, 2010: Apple’s iPad has been announced. Let’s hope it will be the game changer everyone wants it to be.

Update Apr 2, 2010: Cory Doctorow weighs in on the iPad business model.

Update Mar 25, 2011: I picked up an iPad 2 on the first day it was available. It’s more than what I thought it would be, and I’m happily working on ebook development.

Update Oct 21, 2018: Was there ever a time when we didn’t have tablets?


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