In the time between my graduation from college and my enrolling in graduate school (about 16 years), Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, Steve Jobs saved Apple, and someone unleashed Blackboard from the depths of Hell.
Consumer electronics companies seem hellbent on replacing the remote control, the mouse and the keyboard. Touch screens, speech, motion detection and other methods of inferring a user’s desires are all the rage. Too bad most of them make life harder.
First things first. I spent most of the day relaxing in the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt, enjoying the free drinks (yes, Germans do drink beer at 8 a.m.) free sausages (yes, you can eat too many sausages in one day), and the free shower.
With all the reports of an Apple tablet, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about what it might be and how it might work. Last night, pathetic as this might sound, I even had a dream about it.
I should clarify… my dream wasn’t of the unicorns and rainbows and angels sort. I didn’t dream about the joy of owning an Apple tablet. Rather, my brain seemed to be trying to figure out what Apple would do with a tablet. It’s my belief that Apple under Steve Jobs generally tries to solve computing/media problems through elegant design, instead of just coming up with cool (and sometimes lame) products. For example, Apple’s routers are all about making them super easy to set up. Sure, other routers work just fine (often with more features and a lower price), but Apple’s routers are pretty and easy to use. Same with Apple TV. Same with the iPhone, iTunes, iPhoto and more. (The Apple speakers are a glaring exception.)
In fact, Apple often doesn’t create the best products in their class, when comparing features and price. But, they create the best experience and they solve problems by making it easy to do what you want. And in that regard, their products are the best.
Honestly, I can’t think of much. For the most part, I like how quickly the iPhone responds and it is sized appropriately for what are essentially personal functions — phone calls, listening to music, watching short pieces of video, playing casual games. But, I can’t multitask. And, the iPhone is a terrible text input device. The MacBook takes longer and is a bit less convenient for simple tasks, but I can work on my MacBook in ways that the iPhone is simply incapable of (writing long bits of text; editing audio/video, etc.). A bigger/faster iPhone could close that gap, I suppose. Perhaps that is what the tablet would be.
At 10 inches, a tablet could still serve as a personal device, but one that creates a bigger social barrier than the iPhone does. Watching videos on that screen might be nice, but it’s also far more antisocial than the iPhone. What, my wife and daughter and I are all going to watch different movies on our tablets on the couch? I don’t think so.
Playing games is somewhere in between. Sure, I like to play games on my iPhone, but I prefer playing games with other people.
Reading, though, is still a personal endeavor. So is working on a document. And both could benefit from the larger screen. So, a tablet could be useful for reading text, especially if it was as fast to respond as my iPhone is. I could totally pull a tablet out of my bag for reading the latest New Yorker while waiting at the dentist’s office. Is that enough? Perhaps only when you consider the larger ecosystem.
If Apple incorporates .me, iWork and iLife, and takes full advantage of the media ecosystem Apple has built, it could work. Furthermore, if that ecosystem were to be expanded to include more text, be that novels, graphic novels, comic books, textbooks, repair manuals, cookbooks and more, and could allow access to one’s content from anywhere (think the recent LaLa acquisition plus “Back to my Mac.”) I think that’s one of the possible killer features. Whereas the Kindle is really just about text (with some lousy graphics) from Amazon, Apple’s tablet could serve up any text-and-graphic-based material from any source. For example, I could see having complete access to one’s iPhoto library and then using the tablet to create slideshows on the fly. Or access to my home media library.
To accomplish this, the table would require:
- an incredible high-resolution display for video and text
- mobile internet connectivity
- a simple interface
- a long battery life
- unparalleled thinness and lightness
- a modicum of Flash-based storage
Several things it would not require:
- a removable battery (Apple has already shunned this concept)
- an input device
- optical media
- ports, other than mini-USB
The mini-USB port would take care of charging the device. Everything else would be wireless. Heck, even the charging could be wireless, if they employed conductive recharging technologies.
The interface is the most interesting aspect of such a device. Apple’s not likely to include a keyboard or any other input device. But what if they did something totally radical? What if they used eye tracking? This is already in wide use as an observation tool for studying usability. Could it be used here, too? Just wild speculation, but it could be pretty cool.
But, here’s the thing: my iPhone and laptop are both capable of doing those things now. And that gets me back to the core issue: what would the Apple tablet solve for me? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see what Apple can imagine that I can’t.
I’m constantly surprised by the frequency with which something that I have long thought/assumed/believed, but rarely considered, is articulately and cogently explained to me. This happened not long ago when a friend described how many people online are task-oriented. That is to say, people go online with a specific objective in mind and the way they engage with the Internet is tied to that objective.
More recently, I read a line that said (I’m paraphrasing), data and services, and not pages, are what’s central to the Web.
When you put those two thoughts together — task-oriented usage and the centrality of data and services — it instantly explains why some sites work so well and some are so terrible. Those that use data and services (enabled by high-quality design) to enable people to execute the task at hand are successful. Those that don’t, aren’t.
Think of some of the tasks that might drive people online:
- I want a sports score
- I want to know what’s happening right now
- I want to see my fantasy league stats
- I want to see how my money is doing
- I want to see what the reaction to Obama’s speech was
- I want to learn more about this “cellulosic ethanol” stuff
- I want to see what Kanye did
- I want to see what my friends are up to
- I want to know what people are talking about
- I want to find out what Apple just released
- I want to find out what movie to see tonight and where it’s playing and buy tickets for it
Data and services do that. Pages do not. Extend that another layer into the mobile space. I’ve long been critical of the term “mobile” because for so long it didn’t serve these purposes (connecting objectives with successful outcomes). Rather, they served mobile carrier’s interests via terrible interfaces. But now, thanks to devices like the iPhone, people are now easily able to do the above kind of stuff whenever they think of it, no matter where they are at. That’s the killer app of mobile. Location awareness is a great feature, but the “now-ness” of mobile is key.
The challenge for news organizations is to a) have ideas in this space and b) orient ourselves so that we can bring them to life. Most news organizations are specifically not oriented to think and act this way. They are oriented to write stories (a.k.a, pages). See the problem?