2010-01-27

The day the world changed?

Later today, Steve Jobs is expected to unveil the much anticipated Apple tablet. I can't really remember what it was like the last time Jobs was expected to do something like this. It has just been 3 years since Apple released the iPhone, and already it is hard to imagine what the world was like before the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the various Android offerings.

Jobs not only made a great product. He reinvented a category of products both in terms of the product itself, but more importantly: the context within which the product exists.

Of course, this was not the first time he had done that. The last time was when he made the MP3 player legitimate and somehow ended up creating one of the biggest music distribution companies in the world. Again, it is hard to remember what the world was like before iTunes and the iPod. They fundamentally changed our perception.

In retrospect you have to wonder what the management at Nokia and Sony Ericsson were doing. At best they were asleep at the wheel. At worst they've demonstrated that any vision that might have been present at the outset has definitively been drowned in the distraction of mediocre product portfolio tinkerers -- people who actually buy into the flawed idea that having a gazillion marginally different products that do the same thing is a good thing; when science so clearly tells us that an abundance of choice only makes the consumer unhappy. There is a fundamental disconnect between observed reality (science) and the weirdness they teach at business schools and then later perpetuate in "mature companies".

Had you asked me 5 years ago I would have said that the mobile phone of the future would run Linux and offer a full JVM (as opposed to the utter garbage that is the J2ME platform) and it would probably come from China. If you squint, I was partially right, but I got the timing wrong. Google released the Android platform which is just that. But only after Steve Jobs kicked down the door.

The most important thing that has been known about a prospective Apple tablet is that Steve Jobs has been opposed to the idea for years. According to many sources his fundamental problem has been "so what would you use it for?". There have been lots of tablet products. As recently as a few weeks ago Ballmer presented a brand spanking new tablet running Windows and the press yawned so violently jaws were dislocated all over the world.

I don't think the Apple tablet itself is the key. I think the key is what Steve Jobs thinks it is for and what its context will look like.

The obvious first guesses are books, newspapers and magazines. Sure eBook-readers with low energy, high contrast screens are nice, but let's be honest: the Kindle is a butt-ugly device and it has more limitations than it has features. It works for linear consumption of books and it is pretty much useless if you were to use it for reference-type books that are generally used in a random-access manner. It does have one redeeming feature: the invisible mobile subscription that keeps you connected to Amazon wherever you are, but this is also the achilles heel of the product since it makes Amazon dependent on mobile network providers.

I will not be surprised if Apple have teamed up with publishers. In particular, the newspaper industry. Newspapers are pretty much screwed and they need to reinvent themselves. Fast. In the US Rupert Murdoch is trying to force the toothpaste back into the tube and get people to pay for content. In europe various newspapers are battling windmills with the blunt instruments that are EU Bureaucrats. Meanwhile, nobody is lighting a fire under the banking industry for failing to provide the payment systems that are needed to eliminate the actual obstacles and which force those who have something to sell to practically reinvent payment and fragment the user experience every time you want to set up shop. (Prediction: within the next 5 years, regulatory bodies will start to recognize the banking workarounds. Why? So transactions can be taxed. I think this will start in Asia and it will start with online ecosystems that deal in in-game currency, property and goods).

There is some low-hanging fruit in publishing. eBook-readers are computers, yet they only scratch the surface of what is possible as a platform for augmenting books and newspapers. Proper searching capabilities, cross-referencing, cross-referencing across books and other sources, embedding media in a non-tacky manner (for instance by bundling book and an audio rendition of it), social and collaborative aspects (sharing notes for instance), offering integration for third party applications into the reader software etc.


A more recent speculation is that the tablet will attempt to fill the role of communication device. Jokes have been made of people holding the tablet to their ears and speaking into it like a phone.

Video conferencing has never taken off outside the business sector and many people think it may never take off. But it seems unclear why. Some people subscribe to the idea that it just isn't something that we really want for personal communication. The fact that video conferencing has been available to the masses for years and still hasn't taken off for personal communication suggests that this assumption has merit. Furthermore, observation suggests that even if you make phone calls free, there seems to be a relatively fixed upper bound for how many minutes the average person talks on the phone per month -- suggesting that we have no real wish to spend more time on the phone. Perhaps a similar fundamental limit exists for video conferencing? Who knows.

On the other hand it may be that the device that does it properly has yet to be invented. There are many products that have ticked all the right boxes for some category of product, yet have still failed to achieve any success with consumers. And to be quite frank: even professional video conferencing gear sucks.

So perhaps the tablet will be the ultimate videoconferencing device?

Another use that would be attractive to me is the tablet as a device for dealing with images. Perhaps not unlike the Wacom tablets that come with a built-in screen. Unfortunately, this would necessitate processing power that may be incompatible with the energy requirements of a lightweight mobile device. Still, it would be very nice to have a portable image-editing device that provides me with a great interface for running applications like Lightroom.

I just take it for granted that it will be a kickass mediaplayer. Despite the fact that most gadget geeks have obscenely large HD screens in their homes, people still use their laptops and iPods to watch video podcasts, movies and TV series. I don't know why. For me it is about mobility and convenience. I have almost stopped watching TV entirely. The way I consume news now is by watching it on my iPod when I go to bed in the evening or while travelling. My iPod Touch has also changed what I watch. I spend far more time watching lectures, talks and debates and far less of the sort of rubbish they pump out on cable TV.

In any case, by this time tomorrow we will know for sure why Steve Jobs as stopped being militantly opposed to the idea of an Apple tablet. :-)

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